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Transformed: Holyoke’s historic Baustein Building is now a modern-day ‘makerspace’ and gallery

  • Artist Donnabelle Casis is shown in front of three untitled pieces, gouache on paper over panel, featured in her show “datik,” which is now at the Readywipe Gallery in Holyoke. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Several untitled pieces, gouache on paper over panel, are the work of artist Donnabelle Casis, whose show “datik” is at the Readywipe Gallery in Holyoke. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Artist Donnabelle Casis adjusts untitled gouache on paper over panel pieces May 30, 2018 featured in her show "datik," which opens Friday, June 1, at the Readywipe gallery in Holyoke. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Artist Donnabelle Casis is shown May 30, 2018 in front of two untitled gouache on paper over panel pieces featured in her show "datik," which opens Friday, June 1, at the Readywipe gallery in Holyoke. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Several untitled gouache on paper over panel pieces by artist Donnabelle Casis are displayed May 30, 2018 in her show "datik," which opens Friday, June 1, at the Readywipe gallery in Holyoke. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



For the Bulletin
Thursday, June 07, 2018

Hidden in a 19th-century mill building in Holyoke is a 21st-century “makerspace.” The brainchild of married Brooklyn transplants Susannah and Dirk Auferoth, the three-floor Main Street edifice is home to artists looking to create and display their works. Named the Baustein Building, the German term for “building block,” the downtown space is a time capsule of exposed brick and wooden floors; a welcome reminder of Holyoke’s past as a thriving post-industrial mill town. 

The third floor is the heart of the building: It houses 32 art studios as well as Readywipe Gallery, which the couple started to contribute to the city’s renaissance. When they moved to Massachusetts in 2001, Dirk says, they weren’t expecting to buy property, but over 10 years they came to love Holyoke for its creative community as well as for its easy access to New York City.

As for the studio space, “It’s really expansive — it allows people to think,” said Susannah, an artist who works in painting and graphic design, gesturing to the open-plan office/studio space behind her. “It’s kind of raw, so people don’t have to be afraid to mess up.”

When they began renovating the space in 2012, the Auferoths knew their vision included maintaining the integrity of the original building. Currently, they host more than 25 artists, including some from Holyoke and others from further afield, and a waitlist is forming as they finish up the last 15 workspaces on the top floor. Though they have opted to preserve the historical value of the former mill, the process of refurbishing it has been a massive undertaking. Last month, they received their final CFO (certificate of occupancy) from the city of Holyoke, verifying the building is up to code and safe for commercial use after years of industrial wear and tear. They hired an architect to draw up plans, as well as other contractors but they “didn’t have a superfund,” Dirk says, so they did much of the design work themselves. Located just down the block from Gateway City Arts, they are excited to be a part of the revitalization in the city.

Down the hall from Susannah’s office is the Readywipe Gallery. Named after the ReadyWipe Sanitary Cloth Company that once occupied the building, it is a nod to the rich history of Holyoke. The sign in the building had a unique look to it, so Susannah opted to keep the name. “These old mill buildings are formerly places of innovation and creation, and they are still in that raw form,” Susannah says. “I think that you can see those layers of creativity that had been happening over time, which really promotes this feeling of making new things — it’s really just a big playroom.”

Booked with exhibits through the end of 2018 (Boston-born painter Gabriel Phipps will be the featured artist in September), the gallery space has ample room for artists of any medium to showcase their work for a monthlong period, starting with an opening reception. 

Florence-based artist Donnabelle Casis has experienced that synergy firsthand. A visual artist and current curator at The Art Salon, a series of presentations by up-and-coming and established local artists, Readywipe was the ideal place for her new exhibition. When she met Susannah through The Art Salon, they used the gallery space for a show, and Casis later had the opportunity to show some of her smaller works at a group show at the gallery.

Born in Manila, in the Philippines, Casis finds herself heavily influenced by her Filipina roots when she’s in the studio. Her exhibition, “datik,” running through the month of June, is based on the traditional tattoos of the Kalinga tribe, the indigenous people, as well as the vibrant costumes worn in Spanish bullfighting. The portmanteau datik, coined by Casis herself, combines the meanings of both English and Filipino words. Datum, meaning a piece of information, is the root of the name. Casis has an interest in facial recognition software, she recently explained at the gallery, where she was hanging her paintings: “They can identify someone by just an earlobe — that fascinates me — they know who you are, but in actuality they know nothing about you.” Datu, the indigenous word for a royal, or the highest status in a tribe, is a reference to the tattoos she has drawn inspiration from. The latter half of the invented word comes from batik, which is the process of dyeing using color-resistant wax to form designs. The resulting name is “a look into my process,” she says. “I hybridize things a lot of the time.”

Growing up in Seattle, Washington, and later Connecticut as a teenager, she has carried her culture with her. “I’ve been working a lot with this idea about how we take what we see in the world and contextualize it to form our daily experience, specifically in relation to how we project ourselves or how we want to be seen,” said Casis, who later returned to Seattle to earn her MFA in painting at the University of Washington.

The Kalinga people, for example, have a long history of tattooing as a form of expression of their status. When you see tribe members from a distance, it is clear what they have accomplished, she said, because “they literally wear their stories on their bodies.” The more tattoos an individual has, the more they have accomplished. But she has found herself more inspired for this recent series by the remarkable and telling colors of the bullfighters’ costumes. “Colors are very significant; they can also be superstitious. [Bullfighters] won’t use a certain color if they’ve had a bad experience wearing it,” she noted. 

Much like the tattoos, the colors involved can distinguish a fighter from a distance; silver represents a matador in training, and gold is reserved for those more experienced. Within each piece, Casis says she gives just enough information to suggest the meaning of the piece without giving it away entirely. There is a value in leaving some of the art open to interpretation. “A lot of it has to do with where I am in my life at this point,” she said. “It’s been a challenge maintaining being an artist, and I am a different person than I was when I started.”

The mother of 15-year old twins, Casis took seven years off from her art career when they were younger to focus on being a parent, a hiatus she says changed her approach as well as how she self-identifies. This period of reflection is what led her to research all of the topics that influenced this series, gaining a deeper understanding of both her culture and her perspective.

When her children were little, “I questioned my identity as an artist,” she said. “Perhaps that led me to research how identity is conveyed through signifiers, marks of accomplishment, experience.”

A large canvas backdrop, the final touch of the exhibition, is a subtle nod to this big idea. It is painted blue, with gold bars in groups of 15. The gold bars — like the costume of the seasoned matador — represent the number of years Casis has been a mother and highlight both her experience with her sons and her growth as an artist. 

 “It made me think [about] what do we do in our lives?” she said. “What do we take with us, and what do we leave behind?”

Donnabelle Casis’ exhibition runs June 1-30. Readywipe Gallery is open by appointment by calling 320-2828 or emailing susannah@readywipegallery.com. The Baustein Building is located at 532 Main St. in Holyoke. More about Casis’ art can be found at donnabellecasis.com.