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Artists' colony blossoms in Hannibal

St. Louis Beacon archive 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: It takes some imagination to see a terraced garden in an empty side lot where all that's left is a stone foundation. Or a historic museum and gallery space in a dilapidated jail. Or a spacious, comfortable home and studios in a battered old house in a rundown neighborhood that has seen sunnier days.

But if there's one thing that Joachim Knill and Janice Ho have in abundance, it's imagination. That -- and the practical skills to turn that vision into reality.

Knill, 44, and Ho, 33, are artists. He paints, photographs, sculpts, constructs installations. Essentially, he says, he has an idea and then figures out how to express it best. Ho makes metal jewelry, mostly silver -- "miniature worlds," she calls them.

The two are the nucleus of a small group of artists who have settled in Hannibal, Mo., and who make their living as full-time artists. Besides Knill and Ho are photographer Micheal Cole and his wife Melissa Dominiak, a painter; metal jewelry-maker and sculptor Matthew Naftzger and his girlfriend Maura Curry, a painter; and jewelry maker Olive Kraus.

Credit St. Louis Beacon archive 2013

Hannibal may not be the first place that anyone thinks of as a potential arts colony. But the small town on the Mississippi has several advantages, the artists agree. For starters is its central location -- a blessing for those making the art fair circuit, to places like St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City and Denver, each year. For another is the cheap cost of living. Knill, for example, bought his house for $2,000; the neighboring lot cost $50.

"Living here frees us up," says Knill. "If I lived in a city, I would have to worry more about (creating) sellable art."

"Before I lived here, I was working 80 hours a week," says Ho. "Now I've cut back. I can afford to be more selective.

"Being here allows me to make riskier work. I'm very excited to get into more complicated work," adds Naftzger. " It wouldn't have happened without being here."

The Social Network

Knill has lived in Hannibal for eight years, Ho for three. They met at an art fair in Kansas City where they had booths next to each other.

Credit Beacon archives | 2013

About five years ago, Cole, 51, was traveling through Hannibal with his wife. (They met while doing an art fair in Chicago.) Cole and Dominiak stopped to visit Knill, who wasn't there at the time, but they wound up buying an old church, which had been turned into the Douglas community center.

Naftzger, 38, says he first starting looking at Hannibal in the late '90s, partly because of Knill. He had also shared studio space with Ho in Philadelphia. Eventually Naftzger moved to Hannibal in July 2008 and bought "Mally tenement," a distressed blue-brick fourplex. (He met girlfriend Curry at an art fair in Texas.)

Kraus, 42, is the newcomer, having lived in Hannibal only since May. "I knew Janice from an art show," she said. Kraus bought a foreclosed house for $2,000 down and $266 a month.

The support they offer each other comes in all forms. Ho and Naftzger will occasionally share tools. "Or if Janice needs a little gold, she'll call me," says Naftzger. Kraus jokes that she now has a built-in cat-sitting service when she's off to a show since everyone is a cat lover. Ho loves the way they'll get together for dinners and to socialize. "It's such a social scene," chimes in Knill.

Credit Beacon archives | 2013

For several months of the year, though, the artists are on the road, showing their work at art fairs -- a primary source of revenue. Knill does about 16 fairs a year. Naftzger does between 12 and 14, including a three-month long fair in Scottsdale, Az. Cole, who does anywhere from 14 to 17 fairs a year, observes that the Hannibal artists are "overrepresented in the higher-quality shows" and have won a "pretty amazing" number of awards. Dominiak does nine to 10. (Knill, Cole and Dominiak were all in the St. Louis Art Fair in Clayton this past September.)

Ho does fewer art fairs, between eight and 12 a year; Kraus also does fewer fairs but was extremely pleased to get into the Smithsonian Craft Show in April, which she sees as the gold standard.

For some of the artists, the shows, while important, are a bridge to other sources of revenue. Jewelry makers like Ho and Kraus also show their work in smaller galleries or museum shops. (Ho's work will be available at Craft Alliance in University City starting in January.)

Naftzger says that people may discover him at art fairs but then follow him to his website, Works of Man.  "I wouldn't do the same amount of business without the website," he says, recalling the story of a onetime customer who tracked Naftzger down eight years after the man had bought a ring for his wife and she'd lost it. He wanted Naftzger to make another just like it, which he did.

Cole, too, says, "It used to be just shows, but now I get people coming to me."

Building A Community

The outside may look, shall we say rustic, but inside, Knill's and Ho's house is clearly transforming into a home. The first floor living space has been opened up vertically; looking up to the second floor, Knill's metal railing abstractly evokes a sunrise over the countryside. It's a place where art and life come together.

Parts of Knill's latest project -- cast-iron pod-like sculptures -- line a window sill. The last of the garden's heirloom tomatoes and a box overflowing with butternut squash are tucked into various corners. Friends' artwork is prominently displayed on the walls.

Credit Beacon archives | 2013

Off the living area are the workrooms: One holds what he calls the world's largest portable instant film camera; another, his "natural history museum," has storage cabinets filled with items like seeds, lichens, bones, wood and mosses that Knill uses in the installations he creates and photographs.

Upstairs is Ho's studio, a smallish but well-organized room where she crafts her jewelry. She appreciates the time she can take to make each piece just right. "The ring I've been working on now I've been working on for a month, designing it and deciding how to fabricate it," she said.

Outside a terraced garden is most definitely a work in progress.

The work that Knill and Ho are doing is part of the other artists' lives. "We're all about building something," Naftzger says.

For these artists, building community is something that's not just meant figuratively or symbolically. They also mean it quite literally. At times, they seem to take as much pride in rehabbing down-at-their-luck buildings. (Maybe not surprisingly, most have engineering in their backgrounds.)

Renovation also has become a way to reach out to the broader community and establish a more visible presence in Hannibal.

For now, Naftzger and his girlfriend live, just a little crammed, in one of the top apartments of his fourplex. The first floor below them has been gutted, and he's looking forward to its more open space. Eventually, Naftzger envisions turning the other half into a studio and showroom where people can come in and visit. Right now, he says, it doesn't make economic sense to open a shop. But a showroom, where people could come by and see him and his work, would serve a similar purpose.

Knill has bought Hannibal's old jail. He hopes to keep the jail cells but fix space where he can show his works -- as well as an apartment for an artist in residence. "We're going to have the random roadside attraction," laughs Ho.

Cole and Dominiak have done extensive work turning a forlorn community center back into the church it once was, but for studios and display space. The front part of the church has been painstakingly restored; Cole's photographs and Dominiak's paintings are propped up against a wall. The back half is still pretty much of a warren of small rooms and low ceilings.

It is a huge -- and ongoing -- project. And that doesn't include the house where they live.

Cole also recently bought a house in foreclosure, just down the street from Knill and Ho. He's hoping to sell it to an artist looking for cheap space and a sense of community.

Susan Hegger comes to St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon as the politics and issues editor, a position she has held at the Beacon since it started in 2008.