Twenty years after cofounding The B Complex, an artists’ cooperative in Atlanta’s Capitol View neighborhood, Bill Gould can relate to anyone who’s ever fallen in love with a fixer-upper and stayed the course against all odds.
“The restoration of historic properties requires nonstop sweat equity and capital investment,” says Gould, a fine-art photographer who taught himself plumbing, roofing, wiring and sandblasting on another project. It’s his way of flipping the script for artists squatting in abandoned warehouses, revitalizing blighted neighborhoods and then being displaced by market forces and developers.
“I’m passionate about saving this property, historically, architecturally and culturally,” he says. “And I’m even more passionate about our mission. We want to leave The B Complex in a sustainable state before putting it in the hands of artists so they can focus on their work without having to deal with the mechanics of running this place.”
Starting this weekend (Saturday, September 21), Gould will stop mulling over the practicalities of providing affordable artists’ studios to celebrate a B Complex milestone with the 20th-anniversary Retrospectare Exhibition. The event will feature work by more than 70 artists — woodworkers, blacksmiths, performance artists and aerialists as well as photographers, painters and sculptors — who have maintained studios at The B Complex since 1999.
The two-week art party (through October 5) will offer open studio tours; a live painting event; the world premiere of Decades by Beacon Dance; vintage circus showcases by the acrobats, contortionists and dancers of Liquid Sky; a screening of the silent film Claire accompanied by a live orchestra; and complimentary drinks and bites.
This year also is the centennial of the Lanham Cotton Cultivator Co., where six former factory and office buildings with 40,000 square feet became The B Complex’s 28 artist studios and 10,000-square-foot exhibition hall/event space. Its interiors today feature industrial architecture, exposed and oversized brick walls, riveted steelwork, pivot windows, high ceilings and a glass clerestory that recalls a bygone era.
This isn’t to say the site was sitting pretty when cofounder Lisa Yeiser first stumbled onto the old factory and asked Gould to take a look.
“Thanks to my four years in New Orleans, I learned to appreciate the culture and history that is embedded in structures,” says Gould, who studied photography, glassblowing, ceramics and drawing at Tulane University. So he wasn’t discouraged by the abandoned buildings and overgrown lot that had become an illegal dumping site for construction debris, burned-out cars and tires, as well as a site for illicit after-dark activities. “My awareness of buildings having histories and souls was heightened by the experience. I can’t explain it, but the ramshackle structures at the old Lanham factory just spoke to me. I could see through the bamboo forest to the potential.”
The B Complex, known as an urbn jungle for its dense bamboo grove, soaring tree canopy, aged white oaks, 5,000-gallon bridged koi pond and aquatic plants, is a study in contrasts.
Painter Ana Guzman, the newest member of the collective, was about to lose her Goat Farm Arts Center studio when Ernesto Torres of Buckhead Murals suggested she check out The B Complex. He’d worked on a multi-ton commission for the Mercedes-Benz Stadium there.
“Seventy-five percent of the people I speak to have never heard of this place,” says Guzman. “Despite the urban setting and proximity to the train tracks, it’s relatively quiet, safe. It’s like a gated community for artists where people treat their practice like a job, not a pastime.”
Guzman’s daily commute from Brookhaven has led to a new series of sketches, drawings and paintings of the Atlanta skyline as seen from the highway. Her proximity to B Complex neighbor Vernon Robinson Sr. — who describes his art as “I makes things” — has inspired her to experiment with textures by adding unorthodox materials like Sheetrock powder, sand and joint compound to her usual repertoire of oil paint, acrylics and gesso. Her vivid illustrations of fellow artists at work are part of Retrospectare.
Thanks to Gould’s foresight and that of five founding partners, The B Complex has the bandwidth to accommodate artists who need intimate spaces like Guzman’s or massive studios like the one Torres used. Flexible leasing terms allow artists to rent below market rate on a month-to-month basis. Depending on availability, tenants can upgrade or downsize as needed.
Take mixed-media painter Tracey Lane, for example. She made do with a 400-square-foot studio for 18 months and last year jumped at the chance to quadruple her space. The bigger footprint, soaring ceilings and light-filled space an oasis where neighbors lean into collaborative creativity instead of competing, where artists have a permanent foothold and where she’s welcome to bring her dog to work (there’s a dog run on-site).
“I‘d heard about The B Complex for 10 years before finding a studio here in 2016, and it sounded too good to be true,” Lane says. “I thought it had to be an urban legend, but it turned out to be an artist’s dream space.”
The complex’s 28 members include a handful of cooperative owners whose buy-in prices were fixed to discourage speculative investments and to keep ownership affordable for future buyers. Admittance to the cooperative is based on availability; the esprit de corps of interdependence is a daily practice.
Actor, yogi and artist Hannah-Rose Broom loathed relying on neighbors, but her thinking evolved after she moved in.
“I can be isolationist as an artist, but being in this community has helped charge me creatively,” she says. “Shortly after I got here, I was trying to build a frame, and it wasn’t going well. But Michael [Courts], a woodworker whose studio is behind mine, helped me out . . . and I’ve subsequently given him resin to use for his projects. Creative exchanges like these don’t happen if you’re not part of a collective.”