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City Art Supply tries to make it through tough times

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 27, 2009 - Late on a Saturday afternoon, City Art Supply is a study in concentrated artistic efforts, if not a place of buzzing commerce. Shop owner Dana Smith leans over a table in the front window, meticulously adding details to a painting that will eventually become an album cover for the local band Dirty 30s. Meanwhile, shop associate Jeremy Rabus occasionally pops out from behind a pair of sliding walls, sipping at a succession of Cokes as he works in his studio, housed inside this quaint art shop.

Outside, kids -- more than anyone -- walk by and Cherokee Street is mostly quiet. The inside of the store is peaceful, too, with the Kinks playing on a small sound system, the music competing with blast of cool air from the exposed air conditioning vents. Over a couple of hours, it's just Smith and Rabus in the shop, each painter working at his craft. Like planets orbiting one another, they seldom actually speak, making only the barest acknowledgements of one another as they work.

If Smith had his way, of course, each would be busier while the shop clock ticks; ideally, the place wouldn't be quite so peaceful. After all, in addition to being a studio for each, the store's gotta sell paints, canvases, markers and brushes to make the rent. And Smith can only speak with a certain dark humor when he confesses that his timing for opening the shop may have been suspect.

"We opened in October," Smith says, dabbing at white paint. "The same week the economy officially collapsed."

The arrival of City Art Supply, though, was met with a ringing buzz in certain circles; local blogs and print publications were excited to hear of this opening, welcoming the only art shop in the city limits, one owned and operated by an artist with a strong reputation. This quick burst of activity, along with word of mouth brought the first patrons, many of them now regulars.

"I'm actually surprised that a lot of people I ask, don't live in the city," Smith says, analyzing his clientele. "It's pretty even ... . When people come from the west, they've compared prices and realize we're cheaper and they don't mind driving. We probably sell more acrylic paint than oils. We sell a lot of brushes. Recently, it's been a lot of ink for printmaking and T-shirt silkscreens. That's thanks to All Along Press down the block."

The mutual support is an example of the much-discussed rise in artistic businesses along Cherokee Street, which is still gaining a reputation for arts-friendly locales, a couple of years after the influx began. Smith says that the synergy between arts efforts is there and is progressing "slowly, yes. It gets better. Each month gets better, as far as that goes. This is something that starts out really small and takes time to build. Once it gets in sync, it seems to work very well."

Smith, whose own work has shown at several locations around town, has a base of steady clients, who rave about his shop, from the music acts he occasionally hosts, to the artist-friendly service. It is a small shop, though, and Smith admits that he has to special-order a fair bit of product. But he suggests that his regulars are willing to wait a day, or two, to shop at a place with local and independent roots.

Dana Smith's artwork can be seen at  www.asbestossister.com.

"It is obvious that Dana and everyone at City Art Supply care about what they are doing, from the attention customers are given to the opportunity that is open for people to be a part of the store," says artist and customer Dottie Georges. "There is a sense of community in the art always on display by various local artists in addition to the monthly exhibits hosted by the store. Even if I do not necessarily need anything at the time, I know I can stop by and check out what is new: items for sale, art on display, or maybe even sneak a peek at what painting Dana is working on."

Artist and art teacher Sarah Paulsen says, "True, they don't always have the supplies I am looking for. I'd say I'm a seasoned art supply buyer as a teacher, but whenever possible I shop at their store first. I plan this next semester to set up supply lists at their store for my future community college students. Many of my students come from the South Side and I'm excited for them to discover this store if they have not yet.

"I also really appreciate that they have tried to bring in items that I can't find elsewhere," she adds. "For instance, I make these handmade stop motion animations and I wanted to try a different type of paint on my cell. I had read about flasche paint online but felt uncertain about purchasing this paint. Dana ordered them for the store after a conversation we'd had; being able to see them first hand was all I needed. I now regularly stock up at their store. Dana has also ordered specific inks for Cameron Fuller, my partner, as well."

Artist Rebecca Bodicky, who lives close to the South Side store, adds that Smith's personality comes across, saying "From what I can tell of Dana, he is a real go-getter and, yes, his spirit has infected the shop."

While he'd probably not define himself as such, Smith may just be an official go-getter. A father of two and full-time manager of a ticketing call center, Smith still manages to paint daily, while keeping tabs on the shop. Of late, that's been tough, with the nation's economic woes coupled with a violent break-in at the shop causing him to question whether the effort would be ultimately successfully. 

In tandem with his wife, Angel, a third-year law student, he's decided to keep going, at least through December. He's putting no small amount of faith in the local arts community, as well as a good chunk of his own credit history.

Judging by the amount of flyers and small adverts placed on a table near the front door, local artists and gallery owners know where to drop their promotional items. Smith's banking on the idea that more of them will find his shop and make it their first stop for art supplies.

"Still, on a daily basis, new people are coming in," says Smith, steadily working that album cover.

Musing on what would make the store's best-case-scenario list, Smith doesn't hesitate. He's already seen what works at the space, on a night when he's hosting an event and people are digging what he's created just off the intersection of Cherokee and Compton.

"I remember one really great time, when Dottie had a show," he says. "She had artwork up and played music. A friend of hers had made food. The weather was perfect. People were able to watch from inside, or outside, the shop. And I remember thinking 'this is how I want everything to be here, every show.' When something like that happens, it makes it all worth it. You might be tired from work, you might not have sold anything that day ... but it makes it totally worth it. Yeah."

Thomas Crone is a St. Louis freelance writer.