John Whipple is a hoarder. It’s not that he’s neurotic. It’s more like an occupational hazard. Whipple is a Winter Park artist, one who’s suddenly in need of a new home, along with his mad-hatter, found-object sculptures and the formidable collection of garage-sale and junkyard finds he uses to make them.
He’s a charter member of McRae Art Studios, a collective of 22 artists who, from 1998 until September of this year, shared studio space in a warehouse on Railroad Avenue near Winter Park Village. Whipple’s section of the collective’s 10,000-square-foot complex was especially crowded.
Over the years, Whipple’s lair took on the character of a disjointed, post-apocalyptic storehouse, filled with the sprockets, springs, machine parts, farm implements, bird cages, door knobs, light fixtures, and other assorted flotsam and jetsam he needed for his whimsical creations, which resemble a Greatest Show on Earth parade that’s been infiltrated by the cast of The Nightmare Before Christmas.
All of which, a few weeks ago, had to go. “I’ve filled up 40 bins already,” Whipple said, as a moving-day deadline loomed. “It’s like a bowl of spaghetti. It just seems to fall back in on itself.”
He and the other McRae artists are looking for a safe place to land after losing their home to Winter Park’s latest surge of redevelopment. The warehouse — or, rather, the land on which it stands — will be absorbed into the big-money retail corridor around U.S. 17-92 and Lee Road, where a Whole Foods outlet and a Nordstrom Rack store are scheduled to open next year.
Hello, cash registers. So long, easels.
Winter Park’s commercial boom will displace a colorful, close-knit group of free spirits who suffered for their art together — particularly during the summer months, since only parts of the warehouse were air-conditioned.
For years, the collective’s two annual open-house sales have punctuated Winter Park’s cultural calendar. One sale was held in the spring, before the heat set in, and the other just before Christmas.
The artists shared the rent, made group decisions on whom to include when a new space opened up, and generally grew accustomed to relying on one another for friendship, inspiration, babysitters, marital advice and the occasional spare couch to crash on in emergencies.
Now they share another bond. They’re homeless (or, more accurately, studioless). Most of them hope to reunite in a new location, though it probably won’t be in Winter Park, where they were unable to find a suitable facility.
The collective’s first headquarters was in Orlando: a warehouse on McRae Avenue — hence the name — near Florida Hospital. It was rented in 1986 by Whipple’s parents, the late George Whipple and his wife, Marty.
She’s a painter who’s still a member of the group. He simply loved artists, one in particular, enough to create a collaborative space for her and her cohorts.
Roughly 100 painters, sculptors and photographers have come and gone since then, attracted by both the camaraderie and economy. “One of the tricks of being an artist is that you get good at being poor,” says painter Stephen Bach, a longtime member of the collective, as is his wife, Susan, a potter.
Bach notes another practical advantage of a warehouse: There’s no carpet to ruin, no furniture to splatter. “That’s the thing about artists,” he says. “We’re messy.”
Some cities have revitalized blighted areas by repurposing abandoned warehouses and incorporating them into arts districts. It’s a strategy that Orlando briefly flirted with when a stretch of galleries and studios cropped up along Alden Avenue, just up the railroad tracks from the collective’s former digs.
But hopes for what was once heralded as a budding Ivanhoe Village arts district evaporated last year, when the warehouses were sold to a developer, Chance Gordy, who had them demolished to make way for shops, restaurants and an 800-unit residential high rise.
One of the possibilities being explored by the collective is a move to an existing commercial building near the planned Creative Village in downtown Orlando, where they would share space with Artreach Orlando, a non-profit organization that works with children in underserved communities.
Such an arrangement would be a natural fit for both groups. But even if the deal goes through, the space wouldn’t be ready for occupancy for months. In the meantime, although moral support is just a phone call away for the collective, they’re on their own when it comes to the more immediate matter of finding individual workspaces.
Toward that end, longtime McRae artist Cindy Anderson has a simple strategy: “I guess I’ll just go home and make smaller paintings for a while.”
Michael McLeod is a contributing writer for Winter Park Magazine and an adjunct instructor in the English department at Rollins College.