Unassuming but vibrant Paul Artspace, founded by UMSL professor, draws residents from St. Louis and around the world
The commercial thoroughfare that is Lindbergh Boulevard in north St. Louis County might seem an unlikely destination for those in search of time and space. Yet just beyond its bustling confines, a half-mile away, lurk both of those cherished gifts.
Their presence becomes palpable as Mike Behle pilots his vehicle toward the thickly wooded driveway of Paul Artspace, a serene, six-acre haven that has been in his family for nearly four decades. What was once the University of Missouri–St. Louis faculty member’s teenage home is now a retreat for artists, writers and curators near and far.
“So this is the property,” says Behle, stepping out of the car. “It’s a contrast to what we were just driving through.”
It’s early in the fall, and the sea of grass extending along both sides of the winding blacktop is still green, as is the canopy of trees overhead. Here and there an art installation catches the eye, and soon stories and sculptures are cropping up everywhere.
Take the “headless bird sanctuary,” for instance. Situated near the back of the property, the collection of broken lawn ornaments is the lingering legacy of an artist who discovered a bunch of them during her residency a couple years ago.
“Behle Material, my family’s company, supplied a lot of building materials when north county was being built up – plaster, clay pipe, steel, all that stuff – and there was a time when they were exploring concrete statuary,” explains Behle, himself a Florissant, Missouri, native. “They had some broken product, and that was brought out here to help backfill areas that were starting to erode.
“But since then, artists come out here, and they do what artists do and start to explore. And she started to find all these broken birds and installed the headless bird sanctuary. She even wrote up an instruction sheet for future residents on how to care for the headless bird sanctuary. It’s seasonal.”
In another corner of the property rests a giant quartz crystal that the very first residents of Paul Artspace, a pair of artists from Ireland, dug up during their stay in the summer of 2013. Now permanently installed in a concrete base on the lawn, the 400-pound crystal – another buried treasure brought to the property long ago for some never-realized landscaping purpose – traveled around St. Louis with the two artists for three months as they visited bars, farmers’ markets and other community gathering spots.
“What was really amazing was that they bought a little pickup truck on Craigslist while they were here, got insurance and all that, and then they would load this crystal up into the back of the truck and drive it around and use it as a talking point,” Behle says. “They would show up and say ‘Hey, buddy, can you give us a hand? We need to unload our Irish crystal.’ And they’d enlist the help and get it in, set it down and just start talking.
“But that was also at the time that ‘Breaking Bad’ was such a big thing. So then they started reading about the problem of crystal meth and cooking and stuff, and they started creating this fictitious storyline about discovering this large crystal. Then they found out about this synthetic crystal that you can cook up to conduct electricity, and it all went along with this whole narrative about who they were and what they were doing. And they were funny, but they were also coming out of a practice that is very performative and situational and aimed at creating dialogue.”
Not every resident in the four years since has left such a noticeable or humorous mark on the place. But as Behle walks the rolling outdoors and the brick home at the center of it all, the impact of the many people who have stayed here – all craving the precious time and space that Behle hoped to provide when he first envisioned Paul Artspace – is clear.
So are the program’s natural connections to UMSL, where Behle is an assistant teaching professor and associate chair in the Department of Art and Design. Artists from as far away as Colombia have taken advantage of the residency program while also lending their insights to UMSL art students and faculty through class visits and gallery talks, and others have given public lectures at Gallery 210 on North Campus during their stay.
Graduating senior Matt Washausen currently runs the organization’s colorful Instagram account, eager to gain experience working alongside Behle and other board members and volunteers. And when it comes to supplying the residency program with a growing library as well as key equipment and tools for working in a wide variety of media, UMSL is again one of Behle’s first stops.
“This is our print shop,” he says during a tour of the house, which includes both communal and private living spaces as well as studio spaces for the three residents on site at any given time. “And this press was donated to us by a colleague of mine, Jeff Sippel. I keep telling him that I’m going to get a bronze plaque that says the Jeff Sippel Institute of Print Technology. He’s been a great supporter of the work we’re doing here.”
Though Paul Artspace is already going strong and earning praise and attention from St. Louis Magazine and St. Louis Public Radio as it enters its fifth year of existence, Behle has even bigger hopes for the project looking ahead.
At present the organization is completely volunteer driven – and, he admits, taking up a lot of his own available time. He’d like to see that change – particularly in the form of a paid facilitator or assistant director who could head up daily operations for six months or a year at a time.
“Don’t get me wrong – when I come out here and work and drive the tractor around, it’s kind of a meditative time for me to not be at work, not be at school,” Behle says. “But it’s time. A big thing for me is that I don’t have my own studio practice that I once had, because that time is all put into this.”
He also wants to see more applications from writers and curators.
“One of the reasons we wanted to create this support for visual artists and curators as well as writers is because that mix, together, creates a rich conversation,” he says. “There’s a place that I did a residency years ago, called the Vermont Studio Center, and that’s their model, hosting both writers and visual artists. For me, as a visual artist, some of the best studio dialogue came from those with the writers.”
Residents at Paul Artspace stay anywhere from one to three months at a time. So far the organization has hosted about 60 people, and applications are accepted during three different periods each year with deadlines in January, April and July.
But until just a few years ago, this was all still just a dream. Ever since graduate school Behle had hoped to create some kind of artist collective or residency program. And years ago he and his partner, Laura, had even begun looking at potential live/work-type properties in the city of St. Louis. But it never quite took off.
Then, in 2011, Behle’s uncle, who resided at the north-county property, became very sick. As Behle and other family members considered what to do with the place, the idea for Paul Artspace started to come together.
“This was where Paul passed away,” Behle says, standing in what was once his uncle’s bedroom. “He was brought back here on hospice, and from the time he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer to the time he passed on was not even a month. I remember one morning we were all here in the kitchen, sitting around the table having a cup of coffee, and we heard Paul kind of take a deep breath. And we came in here and gathered around the bed, and he passed. I looked out this window, and on that hillside right there was one deer walking down. And that’s the connection to that painting.”
Behle shares the story because of the small painting he keeps in his office back at UMSL. A gift from former resident Aaron Brown, it’s a landscape depicting the Paul Artspace property, with a lone deer looking back at the viewer.
But Behle had actually commissioned a portrait. As part of each resident’s stay, they are asked to come up with a “give back” of some kind, whether it be volunteering in the local community, giving a talk or creating an art installation or piece of some kind to donate to the organization. In this particular case the artist had asked Behle for a photo of Paul so that he could create a portrait of the residency program’s namesake.
“That artist – who is a very accomplished painter and has every skill to paint a portrait that would look like Paul – he said, ‘Mike, I hope you don’t mind, but I didn’t end up doing a literal portrait of Paul. I did more of a response to Paul,’” recalls Behle, who had never mentioned to the artist that deer outside the window back in 2011. “That was pretty amazing. And it’s totally something that is part of what drives it.”
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