I found out about Artomatic on the very last day of the very first one, back in 1999. It was one of those sunny, dusty, urban spring afternoons, and a friend and I trekked to the 1300 block of Florida Avenue NW, to what used to be the Manhattan Laundry. She’d heard about this exhibit, but wasn’t really sure who was putting it on, and as we wandered the halls of the defunct laundry facility, surrounded by vivid paintings and gigantic metal sculptures and wild photographs, I knew I needed to find out what this thing was all about.
I went to the website and from that moment, spent the rest of the year waiting for the next one. This was a completely DIY venture: an unjuried, volunteer-run, multidisciplinary, all-out art fest. A “happening,” sans irony, but with all the hip. And I was a painter then. I’d given up on the easel and drilled a couple of screws into one wall of my studio apartment, hanging my canvases on them to paint large, colorful acrylic abstracts. I wanted to show some of the paintings stacking up in my tiny space, and with zero selection process, Artomatic was the answer!
As soon as the newsletter came out announcing the 2000 show, I signed up, paid my participation fee, and, because I’m dumb, volunteered for the publicity committee. The committee consisted of me and the publicity chair, and we were supposed to coordinate with the development group that had agreed to legally represent our crew of artist-volunteers. The first meeting between our committee and the director of the development group was like the bird of unchecked fantasy slamming into the window of budgetary reality. Tensions flared, someone stormed out, someone stayed behind, awkwardly clearing her throat. What is art without drama?
That year’s show took over the former Hechinger’s department store in Tenleytown, hosting over 400 visual artists, bands, dance performances, and a black box theater that helped the then-year-old Rorschach Theatre establish itself. Each artist volunteered on-site for three shifts, and I lobbied for bartending duty every time. In subsequent years they banned drinking while on duty. I maintain to this day, this had nothing to do with me. We made connections and asked each other how to actually pronounce Hechinger’s. This was also the year that someone’s fragile, meticulously displayed glass dishes got knocked off their shelves by a drunk person on opening night. This was the year we learned that on-site bars and glass art on shelves don’t mix.
Another lesson: Artomatic has a way of sucking you in. I wound up being head of the publicity committee for the following Artomatic in 2002, which took place in the former EPA building, which we weren’t supposed to call the EPA building while we were in it. With zero experience and one year of history, I was in charge of writing press releases, contacting the media, giving interviews, placing ads, and doing anything else that would help get the word out. Fortunately, my downstairs neighbor was a graphic designer and was also showing at Artomatic, so the two of us spent many a bleary-eyed midnight putting the final touches on ads for the City Paper.
Artists were instructed not to touch the asbestos-laden ceiling tiles while installing their art. The building was going to be demolished, so we were allowed to paint the carpet. Then we weren’t. We weren’t allowed to paint the windows, but someone did. This was also the year of the Secret Room. This was an unassigned room where people gradually started to paint art on the walls. Then someone brought in a couch. And black lights, I think. “Have you seen the Secret Room?” became an Artomatic mating call.
I was out of the country for the next Artomatic in 2004, but I kept up with it from across the Atlantic. It was in the former Capital Children’s Museum, which we were not allowed to call the Children’s Museum while we were in it. I was able to ship some work back over and be part of the show, even though I wasn’t there. This is where the phrase, “Jim hung Tara’s vaginas at Artomatic” came from.*
In 2007, when Artomatic was in the works once again, I was back in the country but my paintings weren’t. Still, I signed up and hoped for the best. It was the first time an Artomatic had been held outside of DC, and as we entered the Crystal City office building, through pristine hallways and marble-floored lobby, we wondered if they were aware who they had let into their building. I think some artists’ skin peeled due to corporate contact. But we transformed the staid office building into the usual vibrant, riotous mess, with food trucks and firedancers in the courtyard, bands on stage, and all kinds of art—except mine. By opening night my things still hadn’t arrived. I painted crime-scene dotted lines on the wall where my paintings were supposed to be. My space became a tracking center, with a crude map showing the origin and destination of my work, and every few days I would extend the dotted line to show how much closer it was. I was finally able to complete the puzzle and hang the actual work about a week before the show ended. But it was worth it.
By 2008, we’d grown to 1,500 local artists taking up 10 floors of an office building going up in NoMa, and had a record-breaking attendance of 52,000 visitors. While we were bummed that the building wasn’t going down, and thus we had to be more careful, the open, cavernous space was an inspiring alternative to run-down warrens of offices. We waited for news of the Victorian-era pop-up tattoo parlor on the top floor burning down due to the candles and draperies, but fortunately that never happened. Despite the immensity of the show, it was far from impersonal. No matter when I went, I could count on hugs and smiles from friends and fellow artists.
For Artomatic 2009 in Southeast, near the stadium, I planned an exhibit called, “So, You Just Don’t Want to Get Married?” This was a participatory exhibit based on personal experience, in which I addressed our society’s inability to comprehend the existence of a woman in her 30’s who had never been married. Divorce people got, but never having been married baffled folks. I left a notebook at the site and asked people to respond with their own comments about why they’d gotten married, or had never been married, or whatever their situation was. I was surprised and touched by the variety and complete honesty of the responses I received:
Because I can’t. (gay marriage ban)
I thought I would get laid every night. Now my single friends have more sex than I do.
Because he died.
Ironically, while I was planning this exhibit, I met the man I would later marry. In fact, he helped me hang the show. I always thought that if I ever got married, I would do it at Artomatic. I didn’t, but rumor has it someone is getting hitched there this April.
I could go on about other Artomatics: 2012 back in Crystal City, 2015 in Hyattsville, 2016 in Potomac, and now 2017 in Crystal City once again. Connections have been made, artists like Tim Tate, Dana Ellyn, Matt Sesow and Michael Enn Sirvet have emerged. And Brash, the muse of Artomatic, has made her rounds, writing a poem for every artist in the show.
Ever mutable, Artomatic has moved and changed—as have I. I don’t paint anymore, but I’m still connected to Artomatic through another art form: literature. And you can get connected too, through our Open Mic series and many other literary events taking place. So come and read, or listen, or just wander around and feast your eyes on the amazing talent that Artomatic has to offer. You just might feel that pull bringing you back year after year, too.
* For a visual, view an encore presentation in spaces 5210-11 of this year’s exhibit.
Tara Campbell is a contributing writer at Café Américain and a first-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program. Her first novel, Treevolution, was published late last year by Lillicat.