Artists Begin to Return to Winter Street Studios

by Jessica Fuentes October 5, 2023

Following last year’s devastating fire at Winter Street Studios, a building that’s part of the extensive Sawyer Yards artist studio complex in Houston, artists who were displaced are beginning to return to their newly renovated and restored studios.

On December 20, 2023, Eoles “Deuce” Whitaker II stole equipment from artist Jack Potts’ Bohemian Photography studio at Winter Street and set fire to the space. The fire grew to damage nearly 100 artists’ spaces, causing an estimated over $1 million in damages. Just two days after the fire, as he was being approached by police, Mr. Whitaker jumped out of his high-rise downtown Houston apartment.

In response to the fire and the artists’ losses, the Houston Arts Alliance launched an Emergency Relief fund to provide stipends to those affected. As artists prepare to move back into the Winter Street Studios, HAA has shared a report detailing the support that the relief fund was able to provide. According to the report, when the relief fund application closed on February 28, 2023, the organization had received 101 applications. Out of the applications submitted, 82 were awarded grants of $3,650 each. These grants were made possible in large part due to a $250,000 donation from the City of Houston to the relief fund. According to the HAA report, 77.8% of the donated funds can be attributed to the City. The report also highlights that 88% of donations came from first-time donors to HAA. 

A photograph of Erika Alonso working in her studio.

Erika Alonso’s Winter Street studio prior to the fire.

Many artists like Erika Alonso, Laura Spector, and Vincent Fink are preparing to move back into their studios this week. Ms. Alonso told Glasstire, “I was able to temporarily relocate to a smaller studio over at the Silos in February, but did not expect to be there for over 6 months! I’m just moving back into my Winter Street Studio this week, and so far so good.”

Ms. Alonso also noted the array of support she and other Winter Street artists have received, including discounts provided by two local supply shops: Jerry’s Artarama and Art on Almeda. She added, “Sarah Foltz at Foltz Gallery hosted a popup show of some of my work that was offsite when the fire happened back in February. The following month, she hosted my artist residency in West Texas. I was also offered the opportunity to paint at IAH for three months as part of the Houston Airport System’s AIR (artist-in-residence) program; both myself and the artist selected for the Hobby airport were from Winter Street Studios.”

Other artists do not feel comfortable returning. Cary Reeder, who had a studio space at Winter Street for a decade, was already considering a change prior to the fire and then found the idea of returning to be too emotionally difficult.

A photograph of Cary Reeder wearing a respirator mask as she cleans and packs her studio.

Cary Reeder wears a respirator as she cleans her studio after the fire.

Ms. Reeder told Glasstire, “This week I was able to visit and see the renovations. It’s looking good, but being there just makes me relive it all: getting an early morning email about the fire, driving over to the building hoping it wasn’t my studio that caught fire, thinking that everything would be ok and then finding all my stuff damaged and covered in soot. Nine months later I am still finding soot on my supplies. It’s time to put the experience behind me.”

Ms. Reeder is not going far. For the past few months, she has had a temporary studio space at Summer Street Studios, another space within Sawyer Yards; she will soon be moving soon to the Silos, also at the Sawyer Yards complex. Ms. Reeder noted that she knows of at least a handful of Winter Street artists who have also made the decision to relocate to the Silos. 

Jon Deal, founder and CEO of DealCo, a development and investment company that manages the properties at Sawyer Yards, told Glasstire that while Winter Street Studios has seen approximately 20% of its artists decide to not renew their leases, at least half of those artists are relocating within the Sawyer Yards properties. 

Side by side photographs of the interior of the recently renovated Winter Street Studios.

Winter Street Studios, October 2023

Mr. Deal also explained that the majority of the Winter Street Studio building is expected to be move-in-ready before the Sawyer Yards’ next Second Saturday event on October 14. He noted that while section C of the building is still under construction, sections A & B are practically complete. Regarding the timeline of section C, which was the section that took on the majority of the damage from the fire, Mr. Deal anticipates that the renovation will be complete by mid- to late-spring 2024. 

A floor plan of the first and second floors of the Winter Street Studios in Houston.

Winter Street Studios’ floor plan

While the renovated spaces have been built back to how they were prior to the fire, there were upgrades made to the building’s infrastructure, including rewired electricity as well as updated plumbing and air conditioning. Additionally, the bathrooms were upgraded to be ADA compliant and a passenger elevator will be added to section C.

Learn more about the upcoming Second Saturday event at Sawyer Yards here.

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