LOWELL — Daniel Mathieu had been home from Paris for only two days when he opened his loft to Open Studios visitors in October. The native of Strasbourg, France, who straddles the worlds of commercial and art photography, had spent the morning printing a dramatic image of a steampunk platform in the Paris Métro. But he couldn’t stop talking about how inspiring he finds his adopted city. “The streets of Lowell constantly surprise me with new views,” Mathieu said. “And the multiculturalism of the city is very exciting.”
Mathieu and his wife, floral artist Rufiya Blank, had just moved into the Western Avenue Lofts, one of the most recently developed live-work spaces for artists in the city. Just as the massive mills of Lowell drew farm girls and mill hands from the Massachusetts countryside nearly two centuries ago, those same brick buildings are drawing artists from Bay State hinterlands — and beyond — even now.
The 50 lofts at Western Avenue are just the tip of the iceberg. The entire canal-side mill complex also houses 245 studios where more than 300 artists work. And the artists definitely like visitors. In addition to the Loading Dock Gallery, with regular exhibits of Western Avenue artists, the complex hosts an open house the first Saturday of every month. The Western Avenue complex has Lowell’s densest concentration of artists.
But it’s hardly the only pocket of artistic ferment. Some of Lowell’s most avant-garde art, including digital media, is exhibited at 119 Gallery. In nine years at her current location, curator and cofounder Mary Ann Kearns has seen the artistic community in Lowell expand exponentially. “A whole new wave of people have come in,” she said. “They are extraordinarily talented.”
Western Avenue and 119 Gallery are the outliers of Lowell’s Canalway Cultural District, one of 26 such areas around the state designated by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. According to Susan Halter, director of COOL (Cultural Organization of Lowell), there are 760 visual artists working in Lowell, as well as 40 writers, and more than 100 active musicians. The success of the Canalway Cultural District has begun to spur arts-oriented development elsewhere in town, including the Mill No. 5 complex.
At the moment, however, Lowell’s cultural attractions remain concentrated in the downtown, which packs a lot of visual impact into a few compact, walkable blocks. Lowell was literally built around its canals, and the canalside walkways showcase the red brick mills and the waterway engineering that powered the engines of industry. Lowell’s late-19th-century economic heyday coincided with the high point of Beaux-Arts architecture, and a number of stately, even ornate, commercial and industrial buildings complement the more pragmatic majesty of the mills. A dozen pieces of public art are scattered around the city. Add in quirky artifacts of the early and mid-20th century — the kicking mule neon of Haffner’s gas station, the quaint Club Diner from 1938 — and it’s easy to see why photographer Mathieu is so enthusiastic.
Several institutions that paved the way for Lowell’s renaissance are embedded in the Canalway Cultural District. They include the American Textile History Museum and the New England Quilt Museum, which itself bridges the textile history and the artistic present. The largest institution of all is the Lowell National Historical Park, which oversees (among many other exhibits) the Boott Cotton Mills Museum. Established in 1978, the National Park has served as a focal point of civic pride.
The Brush Art Gallery and Studios were established in 1982 in one of those handsomely renovated mills. The gallery, next to the National Park’s Visitor Center, exhibits work by a range of artists, mainly from Massachusetts. The members’ annual exhibition, this year on the theme of “Fabulous Forgeries,” is up through Jan. 10. In addition, 13 artists each have an on-site studio, self-described as “Lowell’s Original Open Studios”; the artists in residence are often on hand to talk with visitors and demonstrate their work in painting, jewelry, pottery, photography, textile arts, and other media.
If Brush can claim the first open studios in Lowell, the nearby Ayer Lofts condominiums have the distinction of being the city’s first live-work space for artists. Set in a pair of 1895 buildings, which once included the home of the J.C. Ayer patent medicine company, the condo studios opened in 2000 along with a ground-level gallery that shows work by the residents and other local artists. The artist-run gallery mounts eight to 12 shows per year in its compact space.
By contrast, the Arts League of Lowell gallery on the street level of the Gates Block Studios building stretches three rooms back from its modest entry. Half the space is devoted to a co-op gallery, where artists lease space. A more formal gallery hosts eight to 10 exhibitions each year. “Grey Scale,” a show of members’ work in black-and-white media, opens on Jan. 9. The league has about 250 active members, according to president Steve Syverson, himself a metal artist who works in constructions of sheet copper modified by flame and oxidation.
Syverson calls himself a “blow-in,” the term for relative newcomers to the Lowell scene. He relocated to the city in 2002, he said, “because I liked the vibe in the downtown area.” He helped a friend move in at the Ayer Lofts and was impressed by the city. “Lowell in its infinite wisdom didn’t tear down all the factory buildings. I think it is fabulous how well and how wide the artistic scene has grown. Artists just keep coming.”
They seem to arrive with an appetite. While ethnic eateries have long thrived in Lowell (mom-and-pop Cambodian restaurants are a mainstay), a more sophisticated urban dining scene also has taken hold. On Palmer Street, the contemporary American fare of Fuse Bistro (with live music on Thursdays) faces off with the Neapolitan pies of Tremonte Pizzeria across the street. The Thai and Japanese restaurant Blue Taleh on Kearney Square is jammed with theatergoers enjoying a light meal of sushi before heading to a performance at nearby Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell’s professional theater company since 1979. Behind Blue Taleh, Back Page has live music and comedy, including an open mic every Wednesday night.
The new generation of Lowell artists aren’t the first of their ilk in the erstwhile mill town. The Whistler House Museum was the birthplace of painter James McNeill Whistler and, since 1908, has been the permanent home of the Lowell Art Association. The museum owns a striking collection of late-19th- and early-20th-century representational art, including a number of Whistler prints and a 1906 painted copy of Whistler’s iconic “Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother” (known more casually as “Whistler’s Mother”). The works are arranged throughout the comfortable 19th-century home. The Parker Gallery, behind the homestead, shows work by living painters, with a juried show of art association members up until Jan. 17.
Whistler was born in Lowell in 1834 and left with his parents in 1837. But Lowell clings tenaciously to him as a native son, and there’s even an excellent statue of him as dandy painter in the park adjacent to the birthplace. The third floor of the house has been converted into a studio for the museum’s artist in residence. It is flooded with northern light, and the views from the windows into the gardens rival any of Whistler’s own domestic landscapes.
He literally didn’t know what he was missing.