Five15 Arts: An Oral History of the Phoenix Art Collective's First 15 Years

The Five15 Arts gallery during Art Detour in 2004.
The Five15 Arts gallery during Art Detour in 2004. Kenneth Richardson
click to enlarge Mary Shindell in one of her two artist studios. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Mary Shindell in one of her two artist studios.
Lynn Trimble
Mary Shindell stands over a table at the center of her home art studio in Phoenix, rifling through a cardboard box filled with postcards and posters from the Five15 Arts collective she helped start in 2002. It’s the last Friday morning of 2016, and Shindell is looking back at the group's achievements, recalling details about past exhibitions and artists who’ve been part of Five15 Arts through the years.

"Our shows looked great," Shindell says while shuffling through the ephemera. "The most important thing for us was putting up a good show."

Nearby, there’s a table strewn with some of Shindell’s current works in progress – including drawings that reflect her fascination with topography, geography, botanicals, and the desert Southwest. Shindell, whose robust art practice includes making new work and submitting proposals, is eager to see where the future will take her. Shindell left Five15 Arts in August 2016, after the collective lost its longtime space on Roosevelt Row.

click to enlarge Early Five15 Arts meeting. - GREG ESSER
Early Five15 Arts meeting.
Greg Esser
She’s one of several accomplished artists with roots in Five15, whose founders also included Paul Booth, Jen Bortz, Greg Esser, Rob Evans, Mike Goodwin, Brad Konick, Melissa Martinez, Gretchen Schermerhorn, James Stewart, and David Young. Other members have included Laura Spalding Best, Kathryn Pinto, Kenneth Richardson, and Roy Wasson Valle, to name a few.

Through the years, the collective has presented works by hundreds of artists through solo, group, and invitational exhibitions, starting with Mike Kippenhan’s “Cross” exhibition in August 2002.

For one particularly memorable group show, they set a motorcycle creatively modified and embellished by collective members in the center of the gallery space, adding bold racing stripes around gallery walls. For a group show called “What Smells So Bad?” members Nathan Feller and Angela Frank Wells hung undergarments seemingly stained with body fluids across a laundry line in one corner of the gallery.

click to enlarge A few old Five15 Arts exhibit postcards collected by one of its members. - LYNN TRIMBLE
A few old Five15 Arts exhibit postcards collected by one of its members.
Lynn Trimble
Today, works by Five15 Arts alumni are part of public art and museum collections. Shindell created two botanical-inspired installations for Valley Metro, and her work is part of ASU Art Museum’s permanent collection. Martinez’s 2015 installation for Tempe Public Art recently placed third in a national public art competition, and she's also created work for Scottsdale Public Art. Five15 Arts alumni have exhibited work at Phoenix Art Museum, Heard Museum, Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum, and several museums and galleries throughout the country.

Five15 Arts was instrumental in helping to transform a blighted block into the heart of a burgeoning Roosevelt Row arts district, which spans several streets to the north and south of Roosevelt Street between Seventh Street and Seventh Avenue in downtown Phoenix. Roosevelt Row has been nationally recognized as a leading arts district and neighborhood, and Five15 Arts deserves some of the credit for making that happen. So does Five15 Arts alumnus Esser, a longtime champion of the downtown arts scene.

click to enlarge April 2016 exhibition at Five15 Arts in Roosevelt Row. - LYNN TRIMBLE
April 2016 exhibition at Five15 Arts in Roosevelt Row.
Lynn Trimble
The original Five15 Arts gallery at Roosevelt and Fifth streets closed at the end of August 2016, after the building that housed it was sold to developers. Despite the changing face of Roosevelt Row, where high-rise developments are rapidly replacing smaller neighborhood spaces, the Five15 Arts collective founded there lives on.

Now headed by artist Wendy Willis, the collective has a temporary home at Phoenix Center for the Arts, where it plans to present exhibitions every other month through November 2017. Current members also include Joan C. Thompson, Deborah Hodder, Anne Howey-Falvey, Marlys Kubicek, Susan Risi, and Michelle Terry-Helmick – as well as Katy O’Connor, Turner G. Davis (formerly of Eye Lounge), and Daniel Friedman.

click to enlarge Temporary gallery space for Five15Arts at Phoenix Center for the Arts. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Temporary gallery space for Five15Arts at Phoenix Center for the Arts.
Lynn Trimble
Five15's first exhibition at Phoenix Center for the Arts opened on the First Friday of 2017. Titled “Changing Spaces,” it's on view through January 28.

Given the central role Five15 Arts has played in the downtown Phoenix arts scene, it's time to look back at its journey from past to present, with the help of several artists who contributed to its creativity, relevance, and ongoing impact on local arts and culture.

(Note: Some quotes have been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.)

Mary Shindell, founding member: I remember well how my Five15 Arts experience started. It was July of 2002. Eye Lounge had just opened, and Carolyn Lavender, who was a kid at art school when I taught, had a show that opened there on First Friday. So, I went to see it, and I was amazed by the crowds. It was so hot, but people still got out to look at art. Greg Esser was thinking of starting another gallery, so Carolyn asked me if I would ever think of being part of something like that. I went to the first planning meeting in the space that became Five15 Arts. It was a mess and had stuff all over the floor, but it was the perfect white box for showing art.

Melissa Martinez, founding member: The space was a dump, but it was our dump. Just past us was a nice little crack house that was eventually turned into a home/studio for Brian Boner. And behind us was a halfway house that would become a house and gallery for Leslie Yazzie, Christina Ramirez, and Lara Plecas.

Shindell: We only had six or eight people at the first meeting, but we brought others in. I think it was only about $50 a month to be a member. Greg drew up a contract, but all he asked was that artists keep prices for their work the same at different places. We could invite others to show with us or let them take our space if we didn’t want to do a show when it was our turn. Our shows looked great because we had so many members that were preparators for museums or galleries. We did our first group show in September 2002. Then I did a solo show, because I was the only one with enough work on hand to fill the space.

click to enlarge The Five15 Arts gallery during Art Detour in 2004. - KENNETH RICHARDSON
The Five15 Arts gallery during Art Detour in 2004.
Kenneth Richardson
Greg Esser, founding member: We started with 11 members. Everyone got one solo show a year, and we always had a group show during Art Detour.

Roy Wasson Valle, early member: I was part of the second wave, just after I graduated from ASU, and I was there for about three or four years, and had three solo shows. Roosevelt Row was just starting to change then. At first, we had corrugated metal on the front of the gallery instead of a window, so someone had to knock if they wanted to come in and see a show. Otherwise random people wandered in, and it could be scary for artists sitting the gallery. When we took down the metal, it looked like the window underneath had bullet holes. But we put in a new window, and refurbished the space so it became more welcoming.

Shindell: We were fortunate, because there was so much energy and so much pent-up demand for spaces to show art. We started doing things that were affordable during Art Detour, so young collectors knew they could come down to buy real art from us, and I was able to sell several pieces there.

click to enlarge A few old Five15 Arts exhibit postcards collected by one of its members. - LYNN TRIMBLE
A few old Five15 Arts exhibit postcards collected by one of its members.
Lynn Trimble
Mike Goodwin, founding member: There weren’t a lot of collectors. I wish it could have paid the bills more. But we were nurturing young people, and we had the freedom to do what we wanted.

Valle: For one show, Mary’s husband, Rick, got us a motorcycle, and we each took different parts. I went to Goodwill and got a bunch of stuffed animals and cut them in half for my section, which was the wheels. The artists didn’t talk to each other about what they were making, but somehow the motorcycle, which was the only work in the show, came together as a coherent piece. I remember my friend Amy crocheted a big penis on the bike seat. I never would have expected that. People made some strange choices.

Shindell: Members had to do everything themselves, from publicizing exhibits to hanging shows. I was the one who knew how to do a little reception area, and each of us used our own skills. It was probably a bigger learning experience than doing an MFA show because of the pace of it. Members had to do a show every year. I became more disciplined every year, because you don’t want to phone it in. Members had a lot of freedom in what they did with the space, which sometimes included things like pouring sand all over the floor.

click to enlarge Works featured in Mary Shindell's last solo exhibition at Five15 Arts. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Works featured in Mary Shindell's last solo exhibition at Five15 Arts.
Lynn Trimble
Valle: I was really interested in changing the environment as part of my art practice, so I loved having a space where I could change the walls or build furniture. My last show at Five15 Arts was called “Dreamhouse,” and there’s a direct line from that show in 2006 to what I’m doing now. It’s where I came up with all those creatures for Crystal Burn, which was part of “Camp Dreamtree” at the Scottsdale Civic Center Library a few years ago. Now I’m working on my master’s degree at ASU, and helping Koryn with an upcoming exhibition for that same space. So much of my professional art practice has a direct connection to Five15 Arts. [Koryn Woodward Wasson is his wife and fellow artist.]

Shindell: Members changed over time, and a lot of people dropped out in around 2008 because of money. People began having families or getting jobs in other places. But we had a good reputation for being a good space to show work.

Valle: People came to Five15 Arts to see the unexpected, instead of things they were used to seeing.

Shindell: We knew last year that the building where Five15 Arts was located was sold. I didn’t know whether I would be able to do my chandelier show. But it worked out, and it was my last show there. I left Five15 Arts after that gallery closed at the end of August. I’d grown comfortable there, and wanted to stretch more as an artist. Henry Bellavia left the collective too, but it gained three new members.

click to enlarge Mike Goodwin and Ken Richardson looking over old Five15 Arts materials. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Mike Goodwin and Ken Richardson looking over old Five15 Arts materials.
Lynn Trimble
Ken Richardson, founding member: The gallery had such a big impact, and so many of its early members are still part of the Phoenix arts community. Nearly every preparatory for Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, including Melissa Martinez and Laura Spalding Best, was part of Five15 Arts. So I was sad to see the gallery space go.

Martinez: Fifteen years or so later, we’re all still around making art, only now we have families and kids that will surely become the next generation of artists.

Valle: Five15 Arts helped artists make so many connections. It was the beginning of all these circles of friendship and professional relationships. Even though it’s been 10 years since I was a member, those connections keep expanding and touching each other. I loved being part of Five15 Arts. It was an organic, natural way to get to know people and become part of the Phoenix arts community. We really helped each other out a lot, and it was a really beautiful experience.
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble