While mechanics tinker with carburetors and crankshafts at Tom’s Auto Repair in downtown DeLand, Stetson art professors Katie Baczeski and Madison Creech tinker once a month in the curvy room with the massive window at one end of the garage.
There, in a storefront space that resembles, at first glance, the coffee shop in Edward Hopper’s iconic “Nighthawks” painting, the two professors and Creech’s husband Matthew can be found on a Wednesday or Thursday as they install, among the rattle and clang of car parts and pneumatic power tools, the latest art exhibit of their Fresh As Fruit Gallery.
“The back of the place is totally a working mechanic’s shop,” says Madison Creech, a Visiting Assistant Professor in Creative Arts with a BFA and BS in textile, merchandising and fashion design from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and an MFA in fibers from Arizona State University.
The following Monday, the trio will be back, de-installing the edgy, modern multimedia and 3-D works and other types of art. In art world parlance, Fresh As Fruit presents what are known as “pop-up” exhibits – here today, gone tomorrow . . . or perhaps a few days later.
Fresh As Fruit’s upcoming exhibits at the garage, at the corner of West Rich Avenue and North Florida Avenue, include Ana Meza’s “A Kind of a Stopwatch” from Oct. 30-Nov. 1, and Lillianna Baczeski’s “Vertical Sky” from Nov. 6-8 (Lillianna is Katie’s older sister). Opening receptions will be held from 6-9 p.m. on the Friday of each exhibit’s run.
In their mission statement, the trio call Fresh As Fruit “an alternative visual art exhibition space,” a concept that is enhanced by the fact that patrons cannot move among the artworks. Rather, all viewing is done from outside the building as art lovers – or errant passers-by – peek voyeuristically through the giant expanse of window glass. Indeed, Baczeski and the Creeches don’t even have a key to the place — they move the exhibits in and out only during the working hours of the car mechanics.
Once installed, FAF exhibits are free to see and are “open” – that is, viewable – 24-7 until they come down.
FAF’s alternative status is further underscored in other ways: The gallery is not officially affiliated with Stetson University. Also, though the founders have applied for grants that are still being processed, “Right now we are self-funded, so it comes actually out of our pockets, and the artists are showing on a voluntary basis,” says Madison, who is teaching graphic design, a senior project class, and a freshman seminar about textiles and text this semester.
Though Fresh As Fruit popped up with its first pop-up exhibit at the auto shop location in August, its roots go back to fall 2019 when Baczeski and the Creeches “both sort of separately had the idea of wanting to start a garage gallery,” Madison says.
The Creechs did just that, creating FAF — with their landlords’ permission — literally in the detached garage of the home they were renting at the time. That first incarnation of FAF came to an end last April when the owners decided to sell the house and the Creeches had to move.
With artists from across the nation lined up for future exhibitions, the search was on for a new venue – one “that would be sensitive to COVID and allow the maximum amount of people to view the work without putting anyone in harm’s way,” Madison says.
Baczeski, a Visiting Professor of Studio Art with a BFA in Sculpture from the University of Connecticut and an MFA in Ceramics from Indiana University-Bloomington, thought of Tom’s Auto Repair.
“I feel like that place has been a window of imagination here in DeLand ever since we started at Stetson,” says Baczeski, who is teaching sculpture, ceramics and senior project this semester. “People have told us they’ve noticed this window. It’s kind of Art Deco style. It’s really beautiful. I would go on runs with my boyfriend at night and pass it, and we would just stop and think of how it would make a really good gallery space. Collectively I feel all four of us had always pined over it.
“We just rolled over to the mechanic one day and asked if he would be willing to let us take over the space and pop up and show work once a month, and he was very . . . ah . . . .” Baczeski pauses before adding: “He was kind of like not excited about the idea, but he ended up letting us do it.”
“I have people asking me to have that window space all the time,” says Rick Barker, who has leased the building for 17 years to run his auto repair business, along with his wife Kelly, who works as the office manager, and their son Casey, who also is a mechanic.
The space has been coveted by real estate agents, a guy who wanted to expand the room and display antique cars there, and others, Barker says.
“When I talked to Katie and she said she wanted to hang some art in there and use it on the weekends, and it didn’t interfere with my working hours, I said ‘That sounds fine — give it a shot,’ ” he says. “It was space I wasn’t using. I didn’t see a problem. I wanted to help them out and let them do what they need to do. And it worked out fine.
“They were very excited — way more excited for it than I am,” Barker adds with a chuckle. “But you know, that’s their gig. I don’t get into that kind of stuff, but I’m glad I can make somebody else happy and let them use the space.”
Baczeski and the Creeches painted the room and refinished some of the walls, and FAF held its first pop-up show – “Always Already Lost” featuring works by Marina Sachs – at the garage from Aug. 21-23.
FAF’s mission statement says one of its goals is “to display work of artists who have previously been under-represented in the traditional spaces that the fine art world inhabits. Specifically, members of the LGBTQ+ community, Black artists and artists of color, non-binary artists, women, indigenous peoples of the Americas and people with disabilities. It is important that we reflect the diverse community that surrounds us in DeLand to focus on all the ways in which making and expressing can be experienced creating further connectivity.”
FAF’s pop-up shows so far have featured works by artists from Arizona, Virginia, Florida, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, South Carolina and Texas.
“Although we work at the university, we are separate from the university, so that does give us a lot of artistic freedom,” Madison says. “We can select the artists that we feel need to be shown. There’s just so much less red tape.”
That freedom extends to the content of the art – but the Fresh As Fruit founders realize they must adhere to some constraints.
“We have to think about the art always being on view publicly,” Madison says. “There’s not like a door you have to open and close in order for you to see it, so we can’t really put something that absolutely needs a disclaimer up in the windows. So, there is a little bit of limitation in that. But we do have the ability to experiment a little bit more.”
“Actually, in the very first exhibition with Marina Sachs, the F-word was sort of used in one of the pieces,” Baczeski says. “We had that conversation with Rick, we were like, ‘Hey, we want to put this up but we don’t want to put up anything that you feel like it’s going to represent you in a way you are not comfortable with.’ And he was like ‘You gotta do what you gotta do,’ which made us feel very confident because we don’t want to be in the game of censoring artists.”
Madison notes that Fresh As Fruit was “kind of almost created in COVID,” and the gallery’s unorthodox nature means FAF “is able to sort of react to that situation as well.”
University museums and galleries must book exhibits one to three years in advance, “So you’re trying to see into the future of what’s going to actually make the biggest impact,” Creech says. But FAF’s more modest pop-ups don’t entail such complicated logistics and therefore don’t demand such advance planning.
“With this type of space, we have the ability to book short-term,” she says. “We can be choosing artists who are making work that is talking about social and political topics of the moment.”
Also, Creech notes, the pandemic has forced the cancellation of many art exhibitions, while some have moved completely online.
“There’s a different connection you have with the work when you have to see it just as an image online,” she says. The FAF space “has actually become really valuable in that way, because artists can still show their work in person. You are still about four feet away from it because of the window, but you can see the work in person, and we’ve had the artists in person, too, at the last two exhibitions we’ve had.”
Both Creech and Baczeski note that at past FAF opening receptions, patrons have been diligent about wearing masks and practicing social distancing in the outdoor area beside the exhibition space. “So far 100 percent of reception attendees have worn masks,” Madison says.
No food or beverages are served by FAF, but Creech says many attendees have purchased refreshments and food at the nearby Artisan Alley, which is the scene of a street festival-style event on most Friday nights.
Fresh As Fruit is on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/freshasfruitgallery/
— Rick de Yampert
IF YOU GO
* Ana Meza’s “A Kind of a Stopwatch” runs Oct. 30-Nov. 1, and Lillianna Baczeski’s “Vertical Sky” runs Nov. 6-8 at Fresh As Fruit Gallery in Tom’s Auto Repair, 211 W. Rich Ave., DeLand. Viewing is free. Opening receptions will be held from 6-9 p.m. Oct. 31 and Nov. 6. Social distancing and masks are strongly encouraged at opening receptions.