Fred Villanueva, Ash Studios
Ash Studios is a creative response to the racial segregation, political disenfranchisement, and economic displacement that is the reality for many citizens in Dallas. The project was founded by artists Fred Villanueva and Darryl Ratcliff and opened in 2012. At its core, Ash Studios is a 22,000 square foot parcel of land with a few buildings that house a studio space for painting, sculpture, and performance; an office space; a gallery; and an outdoor performance and gathering space, but they have a footprint that is much bigger than their property. They are building a connecting bridge between a community of artists and two neighborhoods of people who have not had access or means to participate in the arts.
Where – in what community – do you primarily do your work?
Situated between traditionally Latino East Dallas, and traditionally Black South Dallas, the vision for Ash Studios must necessarily be equally scaled and envisioned as a large scale, maximum impact endeavor. The physical space, however, is only a minor part of Ash Studios' collective project. We envision Ash Studios as the nexus of art, ideas, cultural and political exchange across racial and economic structures, and community confrontation with the complex connections between art and society. By insisting that art - even art of the avant-garde - is part of the general culture and not autonomous or above it we think differently, not only about art and artistic practice but about society itself. The Dallas communities we work in have been neglected for generations and are chronically disregarded by their civic institutions and elected officials. This cycle further harms the communities because they lack opportunities for education, self-empowerment, and equitable access to arts and culture both as consumers and as creators.
What gets you going each day and inspires your current work?
Ash Studios’ vision is to consider that the local community of artists and nearby residents offers fertile ground for becoming a catalyst of cultural work, exchange, positive change, and gradual progress through creativity, sharing of ideas and knowledge, and by fostering a sense of wonder about the world itself.
When you work in your community, what are the most valuable assets of the community that you experience aside from real estate and money?
Ash Studios experiences assets that stem from an entire community of upstart artists who are entrepreneurs themselves, but who also want to share skills, resources, and vision. In the people who surround us, we experience a resilience of spirit that is often found in communities of color. They are modeling how the arts can be a path towards self-determination and personal agency.
How does your artistic practice inform and/or is integrated into your enterprise?
My artistic practice is anchored by an almost 35 year pursuit of arts through education, training, as well as actively making my knowledge and mentoring available to young artists and my immediate community. As a practicing artist engaged in building my community and practice in tandem, both serve to continue Ash Studios' mission. My experience as both a painter and social practice artist that engages people in a collaborative art form will serve to lead, inspire, and share with all involved.
What is the impact of your work on your community? Today? Over a long period of time?
Helping to create a geographically well placed art project is simply a job, but it is our passion and inspiration to share this project with our communities at large which is our ultimate goal and mission.
With approximately 25k visitors since inception in 2012, about 1000 of which were also artists, the potential for continued community building has only increased. While maintaining its core DIY aesthetic, our community has successfully advocated for increased equity, representation, and funding for the arts and artists whose work includes a necessary programmatic approach to building alongside communities of color. I think of this project as one in the spirit of “active incubation” or “catalyst” beyond simply “call to action”. This project is to serve as a foundation for participating artists to create collaborative work, work which will then be shared over a longer period of years.
Today, the goal may be achieved by inspiring one person, but real success for us is inspiring others, who then inspire others in turn. Art and creativity have the ability to become multigenerational conduits of personal and public growth. Beyond material and economic success and prosperity, a sense of wholeness and healing in a functioning society where every individual counts may sound like a utopian ideal, but we have to believe this is possible to continue our long term goal to establish momentum and progress through the arts and learning.