A new art space in Manchester. Yawn. You've heard this story before. You haven't.
Drive down, down Hull Street on a Friday evening while the familiar neighborhood of Plant Zero and Artworks vanishes in the rearview mirror. Pass the crowds at Croaker's Spot and the boarded storefronts beyond. 21st Street? That can't be right. Re-check Facebook at stoplight.
Turn off Hull to find, not a smartly dressed crowd sipping wine, but a large building spilling junk. "DOG DOG DOG," says a spray-painted sign in orange. There is indeed a dog, reclining menacingly beneath a half-open garage door. U-turn.
See cars jammed into the parking lot of a shuttered seafood store. Is this it? Yes, it is. Behind the chain-link fence, in the grassy backyard of an old woodworking shop, Christmas lights twinkle and children shriek and a fire crackles in a steel drum. Tumblers perform balancing feats while the crowd laughs and drinks beer. There onstage, five people are competing in a pie-eating contest, plunging their faces into Kroger cherry pies dyed red as blood.
After the contest, the black-robed Wizard of Richmond takes the stage. He offers the invocation: "Panera! Chipotle! Gazpacho! I like-a Trans-Am! Magic!" Fireworks rocket from his antler-crowned staff.
"This is so awesome," exclaims a blond woman, who's taking in the whole thing through her iPhone.
This is Lovebomb. This is the mind of Heide Trepanier.
Trepanier is giving tours. There's the big, brick-walled workshop, where papier-mâché monsters inhabit the rafters. Upstairs, there's Trepanier's neat studio and a small office with a table covered in children's drawings.
"This is kind of what I've wanted for a really, really long time," Trepanier says: a lively, anything-goes place for artists. Like Brown Frown (the Saddest Clown in Town), who pokes his smeared face into the office.
"Bonjour! Comment ça va!" Trepanier calls out gaily. "We have plenty of room for a drunk clown."
"The clown's not drunk," he retorts.
Lovebomb is the work of three women: painter Trepanier, puppeteer Lily Lamberta, founder of All the Saints Theater Company, and sculptor Julie Elkins, who creates beautifully nightmarish landscapes in porcelain.
After a summer of sanding, painting, sweeping, and sweet-talking the neighbors, tonight they've brought the place to life. "It's like everybody believes in it," Trepanier says, "so they just show up and they help."
"Believe in nothing," the clown rasps. "Nothing."
"They just show up and work," Trepanier continues. "Because they know it's something that they'll be a part of, and a community that'll support them." There's no mission statement for Lovebomb, she says. No vision.
"We believe in nothing!" Brown Frown interjects.
Lovebomb exists to become what the local community needs, Trepanier says. It could become a children's performance space. She wants to see a free school, in which people teach and take classes in subjects both artistic and practical. Eventually she wants Lovebomb to be a creative community that's outside the capitalist market.
"Someone needs to read some Ayn Rand," the clown says, before vanishing downstairs. Trepanier chortles.
Heide Trepanier believes in chaos. Life is random, she says, despite our best efforts to impose order.
She got kicked out of Freeman High School her junior year for smoking pot at the river instead of going to class. She passed the GED exam the next week and enrolled in J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and then Virginia Commonwealth University.
Trepanier (pronounce it however you like, she says) wasn't an artist then, but a biology major with a penchant for doodling in textbook margins. She sketched the structures of DNA, of cells, eyes and hands. After realizing that art, not anatomy, was her strength, she got her bachelor's degree in fine arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
She traveled the country for a few years, living in a van before returning to Richmond in 1996 to paint and work. It's easy to forget that in the '90s, Richmond didn't have the plethora of studio space, galleries and art groups it has today. "It was hardscrabble for anybody who was young and who was doing art and trying to make it," painter Jack Lawrence recalls.
He was living and painting in a cavernous warehouse near 18th Street, by the train tracks. Most of the light bulbs had burned out, and all night he heard the gnawing of rats. One day, Trepanier showed up. She'd rented part of the upstairs as a studio, where she could work on large-scale paintings.
They hit it off right away, Lawrence says. "She had a dark sense of humor" — a quality essential for working in a rat-infested warehouse — "and I think artistically, we both appreciated a certain conceptual nature to each other's art," he says. He respected her, too, for her drive.
In 1998, Trepanier began working toward her master's degree in fine arts at VCU. Artist and professor Sally Bowring had heard about her from an admiring ex-boyfriend and former student. "By the time I met her, I had this image of her," Bowring says. Namely, "hot and tough."
Bowring and Trepanier found each other in the labyrinth of studios at VCU, when they were the only two artists working at 7:30 a.m. They got to talking over coffee, and Bowring found the younger artist to be not only tough (and hot), but also perceptive and thoughtful.
Bowring, an abstract painter of gardens and interiors, took an interest in Trepanier's work. She'd developed a technique of splattering paint over large canvases and then outlining the results with a fine ink pen.
"It was provocative," Bowring says. "It was interesting. And it had an originality to it that was unusual. It really felt like it was her thoughts, as opposed to everything that was going on in the art world."
After VCU, Trepanier planned to follow the conventional route for a young artist: start with a Richmond gallery, then Washington, then Philadelphia, creeping ever toward New York. That's not how it happened.
In 2000, Trepanier won a $10,000 grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation, which included a gallery show for the recipients in Chelsea. New York art dealer Stefan Stux saw her work at that show, and he wanted it.
She showed in a few group exhibitions with Stux Gallery. Her work sold well. In the fall of 2003, not long after Hurricane Isabel ripped up Richmond, Stux called. Trepanier was standing outside her Forest Hill Avenue house, watching a crew pull a tree off the roof.
"I want you to have a solo show in three months," Stux said.
Perhaps the best word for Trepanier's work is visceral. Not only in the sense that it provokes an emotional response, but in its resemblance to viscera. Organs. Guts. Splanchnic, gooey stuff.
There it is, splattered on the medically white wall of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' 21st-Century gallery. John Ravenal, the museum's modern art curator, pauses to consider the piece "Wave."
When Ravenal first saw Trepanier's work, he was struck by its dual nature as a dynamic abstract composition and also a narrative. The way in which Trepanier outlines every spatter "animates them and activates them," he says, "and they start to take on these personas or identities, and they start to look like substances that you can kind of recognize."
Trepanier, 45, sees her work as an extension of her philosophy. Each form, while born from chaos, becomes like a creature or an organism that interacts with its neighbors.
But, one might ask, isn't it just splattered paint and careful ink outlines? A viewer might even fall back on the universal putdown of modern art: I could do that. What makes Trepanier's work significant?
To begin with, "Wave" simply is "a really good painting," Ravenal says. Trepanier "knows how to control her materials, and she understands color, and she's confident working on a large scale." Trepanier embraces elements of chance, but also possesses the virtuosity to turn accident into art.
As the Sydney and Frances Lewis curator of modern and contemporary art, Ravenal is the man who's building the museum's dynamic collection of 21st-century art. The art of the new century is distinguished by a few common threads, he says. These include globalism, hybridity — of cultures, for instance, and of forms — and experimentation with new materials and media.
Ravenal has a clear strategy for the collection. In addition to major artists, he collects global artists, Virginia artists, women artists and black artists. He also tries to buy ahead of the curve. That means he looks for artists who have a substantial track record of solo exhibitions and critical approbation, but who haven't yet hit the stratosphere.
He bought "Wave" for the museum in 2006, when Trepanier was showing not only with Stux but also overseas and with Richmond's distinguished Reynolds Gallery.
"She was an artist who I was immediately drawn to," says Beverly Reynolds, the gallery's owner, "because I thought she had such an extraordinarily fresh and unique approach to her studio practice."
Trepanier's career was on a dizzying ascent. And she was miserable.
"I went from Richmond to New York City right away," she says. "And — umm — I didn't like it. I didn't like any part of it, really." Trepanier found the art world to be "predatory" and "incredibly vain." To keep up with demand, she hired a staff of two to handle her canvas prepping, supplies, shipping and inventory. The next step, she feared, was hiring people to make her work for her.
She says sometimes Stux would call and say things like, "We need more white paintings, because the white paintings are selling a lot." Trepanier would send green ones instead.
She was tired and overwhelmed. "And so, to not call my dealer back, was my way of taking control of my art," she says. "And so I kind of fucked up my own career intentionally. Does that make sense?"
"I understand what that's like," Bowring says. An artist can't be so naive as to think that it's wrong to sell work, she says. "It validates a lot of things that you're doing alone in your studio. It also can completely freak you out."
When success, obligations and expectations accumulate in an artist's mind, Bowring says, they become garbage "that you have to empty out at some point, so you can make a good painting."
Trepanier stopped painting. She and her husband, Wayne Snyder (the Wizard of Richmond), had a daughter, Lily, in 2008. And "right when I felt strong enough and ready to enter back into the world is when I found out I had cancer," Trepanier says. A case of food poisoning led to the accidental discovery that she had ovarian cancer, which required a radical hysterectomy.
"It's chaotic," she says. "That's what I figured all along that life was like. So I just tried to bounce back from that."
The experience helped her realize that there were three things she needed in her life to be happy: to be a mother, to be an academic and to be part of a community of artists. And they all lay in front of her.
She'd always had a gift for teaching, and had spent several years as an adjunct professor in VCU's painting and printmaking department.
"I'll never forget the first day of class, ever," says Jennida Chase, then a VCU graduate student in photography and film who took a studio course with Trepanier. She "just walked in there like a hard-ass," Chase says, and told the class they were going to work harder than they'd ever worked before.
Students shrank in their chairs. "It was actually sort of terrifying," Chase says. But she realized Trepanier was tough only because she was trying to get the young artists to lift their work to the next level. In 2009, when Chase was working on her thesis film, Trepanier let her use her large studio in Plant Zero. "I couldn't believe it," Chase says.
Trepanier let Chase turn the space into a set for a week, which included building giant gears and filming an actress wriggling in an enormous plate of spaghetti. Not only that, but Trepanier connected Chase with Lamberta and other artists and also agreed to appear in the short absurdist film, called "Lollipop, Don't Be a Hero," as a malevolent restaurant patron.
Chase says that without Trepanier, the project couldn't have happened. She's now a film instructor at Bowling Green State University.
Trepanier loves such collaborations. But the charm of teaching as an underpaid adjunct, first at VCU and then at the University of Richmond, had worn thin. She decided to get her doctorate, and was accepted into the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. The school offers an unusual low-residency doctoral program of media and communications through the lens of contemporary philosophy.
Between the studying, teaching, painting and parenting, Trepanier had something less than an abundance of time. Yet she had one more vision: a new creative space in Richmond.
Trepanier had created such a community once before. In 2002, she opened Orange Door Gallery. It wasn't the typical Broad Street gallery. At the top of a vertiginous staircase was an enormous room packed with "everybody drinking and smoking and talking about art." Trepanier loved the palce, but couldn't run it on her own. Orange Door closed in 2005.
She already knew the artists she wanted to work with on a new space: Lily Lamberta and Julie Elkins. Lamberta, known for her Halloween parades through Oregon Hill, makes beautiful and grotesque puppets from recycled cardboard and papier-mâché. Elkins creates porcelain sculptures of abandoned houses and graffiti-tagged factories that are both dreamlike and startlingly real.
The three had all kept studios at Plant Zero, where they dropped in on each other to talk shop — and argue. "We're three strong women who've all got some sort of vision," Trepanier says. They all loved Richmond and believed in its creative community.
The three women's lives diverged, however. Elkins sailed down the Intracoastal Waterway to the Florida Keys. Lamberta had a little boy. Trepanier's own daughter, Lily, was still small.
Then in 2013, the stars aligned. Lily was set to start kindergarten. Elkins moved back. And Trepanier found a woodshop on 21st Street, built in 1900 and owned by Tom Robinson, who also owns the Gallery5 firehouse. "So it was like a self-fulfilling prophecy," Trepanier says.
It wasn't quite that serendipitous, to hear Lamberta tell it. "We saw the space, and I was like, 'I don't think I can do it.' I'm pregnant, I'm going to get more pregnant, and it was a wreck."
"It was definitely disgusting," Trepanier concedes. Nevertheless, the three agreed that this was the place. They spent all summer working on it: clearing debris, putting up drywall, finishing the electric. One day, Robinson found an opossum on the property, picked it up and slung it over his shoulder, where it sat sleepily. In the formerly weed-choked lot, flowers began to bloom. Trepanier's favorite memory is of a very pregnant Lamberta balancing on a ladder with a ventilator strapped to her face, stenciling a mural on a wall. "That is a real woman, right there," she says.
For the Sept. 28 grand opening, under the strands of Christmas lights, Lovebomb was beautiful.
Since then, the place has taken on life. It has served as host to a Puerto Rican puppet show and a square-dancing honky-tonk. The partners pay the bills by charging performers 10 to 30 percent of their proceeds and allowing a few artists to share the studio space.
There's still a lot to do. The roof leaks. The small woodstove doesn't do much to heat the space. Lamberta — who now brings her infant daughter, Coraldove MidnightTrain, to work with her — wants to frame the stage with a proscenium. And Lamberta and Elkins hope to bring over children from the nearby Southside Boys and Girls Club, where they teach art on Fridays after school.
Here's what Trepanier doesn't want: "A bunch of people that aren't willing to participate. You know? That just feel like we're all here to entertain them, because we're characters." Nor, she says, does she want any "looky-lous" who might venture into Lovebomb's low-income, mainly black neighborhood on a lark.
It's taken time for Lovebomb to win welcome from the neighbors. Some complained about the noise and cars on the opening night, so the founders knocked on doors to apologize. Larry Pinkney, who lives nearby and has done some paid work for Lovebomb, says "we got a little grief" from a few neighbors. For his part, he likes what the three women have done. "A total turnaround," he says.
In her small studio at Lovebomb, Trepanier is working again, although she's left the splatter paintings behind. Her last show at the Reynolds Gallery, 2011's "Ether," featured works done in ink, applied with rags and eyedroppers instead of a brush. In retrospect, Trepanier's crisis of success was an important moment for her, Reynolds says. "It was hard, but it led to some very extraordinary new work."
Trepanier is trying an entirely new method now: floating pools of colored, alcohol-based inks in trays of milk. Trepanier photographs this process, usually getting in just three shots before the milk curdles and the inks disperse into the murk. She chooses one shot and destroys the rest.
"I think they're very beautiful," Bowring says of these new photographs, which Trepanier calls paintings. They may open up a new approach to her paintings, bowring says — if she ever returns to painting.
"Heide doesn't like to define herself. She doesn't like to box herself in. And probably Lovebomb is as much her art as these photographs. ... She'll just use her life to make art, in every possible way." S
Want to visit Lovebomb? The space, at 6 W. 21st St., will play host to a holiday market on Saturday, Dec. 14, from noon-4.