Tommy Watkins, center, talks from inside the Upstate Artists Guild prior to its closing. (photo by Ali Hibbs/ The spot)
ALBANY — “It’s been a really crazy trip,” said Tommy Watkins, standing in front of the entrance to Upstate Artists Guild (UAG) at the opening of LOST & FOUND, his final show in the gallery space that he and a group of local artists opened almost exactly 11 years ago. “And, I just want to thank everyone for coming out and showing support.”
Watkins, who helped to create a vibrant local arts scene in Albany—including its monthly First Friday events—hasn’t been in Albany for the last five years. After spending the last four years working and showing his art in London, he has returned just in time to have one last show before the gallery he helped to open closes the doors to its location at 247 Lark Street.
More than 11 years ago, in an effort to promote his work, Watkins approached a store owner on Lark Street about holding a show there. “It was wildly successful,” he said, recalling that, at the time, two local art studios were closing their doors and Albany Center Gallery, then located in the back of Albany Public Library on Washington Avenue, was struggling to remain afloat.
At that show, he featured a handful of local artists, including Chip Fasciana, Mark Gregory and Kevin Bruce. The connections he made led to the creation of Albany Underground Artists, a collective founded by Watkins and Fasciana that held pop-up shows at spaces around the city. Eventually, Watkins decided to strike out on his own and held a big show at an historic mansion near Washington Park. “It was massive,” said Watkins. “Three or four stories. I filled every room with art. We brought all these artists in and had some installation pieces. I represented so many artists that are now fairly well known in the area—Sampson Contompasis was in that show, Chip was in that show, and all the artists that eventually became UAG were in that show. So it really brought a bunch of artists together.”
He said that, through that show, he met Rebecca Schoonmaker, Nina Stanley, Jason Cosco and six other artists motivated to help build a local art scene. They first set up at the corner of Lark and Washington Ave., until structural issues with the building forced them to look elsewhere. “And that’s when the storefront on Lark Street came up,” he said. “We moved in there and officially branded ourselves the Upstate Artists Guild and dropped our first event at Lark Fest 11 years ago.”
It was UAG, he said, that pioneered the First Friday events held in Albany on the first Friday of every month. A collaboration between UAG, the local arts community and local businesses, the events give local artists a chance show show and sell their work at various locations on and around Lark Street. The events have been so successful that the model has been replicated in both Troy and Schenectady.
“That’s really, I think, what got the art scene going,” he said. “The Upstate Artists shows were really successful, but to have something that would happen once a month and, as an artist, you could just come down and set up anywhere and do really well for yourself. And that’s what we all wanted.”
When Watkins left the Albany art scene, he said he was ready for the change. “I had been in this scene for a long time and had done all these really great things here,” he said. “And I think I was ready to spread my wings a little bit.”
Watkins traveled to Great Britain with a friend, intending to stay for just a few months. “It ended up becoming years and years,” he said. “I ended up meeting lots of people and lots of really great artists and plugged into the scene over there. And I had this realization that I could try to make art in another place in the world and got really excited about starting this new chapter.
“I think, when I left Albany, I was doing some soul-searching,” he said. During his time in England, Watkins art has matured and taken on new dimensions. When he first turned to art, he said it was as a form of personal therapy — he created bold abstract paintings with lots of color, many of which are now hanging on the walls of homes and businesses all over the region. Now, he said, he’s been working more with social and political themes, and has diversified his mediums. He recently just finished a performance piece commenting on gun violence in America.
“The me that made those first paintings, those intellectual abstract things,” he said thoughtfully. “They weren’t really me anymore. The me that had made those, that had been searching for myself—I had found that person.” So, he said, he turned his attention to the world around him. “I decided to start making work that had a more meaningful message.
“I never thought I’d have the success that I had in upstate New York,” said Watkins. “Coming back has been a head trip. Seeing everybody, walking down Lark Street, catching up with friends. It’s just this very surreal feeling.”
It was by sheer coincidence that his first trip back to the states coincided with the final days of the Lark Street gallery space. “Rebecca Schoonmaker told me that [Upstate Artists Guild] was kind of going under,” he said. “And I thought doing a show there would be kind of a good way to go full circle and have a final celebration there. Also, I knew it would be a good way to get people together and I wanted to see everyone.
“I was able to raise some money for the gallery as well,” he added. “Which is a thing I’ve always done in the past—support the gallery. So it just felt natural to come back and do that with them and for them.”
The gallery, which will close its door in early November, will continue to throw themed pop-up shows at First Friday events until it finds a new home. There has been talk of partnering with another struggling gallery and moving into a new home down the street, but nothing final has been announced. Until then, artists and art lovers can contact UAG and donate money at their website at UpstateArtistsGuild.org.