How a West Dallas warehouse zone keeps artists at work, especially artists of color, women
Circuslike images pop in turquoise and black ink in the woodcut print by artist Benjamin Muñoz. Words scream “Beyond Belief” and “El Otro Lado.”
Desireé Vaniecia fills canvases with Black women looking meditative, maternal or mischievous. Art nouveau motifs often frame the silhouettes. She’s intent on exploring the softer side of womanhood.
Jay Chung paints what he knows well: the isolation of immigrants and children left behind. Beautiful skies of indigo, rose and terra cotta contrast with refugees in a series inspired by trips to Greece and Bangladesh.
Muñoz, Chung and Vaniecia are part of a community of nearly 100 artists nestled in studios of warehouses sprayed rebelliously with graffiti and murals around Fabrication Street in West Dallas. The streets have long served as an equal opportunity canvas for artists of color. The same opportunity spills into the selection of print makers, painters and sculptors who work here in a warehouse zone known as the Tin District.
“Inclusion is something they think about constantly,” said Muñoz, who rattles off the names of neighboring artists who are Black, brown, Asian American and women.
About half of those in the studios here are artists of color or women or both, said Will Heron, an artist-liaison for the Tin District developers, West Dallas Investments. They’re the developers best known for the Trinity Groves restaurant complex near the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge.
Daisha Board, a Black entrepreneur, opened a gallery nearby on Sylvan Avenue in 2021 to be near the growing artist community, one that now houses Dallas’ largest cluster of artists. She showcases artists of color, LGBTQ artists and people with disabilities. Board, a trailblazer in her own right, said disruption is needed in an art world that has often ignored the talent of women and Black and brown artists.
“A lot of disruption is to prove that narratives seen in the art world are false,” she said. “The full range of the human experience, from success to family life to celebrations are authentic expressions of Black and brown life, too,” she said. “It humanizes us.”
“The inspiration that comes from being in a community of artists who have similar struggles and issues when it comes to representation … is just really encouraging,” Board said.
Her top-selling artist last year was Jeremy Biggers, who shares a large Tin District studio with his artist wife, Sam Lao.
Board’s fear, though, is rampant gentrification. That could erase warehouse studio spaces.
Just weeks ago, Butch McGregor, a principal in West Dallas Investments, said the company had entered a joint venture with Omaha-based Goldenrod Cos. for several dozen properties in the Tin District. McGregor said it could be five to 15 years before new development begins.
A hub for artists of color
Many of the Latino, Black and Asian artists here celebrate their identity.
Muñoz’s work draws from his roots as the grandson of Mexican immigrants – with an important twist. He focuses on the successes of Mexican Americans and less on the struggle, as did an earlier generation of Mexican American artists.
“It’s really easy to live in a perpetual state of anger and anxiety and frustration,” said Muñoz, 29, who grew up in Corpus Christi. “It’s important to kind of take a step back and go like, ‘OK, we’ve come a really long way. It’s worth celebrating.’”
He takes inspiration from César Chávez, the labor and civil rights leader whose black-and-white photo hangs in Muñoz’s studio near his tools. Muñoz also applauds the late Emma Tenayuca, a union leader and educator from San Antonio.
He depicts working-class people with dignity and humor. Much of his work are woodcuts, where ink and image merge into alchemy. The result is a print that sells at a more affordable price than a painting. Among his patrons is Gilberto Cárdenas, a retired sociologist who is one of the nation’s top collectors of Latino art.
Muñoz does paintings on wood with woodcut prints collaged on, too. One work, a homage to a paletero, shows the stylized black-eagle logo of Chavez’s United Farm Workers on the cart. In the yellow-and-turquoise background is a huge green aloe vera plant.
Another mixed-media work dominates a studio corner. Collaged words read “Cell Phone Memories. Limited Satisfaction.”
It’s a homage to his mother, who died of COVID-19 during the pandemic.
Its terra cotta sky references the fact she once worked in a company where terra cotta Saltillo tiles were made. After her passing, he and his siblings found her cellphone. They listened to her video recordings over and over again. Alas, the joy of it faded into melancholy and limited satisfaction.
Natural light streams through a window inside Desireé Vaniecia’s warehouse studio. Across the street, spray-can artists have left their marks in swirls of pomegranate and turquoise paint. Inside Vaniecia’s studio, serenity reigns.
A huge portrait of a woman relaxing on a chair against a mustard wall dominates a canvas. Her arms and hands are laced behind her head and its crown of curls. The woman, painted in figurative style, is dressed in ochre athletic wear. She looks strong and assured.
It’s part of a series that pays homage to generations of women in her family. This portrait hanging in her studio puzzled her. Her mother solved that mystery, identifying the woman as her daughter.
“That is how you are literally the most chillest person in the world,” her mother told her. “But you are the most goal-oriented person.”
Marriage, first child, first solo show by 30. All those goals were achieved by Vaniecia, who is 32 years old and teaches art at an East Dallas high school. Now, she’s taking commissions and represented by Conduit, a well-established Dallas gallery. She’s working on pieces for Meow Wolf, a Santa Fe-based immersive art and entertainment company that opens its fourth installation in Grapevine this summer.
Vaniecia’s work flips narratives and stereotypes. Whether it’s digging deeper into the positive stories about her own family, or looking at the seven deadly sins of the Bible, Vaniecia brings depth to images that can be understood both by the painting and the works’ titles.
Her painting on lust is one of her favorites. Rather than framing lust as sin, she looks at it as self-love. Its title: If I Don’t Love Myself, Then Who Will?
“It’s about lust, but it’s also about being loving and passionate for myself,” the artist said.
The clustering of women artists here makes her feel more comfortable and adds to the creative combustion, she said.
Soon she’s calling out to other women artists down the hall, peeking at their new work merging science and design and resins of the colors of nature.
Refugees, migrants and hope
The soothing sounds of Chopin filter through the light-bathed studio of painter Jay Chung. Towering green plants greet visitors near the door. This is where he meditates before beginning his painting day.
Chung, 37, wanted to be an art therapist. In many ways, he is. To himself and to a public trying to understand the human drama of migration, of the displaced and the dispossessed.
He was left behind in South Korea as a child when his parents divorced and his mother made her way to the U.S. without him. He grew up with his grandmother. Nearly a decade later at 22, Chung, too, made it to the U.S.
He majored in architect engineering in Korea. He'd pick up a second and a third degree, as well, in fine art and psychology, at Tufts University in the Boston area.
To understand the trauma refugees suffer, Chung took a diving trip to the Mediterranean Sea to examine the wreckage of a ship that had carried Syrians. Chung, who has a diving license, remembers a patron later telling him the resulting painting with its beautiful blue sky was haunting.
He took that as a cue to continue his refugee work.
He traveled to Greece and to Bangladesh to refugee camps. One painting depicts the back of a Syrian mother’s head with a gorgeous floral hijab and the brown hand of her child on her shoulder.
Another features a sky of indigo hues and people clinging to a train’s exterior. It’s Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
A Dallas patron sobbed when she saw the painting. Chung asked what was wrong. She said the painting of the train reminded her of the Central American teens who migrate through her homeland of Mexico in search of safety.
Some of Chung’s work also features swirling blobs that blend exquisitely into the scene. These are surreal touches of emotions, he said. During the opening month of the pandemic, Chung even painted a small canvas daily, filled with blobs of swirling creams, mandarin orange and sky blue representing emotions.
“A lot of people see hope in the color and the shape,” he said, pointing to a swirl of tangerine and cream on a remaining canvas. “That also makes sense to me.”
A number of Chung’s patrons are lawyers. Some are psychologists. They’re drawn most to the refugee work, perhaps, as a way to better understand the human condition of their own clients, he said. That, too, he says, represents hope.
The Tin District will host open studios on April 22.
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