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Maitland Art Center returns to roots

Artist Josette Urso inaugurates its reborn artist-in-residence program



During the dark days of the Great Depression, when the avarice and greed of a few caused widespread homelessness and joblessness for many, the art world was reborn. And Central Florida contributed its fair share: Andre Smith, a New York artist-architect, created the Research Studio in what was then a semi-wilderness outside Winter Park, bringing modernist luminaries to live and work for a season or two in an artist-in-residence program which lapsed after his 1959 death. The complex of buildings and programs he created later came to be known as the Maitland Art Center, a facility which has seen more than its fair share of vicissitudes and transformations. This week, a big part of Smith’s dream is reborn when Josette Urso comes to live and work for six weeks, kicking off a new phase in the fascinating history of what’s now known as the Art and History Museums Maitland.

As the inaugural artist-in-residence for Maitland’s new era, Urso spoke with me from Brooklyn’s FedEx office, where she’d just shipped her art supplies to Florida. “I always feel anxiety and anticipation when I send my stuff off,” she confided. What is she going to do with her time in Maitland? Urso says she’s going to set up in the garden and paint. “I work very intuitively, so I will bring only a ‘blank slate’ mind. Maitland’s environment will take me where it wants me to go.” Coyly declining to reveal more, Urso’s intention is to creatively remain in the moment while here this spring.

A native of Ybor City, Urso graduated from University of South Florida’s Master of Fine Arts program, and went on to establish a following in New York. Last year, “a letter came out of the blue, inviting me to apply for this residency in Maitland, so I did!” And presto, with the artist-in-residence program reborn, we will have Urso living and working in Andre Smith’s original apartment, using Smith’s old studio to make what the New York Times called her “lush abstractions and wry, opulent cartography.” Judging from her gorgeous drawings and paintings, and her incredible work ethic, the Maitland Art Center had better be ready for a prolific and vigorous outpouring of visual expression, and for lively conversations about art to resound off the walls of this place once again.

It was not always so at the Art Center. Closed in the 1960s, it was treated as an eyesore by its new landlord, the city of Maitland. A director was hired to clean the place up – who promptly hired Kyle, an up-and-coming local artist, to act as caretaker as well as artist-in-residence. Kyle lived and worked in Andre Smith’s old apartment on-site, which was shuttered again after Kyle reluctantly left, a victim of the political and financial turmoil that many cities have suffered in recent years.

“Looking back on it now,” he says, “it was the best thing for me to leave. I’ve grown creatively and pushed myself to a new level with my work.” His retrospective, currently on display at Orlando City Hall’s Terrace Gallery, includes some of the work that he did while living in Andre Smith’s home.

Smiling, he passes along a veiled warning for artists living in Smith’s studio: “For the first few weeks there, I slept with my keys and a flashlight, bag packed. Strange sounds awoke me at night. It was unnatural. The disapproving frown on Andre Smith’s bust in the gallery felt like it was directed towards me.” Whether it’s haunted or not, the Art Center’s past spurred him on.

But that was a long time ago, in the bygone era when National Endowment for the Arts grants were still available to restore rotting wood and cracked stucco, and to expand a facility while allowing it to stay true to its original mission. Today, lumped together with the Telephone Museum, the Carpentry Shop Museum and the Victorian Waterhouse Residence, the Maitland Art Center can seem like it’s being treated as part of a collection of white elephants, its original purpose diluted. Smith’s stern spirit seems powerless against moneymen and bureaucrats, and the Art Center is peddled as just another setting for weddings and festivals, the “Research Studio” sign a faded reminder of a time when Zora Neale Hurston came over to talk and artists like Milton Avery, Doris Lee and Teng Chiu graced its studios for the winter.

Andrea Bailey Cox, current director of the Art and History Museums Maitland, looks on the bright side. “This year is the 75th anniversary of the Art Center’s founding,” she says, and in its honor, “we decided to revive the Artist-in-Residency Program. Josette Urso is an exciting inaugural artist, and she’ll be here for six weeks. She will participate in the Art Center’s events, and we hope to relaunch Andre Smith’s original mission to bring fine artists here for creative exploration.” Urso will be one of two artists coming in 2013, and the Art Center hopes to expand into two simultaneous residences in the future, with artists applying for three-, six- or nine-week stints.

The original studios are tiny. Artists lived and worked in monastic deprivation, inhabiting bedroom-sized spaces, getting together in the garden for tea and to critique each other’s work. The idea of a collegiate, fluid research effort may be difficult to imagine in today’s corporate, bottom-line world.

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