Feat of Clay gallery is a 23-year fixture in the Aztec community, with much of that time spent at the same downtown Aztec location, but a change in building ownership paired with tripling rent necessitated a move.
The gallery has been at 107 S. Main Ave. for about 15 years. It is a historic building that lends itself to displaying artwork. It was built in 1903 as a meeting place for the Odd Fellow fraternity, which occupied the second floor for most of the building’s existence. The first floor has hosted a variety of retail shops over the past century. The building is now on the National and State Historic Register.
After the building changed ownership in 2021, work began to upgrade it. The upper floor was renovated first, and the gallery’s co-op members were told that renovation of the first floor would take about three months, during which time they would have to clear out the space and either close or move to a temporary location.
Either option going to be a major challenge for the co-op. After learning that their $400 per month rent would triple after the renovations were completed, they were pushed to consider their options.
Bonnie Adams, one of the founding members of the co-op, said she understood the need for the rent increase after putting in so much time and money for renovations, but it was simply more than the group could afford to pay, and they could not afford to close for three months, either.
The co-op operates by having each member artist pay monthly dues to maintain space in the gallery. The co-op also collects a 15% commission on works sold in the gallery, and a 25% commission on books sold.
Adams said the gallery is not a big moneymaker. One of the main purposes of the co-op was to make art more accessible and affordable to the community, which helps the community support artists.
With those longtime goals in mind, members began seeking alternatives. They knew they wanted to stay in downtown Aztec, if possible, and they needed a monthly rental price that was affordable. Options were limited, but they were able to secure a spot at 222 N. Main Ave.
Adams said the new location “doesn’t have the same artistic feel, but we’ll make it cool and artistic. That’s what we do, after all.”
Making the new location more artsy started with some cleanup. The floors needed substantial work. S&G Custom Painting was hired to remove the old flooring and restore the original surface. The work ate into the co-op’s budget, costing $2,500. A GoFundMe campaign was launched to help pay for moving and renovation costs at the new location and has raised about half of the needed money so far.
Aside from financial donations, community support has come from other residents and business owners. Randy Hodge of Rubia’s restaurant has offered to provide help and a truck to move larger equipment to the new location. Co-op members, family and friends have also pitched in with cleanup at the old and new locations, packing and moving artwork and equipment.
Adams said she has embraced the Asian philosophy of challenge always being paired with opportunity when it comes to the move. Finding a new location, making repairs and the logistics of moving has been a challenge for the co-op. The opportunities presented by the transition are also many, Adams said.
The new location is bigger and has amenities that will allow for expansion.
Co-op member Amanda Lee Harig said she will miss the old building’s high ceilings and stamped tin ceiling tiles, but reliable water and modern electrical fixtures will be a nice change.
Harig is spearheading one of the proposed additions at the new location – coffee service. The idea of a coffee shop would start small, she said, with an old-fashioned coffee pot and coffee offered on a donation basis. It could grow from there, with better equipment and volunteer staff members, she said.
The gallery has offered complimentary beer and wine when holding special events, but having coffee available all day is something Harig believes will help to provide a comfortable gathering space. Coffee donations would go back into the gallery, Harig said, making visitors part of the co-op’s success.
Other plans for the new space include an artisan space for crafters and authors, Adams said, and a space for offering classes on various art and writing topics.
Co-op members consider the space more of a fine arts center than a gallery. Opening space for artisans to work and display their art and offering art instruction to community members will help make the gallery into a true arts center, Adams said. Classes allow for the community to participate in different styles of art, which can increase appreciation for art and instill a sense that it is an important part of community.
Even though this move came at the co-op quickly, growth and change has been something of a theme throughout the group’s history.
The name “Feat of Clay” initially was chosen because the gallery only hosted clay artwork. It has grown to include a variety of painting and drawing styles and mediums, jewelry of all types, photography, metal art, fiber art and books.
Artist co-ops are growing in popularity but, even among cooperatives, Feat of Clay is unique in the way it operates. Rather than individual pieces of artwork being juried in, the artist is juried into the group. Once accepted as a member, artists may select which pieces to display and can introduce new art interests. Adams said it has been fascinating to watch artists expand and change over time.
Each member also is a member of the co-op’s board, and all members have equal weight in the decision-making process. If more than half of the members agree to an initiative, the group will move forward with the idea. The model is meant to create a sense of ownership.
“When artists realize it is ‘their’ gallery, there is a change in how they participate. They become more involved and active and invested in the gallery’s success,” Adams said. Working that closely on a common goal brings the members together as well.
Harig said that the co-op kept her in the area after her mother, who she had been caring for, passed away. Lacking other connections to the area, she had contemplated trying somewhere new, but she said the fellowship and support of the co-op mean to much to her to leave.
The current group of members is a mixture of experience and developing artists. They are looking for a few new artists to join the co-op when the move is complete. Adams said the members as a whole enjoy encouraging new artists and new art forms. Digital art is of interest to the group as well. Adams said they’re still working on how to display digital art, but it is on their radar.
“If we really are, and we are, a gallery for the community, then we need to keep moving forward with new art,” Adams said.
Feat of Clay hopes to start moving into the new location the first week of March and be fully installed before the “Poetry &” event on March 28. The gallery is also preparing for the April show, “Earth, Air, Recycle.”
Adams hoped the gallery will be largely set up in the new location well before the planned events, but she said the group prides itself on being flexible.
“We chose the name Feat of Clay because we started with clay art, but really Feet of Clay is almost more appropriate now because we’ve grown and moved forward from that initial concept so much,” she said.