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Big Car finds a Service Center

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Among the many helping to build the Big Car Service Center (left to right): Brent Lehker, Kevin McKelvey, Shauta Marsh, Jim Walker and Tom Streit. - PHOTO BY MARK LEE.
  • Photo by Mark Lee.
  • Among the many helping to build the Big Car Service Center (left to right): Brent Lehker, Kevin McKelvey, Shauta Marsh, Jim Walker and Tom Streit.

If you drive west on 38th St. and turn right on Lafayette Rd., the first thing you're likely to see is Don's Guns, our city's hellzapoppin' shrine to the Second Amendment.

Next door to Don's is a city landmark of a different sort: the work-in-progress known as the Service Center for Contemporary Culture and Community, a former Firestone tire dealership and the latest project by local avant-garde arts collective Big Car.

The site-specific juxtapositions are enough to make even the most pomo of post-modern heads spin. The Service Center sits like an island in an asphalt sea, surrounded by the Lafayette Square Mall and a virtual archipelago of fast food joints, ethnic eateries, nail parlors and the occasional gentleman's club. Cars and trucks barrel by; pedestrians take their chances.

But this turns out to be a promising environment to test the Service Center's premise that social practice art - an approach aiming to turn otherwise overlooked neighborhoods into beachheads for creative opportunity - can reenergize not just those neighborhoods but the city as a whole. Funders, from Pepsi to the Allen Whitehill Clowes Charitable Foundation, have climbed aboard. Even Mayor Greg Ballard has turned up to lend a hand shoveling mulch in the Service Center's community garden.

The Service Center's community garden. - PHOTO BY MARK LEE.

The leap into social practice art represents the latest stage in the evolution of what began in 2005 as the Big Car Gallery in Fountain Square. An artists' collective including, among others, John Clark, Kipp Normand, Tim Burris and Anne Laker, a large share of Big Car's ability to thrive can be attributed to the indefatigable energies of Shauta Marsh and Jim Walker, a couple who are creative partners and life partners, as well.

"What we figured out when we started working with Big Car was that visual art and performance and music weren't connecting," says Walker, sitting in the Service Center's glass-walled workshop space. A large room that once showcased tires can now accommodate classes, poetry readings and gallery exhibitions. The space provides a lending library with materials on the arts, cooking and gardening, plus a do-it-yourself publishing operation. There's also a screening room, which currently has a series of videos featuring mini documentaries about several of the ethnic restaurants in the neighborhood. Still to come: a large-scale performance space where the garage portion of the center used to be.

In Big Car's formative days, Walker and Marsh saw a lack of connection between the arts and potential audiences. They were troubled by the extent to which the arts they loved had become creatures of the academy - colleges and universities.

"It's almost a class division," says Marsh, "a gap between fine art and people."

"We started Big Car because we loved it," Marsh continues. "We made no money, in fact we lost our personal money - everybody did. But everybody chipped in. When you're excited about something, you do a good job with it and people notice."

"We liked things that were experimental and different, that we weren't seeing around here," says Walker. "We wanted stuff that wasn't here. We wanted to make it happen."

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