Despite momentous recent changes and a lot of new arrivals, Austin still, in many ways, understands and defines itself as a community of backyard-shed artists and in-it-for-the-love creative weirdos. No other event showcases this ethos like Austin Studio Tour, now in its twentieth year, put on annually by Big Medium. AST is the kind of citywide event at which you find out that your neighbor is a great artist, or that some cool artist whose work you’ve seen around town is actually your neighbor.
The tour has no set route, just a giant map of hundreds of home studios, yards, lofts, galleries, fabrication shops, outdoor murals, and live events that can be visited free of charge over the course of three weekends through November 20. It’s best to be open to surprise detours and kismet while exploring AST, but it’s also easy to get lost in the hit-or-miss amateurism of this open-source event. For those who like to plan ahead, below are some pro tips.
You’ll find plenty of youthful energy at this street-art makeover of a cinder-block residential duplex slated for demolition. Local community development nonprofit Blackland CDC invited a loose collective of 25-plus artists to take over the decrepit building and transform it with spray paint and other ad hoc materials. The artists divvied up the space and went to work: A kitchen became an enchanted DJ station covered with giant worms and flora made of foam board. A bathroom became a “color cleansing room.” And what are those black-lit skulls in the master bedroom? Part Meow Wolf, part neighborhood mural memorializing change, this project approaches the theme of gentrification and urban transformation with a tagger’s bold sense of style. (Stop 489, 2107 Alamo)
The most austerely cerebral and physically impressive work on display at AST might be the Permian Recordings, a sound installation in an eerie, rumbling, custom-built, forty-foot-long subwoofer in a postindustrial lot off Airport Boulevard. Peters spent time in the oil and gas fields around Midland and Odessa collecting subterranean recordings of reverberations caused by fracking-related machinery. Much of the sound he captured is pitched too low for human hearing, so he built this massive speaker to translate it into something our bodies can hear—and feel. Spending time inside these massive, dark vibrations feels both disturbing and religious. “How does one conceptualize a system so large in scope and consequence that it has passed over into the geologic?” asks Co-Lab, the installation’s host, in the exhibition text. We can start by surrendering to it bodily, with awe and trepidation. (Stop 322, 5419 Glissman Road)
“Okay,” you may be thinking, “all this immersive installation stuff is well and good, but how about some art I can put on my wall?” AST operates not just as an interactive, citywide art party, but also as an open market where local artists sell their wares directly to the public. A good place to start for anyone on the hunt for a new addition to their collection is Bolm Studios, a venerable tangle of creative spaces that has been central to AST from its beginnings. Davis, a longtime tenant of Bolm and a fixture of the East Side scene, is a must-visit. He works in bold hues and shapes that are abstract but fit together—or don’t—with a jaunty, musical sense of composition, filling the room with life and color. (Stop 326, 5305 Bolm Road, Bay 9)
Armstrong, an Omaha native now based in Austin, is perhaps the most visible artist at AST 2022, with one exhibition of his work, titled “There Are Black People in Nebraska?!,” at Big Medium in the Canopy complex, and another, “Black Owned,” at the Flatbed Center, down south. It’s impressive, though not surprising, that both of these key Austin art institutions chose to hang his work. Armstrong composes his portraits as collages, with clothing and other elements of style always on a separate plane from skin and faces. His theme is Black identity and its perception in white-dominated American spaces—a subject ripe for pondering throughout AST, an event with its roots in the gentrification of Austin’s East Side. (Stop 372, 916 Springdale Road, B2 101 | Stop 232, 3701 Drossett Drive, Suite 190)
It’s impossible not to recommend a lengthy visit to the Canopy complex. (Yes, it is the busiest and most obvious stop of AST. No, you shouldn’t consider yourself to have experienced the tour just because you stopped by Canopy to see and be seen. But don’t skip it either!) The galleries, vendors, and arts nonprofits on site have a plethora of worthy offerings, and a few of the studio-building tenants are top-notch. Navarro is one of these. She says she composes her fanciful, circuitous abstract paintings like a child playing make-believe with toys, improvising toward stories hinted at in titles like Map With Hills the Day Everyone Wears Pink and That Game of Parcheesi . . . or Was It the Game of Life? (Stop 368, 916 Springdale Road, Building 1, Suite 226)
Walking through Almuelle’s solo show at Prizer Arts & Letters, one is enchanted and surprised that she is not more widely talked about as one of the most accomplished artists in Austin. She’s both masterful in craft—mostly clay sculpture—and original in vision. Here, she has filled the Prizer bungalow with odd, vaguely creepy doll- or iconlike figures, often human heads on bodies featuring out-of-place but natural materials like fiber rope, shells, and driftwood. They recall mythological metamorphoses, inner transformations from love or suffering made physical. A favorite section is the room of batánes, large pre-Hispanic tools used in Almuelle’s native Peru for grinding corn into meal. Each batán bears a childlike head, and there’s a note of lament in how the artist portrays them as innocent souls become tools for an existence of endless grind. (Stop 254, 2023 E. Cesar Chavez)
Just a few blocks from Prizer, another must-see gallery show, Rubin’s “Faithful,” opened in the midst of AST but for some reason is not listed as part of the tour. Rubin is a well-known local artist and professor of ceramics and sculpture at St. Edward’s University. Her work is at turns nostalgic and ominous, and it calls out to be included in any AST write-up. The most intriguing and mysterious works in the show are the large conical sculptures in the back room, recalling hooded face coverings and adorned with trinkets—offerings? talismans?—that complicate any easy sense of meaning rooted in American racial history. (Not on the AST map, 2213 E. Cesar Chavez)
Mai Gutierrez (and Friends)
One of the beautiful things about AST is how it takes you away from your well-traveled paths through the city and into unfamiliar neighborhoods and sites of artistic creation. A good pick for a far-out tour stop is Gutierrez’s Studio Sin Fin in the MLK-183 area, a large, multidisciplinary fabrication space where she crafts, among other things, elegant stone sculptures. Four of her friends are also showing work at the lively site, including Erin Cunningham, Andrea de Leon, and Deanna Pastel, a trio of skilled metalsmiths/jewelry-makers who also make evocative sculptures. (Stop 500, 4909 Hilldale Drive)
If you still have space left in your weekend, here are a few more stops worth visiting.
Rolling Ryot: The highlight of Saturday night on November 19 may be Rolling Ryot’s outdoor sound installation in Rosewood Park, in which six sound artists come together to make use of an array of extremely large speakers that resembles a freight train.
Sarah Navarrete: Navarrete is fast becoming the go-to photographer of the Austin dance community, and her home studio features an interactive pyrotechnic installation out back.
Steve Parker: Perhaps Austin’s most iconic artist of the moment, Parker has installed one of his fanciful sculptures made primarily from brass musical instruments at the center of AST’s big show of five-hundred-plus contributor works at the Mexican American Cultural Center. Whether you go there to see his commissioned work or to find a new favorite artist you’ve never heard of, it’s well worth a visit, and it’s a good place either to begin your AST experience or cap it off.