Lofty Dreams:

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Couple Finally Finds Space for Home and Art Right in the Heart of Downtown

Loft-style apartments are a novelty in Portsmouth, Ohio, yet, that hasn’t stopped one local couple from crafting a truly unique home right in the heart of the city’s downtown. Mark Chepp and Charlotte Gordon, co-directors of the Southern Ohio Museum, have created one of the city’s most unique spaces in their new combined artist studio and living area located at 838 Gallia Street.

With their place of employment located north across the street, the loft is ideally situated for this arts administrator husband-wife duo that dreamed of finding a downtown building suitable for shared home and studio areas since they arrived in Portsmouth two-and-a-half years ago.

Chepp tried to acquire similar space 15 years ago when he was living in Springfield, Ohio, but couldn’t buy it at the time. “It was something I always wanted to do,” Chepp said. “I had work and living space in a house there for seven or eight years but I had the dream over the years of a wide-open space.”

Gordon grew up in a home where both parents “made things” and supported her artistic ambitions by providing space for long-term projects. Later, living in Columbus, Ohio, she rented separate studio space.

Moving to Portsmouth, the couple looked at downtown spaces. They found a small apartment on 4th Street, but continuously walked and searched for a place big enough to house both home and studio. One day a “For Rent” sign appeared in a window on Gallia Street. From the couple’s first-floor apartment they could see the wide-open space upstairs through large windows lit at night. Ironically, when they called for information, they discovered the contact was Bill Tackett, an accountant with Reynolds and Company and a museum board member. The property manager was the mother of museum staff member T.R. Beery. Originally, the building owner was seeking a solid business for rental. Yet, Tackett saw the potential for joint studio and living space, and knew that Chepp and Gordon wanted a long-term commitment. With some necessary renovations, all agreed that the deal was mutually beneficial. The couple moved into the loft last May.

“The location is perfect, with energy gained from Terry Ackerman’s loft apartments (The Lofts) and his coffee shop (Coffee at The Lofts) at the back,” said Gordon. “We considered what impact we might bring by walking everywhere and reducing our carbon footprint, and how we could be an example for others in the city.”

“It is a wonderful downtown neighborhood with people walking around in the evening,” Gordon continued. “We enjoy sitting out back on our patio and having a glass of wine. It is a nice community. We bump into the same people, and we can walk to everything we need because the amenities are here.”

Inside, the first floor space is divided equally between the two artists, Chepp explained. Describing herself as “a middle-of-the-room-type person,” Gordon creates ceramic works in her half. She is currently experimenting with using clay molds to make vessels out of paper, which are larger and more translucent than those made of clay. Someday, the building’s full basement with its 9-foot ceiling will become her ceramics studio where “dirtier” work can be done and clay pieces will be fired in a kiln.

Chepp’s works appear on the walls and his section contains both office and studio. He generates images on the computer and experiments with different kinds of color systems, transferring the colors to images on canvas. Often the images are self-portraits; occasionally, he accepts other portrait commissions.

Both floors of the loft contain items collected by the couple through the years. Even the front windows display dozens of “bottlecap people,” a hobby craze popular in the ’50s and ’60s during a post-war “Tiki” Polynesian design style phase. Meanwhile, the Gallia Street windows and back patio are embellished with various plants. Gordon explains that she loves to garden and finds it cathartic.

Throughout the studio are unusual pieces of art, often what Chepp calls “hobby art” or “shop art.” A collection of crosses includes one made of toilet paper in a Texas prison and another “prison piece” made from dominos. A sitting space at the back of the studio shows off “bad Elvis art,” as described by Chepp. An unusual Elvis holds a lawn sprinkler which sprays; another comes from a Second Street shop in Portsmouth.

Upstairs, the large rear windows offer a great view, looking toward the Shawnee State University campus and the Kentucky hills. The second floor has been renovated to create living and gallery space for the artists. A drop ceiling and new walls were constructed, creating a room-within-a-room. Plumbing and heating had to be installed while natural light comes from both ends of the 19-foot by 100-foot room. The lengthy room is organized into kitchen/dining, entertainment and bedroom pods. The walls of the long room provide ample exhibit space where the pair shows off their collections and their own work. As professionals accustomed to installing artwork, the artists gave careful attention to arranging the collections.

“We wanted them to be approachable, to make sense and to be accessible, yet to be home,” Chepp said. “Working on a grid, we created islands of space marked by old African-American quilts, Gordon’s dishes and other items, measured to give framework and structure.”

Ultimately, the goal is to share the space with others. “Lots of people have toured the loft; we want people to see it,” Gordon said. “We hope businesses and owners in the area will begin to see the potential (in similar spaces).”

Two collections command special attention on the second level. The first is Chepp’s group of sock monkeys that is much beloved by the artists’ grandchildren. The monkeys are lined along the wall and highlighted by a “him and her” couple dressed up in colorful clothes and hats and includes a rare African-American version. The second is Chepp’s face jug collection, which he began 25 years ago. It populates the living room/media section of the second floor, peering back at those who are watching television. Face jugs, a tradition which originated in Carolina and Georgia pottery family workshops, are whimsical by-products thought to have come from Scotch-Irish and slave backgrounds.

Kentucky folk art, especially in animal form, also is on exhibit. Chepp first interacted with the Southern Ohio Museum in 1991 when he brought a folk art show from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Springfield, then to Portsmouth. Gordon displays many ceramic pieces, including those by Jack Earl, a favorite of local museum patrons.

“We feel strongly about supporting local artists and collecting their art,” Gordon said. “We know how important it is for the artists.” The pair hopes their grandchildren will learn the joy of hunting, discovering and collecting favorite items.

“Portsmouth is poised to present itself as a mecca of the arts and a destination for travelers and visitors,” Gordon declared. “What makes Portsmouth attractive is that there is so much art here – there’s the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts, new developments on Second Street and numerous other arts presenters – all combined with the beauty of the countryside. The Southern Ohio Museum’s “Cream of the Crop” exhibition is a testament to the strength of the area artists. The arts are a good marketing tool for the city.”

“There is so much to drive visitors here,” Gordon continued, “The people are great and, overall, it is a very positive community. We’re here to stay.”

For these relative newcomers to Portsmouth, happiness is truly a downtown Gallia Street loft.

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Kay Bouyack

Kay Bouyack is staff writer for the Scioto Foundation and a long-time freelance journalist for area arts and community organizations. She and her husband Ernie reside in Portsmouth, Ohio.

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