Friday, October 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Old School: Life Imitates Art In This

Flourishing shrubs obscure the words "Cedar Park Elementary School," and the "A" in Cedar has dipped and listed to 45 degrees. That's the first clue this cream-colored, Lake City neighborhood building has evolved into a different life.

Now an enclave of artists, artisans and entrepreneurs called Artwood Studios, it is distinguished not only for being an odd place for people to work, live and occasionally raise kids but also for its longevity. This was a school for 21 years. It's been home to artists the past 23.

Anne Paisley and her husband, Alan, moved in two decades ago when the halls were kept dark, the heat was kept low and the residents were told to stay lower. Eventually, Paisley took over the lease, worked with the Seattle School District, pulled the building's identity out of the closet and gave it yet another life.

She hasn't gotten around to changing the name on the building, though. "There have been discussions about rearranging those letters, doing something artistic with them, but we can't seem to part with the original," she says, pulling open the heavy metal doors and ushering me inside.

We've barely gone a few steps, just passing the old principal's office where a couple of folk musicians live, when three dogs come clip-clopping down the oatmeal-gray linoleum of the dim, locker-lined hallway. As they sniff me out, Paisley says, "Hey, hey, it's Rocket and Sam . . . and Mike."

Four dogs, a couple of cats and 12 people, including an 8-year-old, are living here, she says. The numbers and profile change from time to time. Several more artists keep day studios. Two sculptors share the auditorium. A landscape painter who has sold to Bill Gates spreads out in parts of what used to be the lunchroom and custodian's area. The old gym is a low-cost health club, and the kitchen that used to dish up macaroni and cheese now tests for a natural frozen-food health product.

The residents live in classrooms, but the Paisleys have taken over the comparatively palatial 1,800 square feet of the old library. The School District, which still owns the place, allows only nine of the rooms to be used as homes. Seven other rooms are work studios. Residents share the former girls' lavatory, which now features showers and a tub, the laundry room and storage space in the boys' bathroom and other nooks.

Main Street is the 50-yard hallway, the only real hall the building has. All the residential rooms line it, and at the midpoint are the community mailbox and announcement board, the closest things to a hub. Above the mailbox, next to an American flag, rests a framed black-and-white photograph of a well-groomed man and the words, "Art Wood, Our Founder, 1933." Nobody is sure who he really is, but the Art Wood name stuck for him and the place.

Running in the hallway is allowed. Over the years, kids have learned to ride bikes and skateboards up and down it. But there are rules. And monthly meetings and community votes. A fit-in attitude is required. Residents vet potential new tenants to decide whether they fit the spirit of the place. One person was recently evicted for subletting his space as storage. Topping the agenda of one summer meeting was, "Compost: The New Age nirvana or the rat motel? You decide."

Artists are famous for finding gritty, urban alternative crannies where they can work and live, but this one seems suburban, sitting as it does in the middle of a single-family neighborhood just off the Lake City Way strip. It is a long way from Pioneer Square lofts, Belltown nooks or even SoDo warehouse-chic. And it's different in ways beyond the gray metal lockers and 2-foot-high drinking fountains. Perhaps it is Paisley's attention to promoting democracy, but there is an unmistakable rhythm to the place.

We've made it halfway down the hall, near the "Free Table" where things are left and acquired, when a woman wearing a bathrobe and slippers, her hair wet and slicked back, shuffles from the old lavatory to her room, which once belonged to third-graders.

MARK ROBERTS and Andrea Cooper live at the very south end of the hall, in the old administration office. In fact, they got married and had their reception at Artwood.

Their dining room and kitchen are where secretaries used to sit behind the check-in counter and make coffee. The couple's living room, furnished almost completely from stuff left on and around the Free Table, is where kids and parents used to walk in and wait. They sleep in the principal's office.

Inhabiting the area where adults roamed has perks. Their sink (all the living spaces have sinks and counters) is adult height. They also have ownership of a historical curiosity: a monstrous intercom system, complete with replacement parts in a box that required only a 4-cent stamp. Out their front door and across a short jog in the hallway await semi-private lavatories with skinny doors marked boys and girls. Their only immediate neighbor is a one-man piano-lessons business.

Five years ago, Roberts came to Seattle to visit a fiddle player who was living at Artwood. He took the shuttle from the airport, armed with nothing but the address. After a moment of confusion, then hesitation, upon his arrival, he quickly warmed to the idea of living in a school.

Their room is the only inhabited place with its original layout intact, but the couple installed a large swinging window and stepladder that allows them quick access to the lawn that runs the length of the building. This escape hatch comes in handy because while everyone is taught to respect a closed door, the hallway is chat-central.

"A spinning vortex of distraction," is how Roberts puts it. "If I'm running late, I'll slip out this end and walk around the outside of the building."

Marc Bohne, an established landscape painter, works just down the hall, in sprawling space. He responded 10 years ago to an ad from three elderly women seeking someone to share their space in the old school. Through a series of room changes, his carpentry skills and the freedom to renovate, he has wound up with 1,600 square feet.

He has rooms for digital processing, painting and packing, as well as a couch for kicking back and viewing the work on his easel. Once in a while, he'll do portraits, but only if someone strikes him as particularly arresting. One of those portraits is of a gauntly handsome young man who used to live in the cramped former nurse's office, now a photographer's darkroom. The man came from a well-to-do family, but lived a minimalist lifestyle and moved on to a monastery.

"Art is the character of this place," Bohne says. "But there are exceptions, and it's really a community — which can be hard to find." Artwood is not a cooperative and certainly not a commune. It's different than an apartment building, too. It's more co-housing.

Some who used to live there now just maintain work spaces. While the hallway is spruced up by splashes of paint, collages, knickknacks and artwork of former residents, the place has a mature feel. Artists here tend to be established enough that they can work outside the usual art hotspots where networks build and thrive.

THE SCHOOL DISTRICT originally set up portable classrooms in 1956 on four acres in the northeast corner of Lake City Way. Three years later it opened the modest, modular and low-slung building that sits here today. Less than 250 students moved in to attend kindergarten through sixth grade. The enrollment peaked during the 1968-69 school year at 437 but shrunk to half that in the late '70s. The school was closed in 1981.

So what to do with the empty building? Rather than razing it, the district convened an advisory committee, which approved 27 potential uses. Among the acceptable uses were artist studios along with enough housing "as required to protect and manage the building."

A painter acted promptly, acquiring a lease from the district. He named it "Cedar Park Arts Center" and soon filled the spaces. But the definition of how many people could live there in order to "protect and manage" the building proved murky, and some began living there on the sly.

Some residents grumbled that the leaseholder was stingy with the heat and didn't keep the place clean enough. Yet no one rocked the boat too hard, knowing this was a temporary thing. They called it "The School" because the ambience had changed little from what it was. In 1991, the city's Department of Construction and Land Use cited the building for having unauthorized dwellings.

Paisley led a petition campaign to get neighbors' support and pressed the school committee to clear up what was or wasn't acceptable. Ultimately, despite complaints from some neighbors, the district and city approved nine dwellings inside. (The current lease nets the district $5,450 a month.)

With that, Paisley took over the lease and began transforming the place. They weren't hiding out anymore. With a neighbor in the community, she launched a successful project to turn the old asphalt playground on the east side of the building into a green park. In addition to gathering work parties, Artwood residents put on benefit concerts in the auditorium.

Under Paisley, Artwood took on a more cooperative feel. Residents had a way to gripe about the heat and noise — including someone's guitar style — and to remodel their places.

Over the years, romances bloomed, children were born and, once, during a custody split from a divorce, the child only had to walk from one end of the hall to the other. Disagreements have arisen over everything from how bath mats are dried to how space is apportioned and used. One former resident vented, "Sometimes I don't feel like living in a dormitory. Sometimes I don't want to interact with people in the hall." Another complained about "politics, gossip, some of the people."

Yet, several people living or working at Artwood have done so for 20 years, and when someone moves out, Paisley has a long waiting list to review. Rent is cheap, although residents must pay for utilities and portions of the property-tax bill, too.

But whom do they pick? What's more important: a true artist or someone who will fit in with the good-neighbor vibe? Only Bohne is a serious painter. Several are musicians, there is a photographer, and two of the longer tenants run small but successful art-craft businesses.

"What people are doing with their art is important," Paisley says, "but I think what we have as a whole is exciting, too. Hopefully, in a quiet way, we're learning to become a community."

PAISLEY AND her husband raised two girls here. The youngest, Kate, recently moved out to attend college in Oakland.

Kate and her sister, Rose, had the run of the hallway and grew up around a steady parade of artisans. They recall the guy who slept in a tent pitched in the center of his room and liked to watch cartoons, and David Jacobson, a sculptor who has been there 20 years and used to feature a huge rope swing in the auditorium, where he has worked and lived. Both daughters are now pursuing art-related careers.

"Growing up there influenced the way I am today in ways that seem so minor but are also big," Kate says. "I grew up around a lot of pretty motivated but free people. Being in that environment with all those people pursuing their art opened my eyes. When I declared art as my major, a bunch of people there told me don't do it — or at least take some business classes."

Jacobson's giant heads and faces dot the courtyard that once was a jungle-gym playground and is now graced with plants in bathtub planters and a prominent spray-painted mural of Jimi Hendrix. I found Jacobson inside the old auditorium, working on a column for a French chateau. He shrugs and smiles when I ask about the heads. "I just like scale and figure work, I guess. They don't sell too well. I think they might be a little intimidating."

Like many artists, Jacobson needs a "real job," and his living comes from concrete work. He is popular around the place, quick with a smile and an offer to help. He used his skill to raise many of the counters in the various rooms to adult heights.

An important presence at the school since almost the first day of its metamorphosis, Jacobson used to work on the auditorium floor and sleep on the stage. Now he just works there, sharing the space with another sculptor.

How has Artwood changed? He laughs.

"Everyone got 20 years older. And it was different when we didn't feel permanent. When you're young, you have fun and do your art. I don't think any of us thought we'd still be here."

Meg Hannan, another longtime resident, is among the most involved. She lives in a homey classroom where curtains hung from the ceiling billow in the breeze. In another classroom, she produces jewelry for her Rag Sky Art Studio, using fabrics and fibers, much of it hand-dyed, rolled, layered, cut and glued into pendants and earrings. The night owl of Artwood, she does much of her work after the sun goes down.

Hannan has employed neighborhood kids over the years, and when the residents put on a "haunted hallway" for the neighbors, she played the principal — but only because she possesses a cackling witch laugh. A 6-foot-6 Dutch guy put on his clogs and wrapped himself like a mummy. Another resident played the school nurse, complete with chainsaw.

While acknowledging the mandatory adjustments, rolling with small aggravations and the community bathroom, Hannan is especially attached to Artwood.

"If you're not into the group thing, don't think you'd make it here," she says. "I've stuck with this long enough and paid enough attention to make it — just like I've done with my art."

Her good friend and fellow longtime Artwood neighbor, Marianne Sears, recently moved out to try Port Townsend living. Whenever this happens, residents of this old school start wondering, despite cheap rent and community, about making a change, too. Hannan is no exception.

"I never would leave to live in a house, though," she says. "My recurring dreams of spaces have me in a church or a warehouse, but never a house."

Chris Daikos, David Walega and their 8-year-old son, Peter, on the other hand, were ready for a house. Living at the school helped them afford one, and they bought it late in the summer.

At the opposite end of the hall from the fiddlers, they'd spent five years renovating the old kindergarten beyond recognition. The former asphalt playground behind their living space is now a lush lawn, complete with a pond full of koi and a mini-waterfall. One Saturday afternoon, while Bohne was setting up a show in his private Artwood studio, Daikos and Walega were welcoming guests to their son's birthday party in the courtyard. The boy's young friends don't blink at partying in a school.

But a house is too good to pass up. The labels of their son's lockers that read, "Legos" "Tinker Toys" "Super Heroes" were peeled off not long after that. Vacant lockers awaited the next tenants, a photographer and a performance artist.

"We're definitely going to miss the village feel of the place," Daikos says amid his packing chores. "The community here and the meetings and interactions force you to consider your role and become, I guess, more selfless."

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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