BUCKHANNON – A historic building in downtown Buckhannon that has been home to many different groups for more than a century will soon welcome a new community, one that brings with it a bold artistic vision.
At the turn of the last century, when the freemasons laid the first bricks along the structure that now towers over South Florida and Main Streets, they knew it would soon house the new branch of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, one of the first religions to originate in the United States.
That denomination was eventually absorbed by the United Methodists in the 1960s, and the red-brick church became home to another religious community, with people attending services there as recently as 2019, according to church bulletins.
Local artist Tim Hibbs, owner of the Blaxxmith Shop Studio Art Gallery, knows that because he’s a history buff and he’s been researching the backstory of the building that he and his wife, writer Sasha Hibbs, bought last year.
The couple purchased it in hopes of cultivating a brand-new kind of community there: a creative one that will welcome and embrace Appalachians of all stripes who want to create and appreciate visual and performing arts in a variety of mediums.
Hibbs is a blacksmith, painter and sculptor, and since 2021, his shop/gallery has served as a home base to the Infamous Art Collective, an ever-expanding group of artists from Upshur and surrounding counties. But as membership grew and the collective reached a new understanding of its role in the region, the Hibbs family opted to move the Blaxxmith Shop Studio Gallery and Infamous Art Collective from its current location on East Main Street to the vacant church on South Florida Street across from the Public Safety Complex.
“This building’s got some history,” he said. “It was built in 1879 and the bricking was done in 1909. Different people did different things along the way. Some rooms got built on and some got torn off and added to, so I’ve just been trying to tear this thing back to what I would say is the bare bones of it.”
The Blaxxmith Shop Gallery and Infamous Art Collective’s goal is to relocate by April, the two-year anniversary of the group’s founding. Hibbs said he’s enjoyed housing the collective on Main Street in the Blaxxmith Shop, but he doesn’t own the building and worries about being displaced had cropped up.
“We’re renting this, and we started thinking, ‘What if we found ourselves having to move?’” Hibbs said. “Because what we’re building up there is a pretty cool thing.”
Plus, the timing seemed right. The collective is now an official nonprofit organization, which endows it with legitimacy it didn’t have in its early days.
“It really put a stamp of, ‘We’re really making this collective a group that’s going to be legit,’ and we’re not just some people hanging out,” he said. “Aside from worries about being displaced, the space we had wasn’t really big enough to accommodate our vision anyway.”
That vision, Hibbs said, is one of a warm, convivial space that promotes art for the people, by the people. Collective members delight in exploring an array of light, dark, and somewhere-in-between themes through their monthly exhibits which always open with some sort of soiree. (January’s “Somewhere Between Forsaken and Abandoned” exhibit – which will still take place on Main Street – is set for this Saturday, Jan. 21. You can find more details here.)
“Our mission statement, as far as the collective goes, is to foster and enrich the cultural experiences for residents within the community,” he said. “We’re realizing more and more every day what our role in the community is and what our responsibilities to the community are … this is art for the people. This isn’t us putting up somebody else’s art on display and inviting everybody to come look at it; we’re putting your friends’ and your neighbors’ and your family members’ art up on the walls, and we’re all getting together like a community, and that’s what this really is.”
“It’s still exhibiting, it’s still displaying, but it’s also giving people a platform for expression, a lot of people who maybe would not have as much success trying to find a gallery to display their work in,” Hibbs added.
He knows that struggle well. On paper, Hibbs, a self-taught artist, doesn’t carry the credentials it sometimes takes to exhibit in certain galleries.
“I’m not a college graduate with an art degree,” he said. “I’ve followed my passion my whole life, but I’m a college dropout with an art scholarship that I squandered. For a lot of us who are self-taught, without the credentials, it can be hard. You have to jury – and I think that’s a good thing a lot of times – but without those credentials, it can be that much harder to break into the gallery scene.”
That’s why the collective’s mission isn’t about making money from selling art, but about removing barriers that prevent residents from making and appreciating art. The two-story building has ample display space, and it’s also outfitted with two separate venues for live performances: a smaller space for open mic nights on the ground floor, and a much larger concert-hall-style style arena complete with balcony seating, an embossed ceiling and ornate, hanging light fixtures.
“Down here, (on the ground floor), we’re going to have a smaller stage for open mic nights and more intimate shows because upstairs is pretty big — it’s a little bit too much for an open mic event,” he said. “I mean, [the second floor] is essentially a concert hall. It looks pretty awesome at night when the lights are bouncing off the walls and ceiling.”
The new location also has a potential kitchen area and a workspace for artists who don’t have studios of their own.
“When the public comes in to check out our exhibits, if it’s not on a night when we’re having an opening and a party, but there’s just a day when somebody might be coming through, there may be artists back here at work, so you’ll be able to come in and you’ll be able to see people making art as well as checking it out on the walls,” Hibbs said.
The Infamous Art Collective prides itself on showcasing art by the people, but equally important, it values promoting art for all people. Hibbs said the collective’s events have made art seem less highfalutin and more accessible, regardless of anyone’s prior exposure.
“It’s an approachable space for people who don’t know anything about art; I know we get a lot of that, too,” Hibbs said. “It’s not that they’ve experienced anything negative around here, but sometimes people walk into a gallery, and they start feeling like, ‘Should I be here?’”
“People don’t know if they have any business being in a gallery if they can’t talk the talk,” he added, “but at our space, people don’t feel intimidated to come in. They just come in and they feel welcome. They are allowed to look and feel and know and not really feel like they have to explain themselves.”
In addition, the collective’s open mic nights and monthly themed parties have brought people back to Main Street.
“We’ve reconnected people with art, and we’ve brought people from around here back to Main Street and had them going, ‘Wow, I haven’t been to Main Street or downtown in a while, but this is cool what you’ve got going on,’” Hibbs said. “We’ve brought people in who have never been to Buckhannon in their lives, so I think we’ve done a lot as far as adding to the profile of the community and giving Buckhannon another reason to be proud.”
Anyone interested in learning more about the collective or joining it may message them via their Facebook page, where they will happily answer any questions.