B.Y.O.B. to the White House

A cluster of easels is set up in a circle around the model for the evening: a stuffed monkey peering out of a plastic watering can that rains over a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. The lighting in the 19th-century carriage house is warm, and there is a distinctly friendly and social atmosphere among the various artists gathered for Late Night Painting at The White House Studios in Shaler. Late Night Painting is B.Y.O.B., and about an hour into the evening the Yuengling and Corona bottles make their first appearance as the crowd gains two or three more members. Anne Lopez and Michael Killen, co-founders of The White House Studios and both Carnegie Mellon alumni, mill around the studio conversing easily with newcomers and veterans alike.

Lopez, class of ’96, and Killen, class of ’86, are both professional artists. Lopez is a visual artist dealing primarily in abstract art that has been commissioned both locally and internationally. Killen, who graduated with a degree in graphic design, works in downtown Pittsburgh directing regional and national commercials for a company called Animal. The two discovered the 128-year-old mansion completely by chance on a late-night drive around Pittsburgh. Immediately after touring the premises, they began forming the rough outlines of what would eventually become The White House Studios. In addition to Late Night Painting, the studio offers a variety of night classes for students and adults ranging from instruction on henna tattoos to creative writing classes and figure drawing. The White House Studios does not cater to any specific demographic, but instead embraces all ages and skill levels.

The most distinctive feature of The White House Studios is its rustic atmosphere. The building stands out as a very unique modern art space among other contemporary New Age or industrial warehouse studios. After Lopez and Killen bought the mansion and its accompanying carriage house on the first of this year, they spent six months renovating the squirrel- and raccoon-infested building. They stripped the house down to its original wood paneling, returning the house to the historic authenticity that contributes to the current inspirational ambiance. “To paint over it, you paint over the history of it, all that might have happened here,” said Lopez of the exposed walls. Lopez obtained all of the furniture and fixtures in the studio from Construction Junction, Goodwill, and even neighbors’ trash. Despite this, the space looks incredibly cohesive and well-put together. The compelling atmosphere of The White House Studios lends itself easily to creativity.

Lopez and Killen passionately believe that creativity can enrich the lives of everyone. At The White House Studios, they envision a shift from the current passivity of social scenes like bars and movie theaters to a more actively creative setting. This concept, which Killen dubs “education as entertainment,” is part of a larger future endeavor unofficially called “The White House Project.” Tentative project plans include expanding into publishing lifestyle and image books. Lopez and Killen expect to open the lower floor of the main house as a healthy vegetarian café, shop, and gallery space as part of their overall plan to integrate creativity into socialization.

Though New York City and Los Angeles might seem like more viable living options for artists, both Lopez and Killen have found that great studio spaces are incredibly affordable in the Pittsburgh area. In Pittsburgh, they enjoy the amenities of living and creating in a big city without the price tag of larger metropolises. The co-founders also insist that Pittsburgh is the “city of the future” because of the many opportunities available to those in the artistic and technological fields.

Morton Brown, one of the studio’s instructors, works with the Late Night Painting crowd. He is the mastermind behind the monkey/watering can/Ninja Turtle still-life model for the evening. However, Late Night Painting is primarily free form. Evan Ringle, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, is painting a winged bleeding heart on a small canvas next to his mother, who has the pale beginnings of a flower proportionate in size to one of O’Keefe’s. Wednesday’s Late Night Painting is not a class, though Brown is available for suggestions, assistance, and inspiration. It is a workshop, a peer review, a studio, and a hangout. It provides a time and place for people to get together and paint free of pretension and self-consciousness.

Though an iTunes playlist of Lopez and Killen’s creation is the default studio music, anyone is welcome to bring in a CD for the soundtrack to the evening. The open doors of the carriage house bring in the cool air from the rain outside, so Lopez brings in a tea tray for anyone who needs warming. Once the painters have reworked their pieces to the point of exhaustion for the evening and everyone has run out of free space on their palettes, the slow process of packing up begins. Paintings are left out to dry until next week, and beer bottles are tossed into the now-full trash can. Everyone says goodbye to Anne and Michael, with whom they are on a first-name basis, and is invited back to the Late Night Painting Party next Wednesday. You can bet they’ll be there, probably with a friend, and definitely with a six-pack.