lac_web.jpgLAUDERHILL — For six years the Lauderhill Art Center has sat on the corner of a gritty strip mall, largely unnoticed by anyone who is not looking for it. Anchored by a Kwik Pick convenience store at Northwest 54th Avenue and 19th Street, the center is anonymous save for a small sign, which is masked by palm trees. But behind the paper-covered windows creative powers combine with paint, canvas, music and words.

The oasis that is the arts incubator hosts studios to several painters, a sculptor, a dance studio and a poetry performance center. Some, who have been there since the beginning, love the spaces they have, have watched the progression but worry that the city of Lauderhill is not committed to the project.

The Lauderhill Community Redevelopment Agency Director Don Giancoli says not so. He envisions a synchronicity between the Lauderhill Art Center and the soon-to-be-completed Lauderhill Performing Arts Center, located near the Central Broward Regional Park on the northeast corner of Sunrise Boulevard and State Road 7. The 47,585-square-foot venue will house a 1,200-seat performing arts theater, an art gallery and rooms to host educational, conferences, workshops and other events.

“I see the arts center artists being able to host their arts shows in the gallery at the performing arts center. I see the dance studio having a bigger place to put on their performances … it could be a feeder program,” Giancoli said.

The Lauderhill Arts Center is credited for changing the 19th Street area of Lauderhill, near where the former city hall was located and now stands City Hall Park, with the Interstate 95 overpass at the end of the block. The strip mall, with its various openings and exit to the nearby residential area, provided a haven for crack dealers, idlers and truants. Then, the mall had two convenience stores, a Jamaican restaurant and other businesses.

“We used to look out of the windows of city hall and watch people doing drug deals,” said Giancoli. “The police would come by but everyone would just scatter or duck inside the stores or the restaurant. There was a lot of coming and going.”

City officials decided to buy the building, in an attempt to eliminate the commercial use in the middle of the residential neighborhood. The new use: an arts incubator.

They encouraged and helped relocate a few of the businesses. The convenience stores stuck to their leases. Overtime, Giancoli said, the strip mall has been renovated, creating spaces for an artist community. Breezeways were enclosed to provide more space for artists and less access for loiters to disappear through.

The congregating got less and less, said Jamaican-born painter/designer Corinne Wakeland, one of the earliest to move into the arts center.

“I used to see them out there but now they are gone,” Wakeland said, as she worked on building wooden boxes for an upcoming show. “I have always felt safe here.”

Wakeland and fellow artists formed a not-for-profit to manage the center. The CRA provides the space in exchange for minimal rent and makes repairs, but the day-to-day workings of the spaces are the artists’ to upkeep.

They each have personal studios and a common exhibit area. So far the artists have put on shows that include international artists from as far as away as Spain. And people from all over come to their shows. Who they can’t get to support them in their immediate community.

“We put on shows and invite the people from Inverrary, just across the street, and they don’t come,” said Jamaican-born artist Karl “Jerry” Craig. Craig was head of the Jamaica School of Art for 10 years – now called the Edna Manley College of the Visual Arts.

Artist Carol-Ann McFarlane thinks she understands why the locals don’t come. She grew up in Lauderhill and remembers many fights and shenanigans happening on the overpass. She remembers her one trip to the corner Kwik Pick on her way home from Parkway Middle School.

“I stayed in the car and I was told to lock the doors, keep the AC on and not to talk to anybody,” McFarlane said. “It was scary. But it’s not like that anymore. I walk to my studio every day.”

The CRA plans to pump more money into the arts center, Giancoli said. It wants to enclose the front of the mall, to offer more privacy to the artists and take away the easement for would-be hangers-around.

It has $100,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds allocated for the exterior renovations.  The CRA also has a pending grant application to Broward County for an additional $50,000.  “We want to enclose the front and remove the awning because it becomes a place for people to stand, get out of the sun and naturally congregate,” Giancoli said. “We should hear about the Broward County grant in the next couple months but we will proceed with renovations regardless, how much we can do depends on the total amount of funding.”

On a recent, Saturday afternoon Quinton Moore dropped his bike on the curb and ducked under the awning for some shade.

“Boy it’s hot,” he said. He accepted an invitation to go into the air conditioned art gallery.

“I come here all the time and I didn’t even know this was here,” Moore said. “You teach people to paint and stuff?”

The artists reach out to the community. Wakeland painted a neighborhood mural, and she and other artists hosted a community chalk walk in City Hall Park. You can practice life drawings there, too. On a recent Thursday night a handful of artists sat sketching a nude model. The next life drawing is 7 to 10 p.m. July 17 at the center, 5450 NW 19 St., Lauderhill. Cost is $10 at or $12 at the door .

Come 2018, the art incubator will face some changes again when the Kwik Pick’s lease run outs. What that will be, Giancoli doesn’t know – except that there will be no commercial use in that strip mall.