BARBERTON:

The halls and walls at the Art Center on Tusc are covered in eye candy. Paintings. Sculptures. Jewelry.

But chat up one of the seven artists who have studios here, and the canvases suddenly seem more like biographies. Stories of failure and triumph, of loss and recovery, of delayed dreams given flight.

See those fuzzy lines on that colored pencil drawing in Studio 103? Terry Klausman, an industrial welder by day, will tell you how he had to learn to use his left hand after breaking his right. He had no other choice, “compelled” by some internal drive to keep creating.

See the interesting twig woven into that necklace pendant in Studio 209? Nikki Bartel remembers the day her 4-year-old daughter handed it to her. “Do something with this, Mommy!” Despite being the mother of six and a full-time data programmer, she makes time for art the way she makes time to breathe.

Those handmade gift cards, wizard wands and Chinese to-go containers filled with inspirational messages in Studio 102? That’s the story of Miriam Daniel, an elementary school teacher on sabbatical because her artistic spirit refuses to be chained.

And the clay caricatures and charcoal murals of Studio 210? That’s Barberton High School art teacher Ron White chronicling the human struggle: “When I die, I want people to look at my work and think, this is what was affecting those people back then.”

Even the art center has a tale, one of fragile beauty and hope-filled imagination dropped into a tough-as-nails former factory town that is writing a new chapter for itself.

Revitalizing downtown

For the record, Dave Vaughan never doubted the art center — ACoT, for short — could thrive here when it opened less than two years ago. He’s the director of Neighborhood Development Services (NDS), which began operating ACoT at 571 W. Tuscarawas Ave. after the local health department moved out.

NDS is a nonprofit that works to revitalize lower income communities, and several years ago it raced into Barberton like a knight on a white steed, taking over the city’s troubled historic movie house, opening a hip coffee bar called Kave and attaching it to a gallery called Nine Muses that rotates art shows and hosts open-mic nights.

So as Vaughan listened to Mayor Bill Judge share his dream of turning Barberton’s century-old downtown into an arts and entertainment district, Vaughan happily handed him evidence that his blue-collar city was ready for some fine culture.

The openings of art shows at Nine Muses “were pulling in more people than we are legally allowed to have in the building,” Vaughan said. “We had to put someone at the door with a clicker.”

Bolstered by Nine Muses’ success, NDS leased the old health department across the street and offered the space to local artists. Its two floors were filled to capacity within three months.

With most studios renting for $100 to $150 a month, it has been attracting veteran artists as well as the “starving” variety who could never afford to work outside the home before.

Photographer Tressa Watts peeked in at ACoT while her photos were being shown at Nine Muses and quickly fell in love with the idea of being surrounded by other creative minds.

“Everybody was so encouraging and so positive. I was like, yes, I want to be a part of this,” she said, taking over Studio 205.

The Turkish-born Isin Sezer — call her “ISH-in” when you meet her — learned to paint at an art academy in Belgium, where she settled into a unique style inspired by microscopic images she found in a stack of scientific magazines.

A meticulous creator who admits sometimes she’ll put a canvas away for months until she feels ready to finish it, her Studio 101 motivates her to keep the brush moving.

Casey Williams, who signs his pop-culture paintings “KC,” used to be part of Canton’s art scene before deciding Barberton was a better fit financially and creatively. He laughs at any lingering questions about whether Barberton is a good fit for an artist’s commune.

Said the Massillon resident who admittedly had never visited town before moving into Studio 204: “As far as I’m concerned, Barberton is all about art. You can come here and write your own story.”

The real challenge

The tenants of the fledgling art center are eager for the community to embrace them, but therein lies the real challenge.

Most folks, it seems, still have no idea the studio exists, and recent changes have reduced the opportunity for the public to get inside.

Growing pains, Vaughan said, have given the community good reason to be “a little confused right this minute.”

ACoT began with a full-time coordinator, who did a “tremendous job” getting the center up and running, Vaughan said. But NDS’s lack of experience in running an art center became obvious as it struggled to find art teachers to give community classes, market programs and artists, and find ways to coax the public through its doors.

When the coordinator left for another job, NDS left the post unfilled.

For now, the public’s best chance to meet the artists of ACoT is during Barberton Fourth Friday, when downtown businesses stay open from 5 to 8 p.m. on the fourth Friday of each month and try to feature performing artists in their storefronts and restaurants. The next one is this week.

But if ACoT is reassessing its calling, it’s only because talks are underway that could help it become the downtown attraction originally envisioned, Vaughan said.

He couldn’t share the details, but is confident that “exciting new plans” by midsummer will result in regular public hours Thursday through Sunday, and some welcomed love and attention from art experts far more experienced than NDS.

“We are committed to this working,” Vaughan said.

Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or pschleis@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.