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Monday, June 28, 2021

ART in the HEART

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Lauren Ross-Simmons was the featured artist at the Artini fundraiser, and she and her husband operate C&C Mercantile and Lighting and ArtiFact.

Art as Business in Downtown Shreveport

Lauren Ross-Simmons laughs when she is asked about being an "overnight" art sensation. The artist, wife, mother of two and downtown business owner has been painting for more than 30 years – 30 years of practice, trial-and-error and refining her Pop Art brand of iconic images. “There is no deep, dark meaning to my work, though I once worried that there should be. One friend told me my art brings joy, and that is purpose enough for me.”

Ross-Simmons’ work has been bringing joy to a lot of collectors and fans recently, so much so that this could be Lauren Ross- Simmons’ year. She was the featured artist for the recent Bossier Arts Council’s Artini fundraiser. Her work, from glitter-filled Glammy Bears backpack bangles to Art by Lauren Glassware to colorful paintings of famous figures, fill the pages of social media and fly off brick-and-mortar store shelves. During the darkest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, Lauren was selling more art than she has ever sold before. She also had a new baby, who joined an active older toddler brother and cared for a husband, dog and chickens. With all that, even having the time to create art seems impossible, but she is nothing if not single-minded, jealously protecting the four to five hours each day she has for her studio time. “I have an organized business sense about me. Ultimately, I want to be creative, but this is also a job for me. I take it very seriously, but I have a damn good time doing it.”

Ross-Simmons is one of the artists whose talents are helping turn creativity into business in downtown Shreveport. Much like her art line, she and her husband Derek’s year-old C&C Mercantile and Lighting and ArtiFact store at 1110 Texas Ave. is exploding, too.

The mercantile has become a must-stopand-shop location, a place for coffee and conversation, and a venue for art markets and gatherings. The couple says they are only getting started with a plan that includes more of everything, starting with a Texas Avenue Social venue and ending with a vibrant, diverse arts district along the old avenue.

Art and creativity are key business players in the current boom in downtown Shreveport’s redevelopment. It is a winning combination that cities around the nation have seen return big dividends in investment and engagement.

“We call it the ‘stumble upon the fun’ factor,” says Shreveport Regional Arts Council (SRAC) Executive Director Pam Atchison. “When you can purchase an artwork, sip a creative brew, take in a street performance, dine on culinary art, and feel a part of the action.”

Shreveport Common Inc. Executive Director Wendy Benscoter agrees. “Developers need a reason to invest in an area, and artists and their art create a sense of place that is fun and interesting. At the same time, where artists are together, consumers can more easily find them, and that creates a cultural economy.”

The nine-block Shreveport Common Art & Culture District downtown was created to provide that hub; but art, and its business, paraphrasing an old song, is busting out all over.

Longer-term stalwarts Artspace, Bailey Gallery, Robinson Film Center, the Strand Theatre, Minicine?, Emmett Hook Center, Central ARTstation and the Agora Borealis art market have recently been joined by two glass-blowing studios, one of which intends to return the former B’nai Zion temple to use. Also new is Sun Studios, the design and art home of a Shreveporter-turned-Californianturned-Shreveporter. Just-opened Andress Artist and Entrepreneur Center at 717 Crockett combines art and business tenants. It is hoped the two will work together to provide part-time artists the know-how to use their skill and passion to transition from art hobby to art career.

Three blocks to the east, the former Spor- Tran Bus Terminal at 400 Crockett St. has opened as The Lot, downtown’s newest gathering place for art events, music and creative food and drinks. It is another of the "hubs" SRAC’s Atchison says are so appealing.

The art vibe at The Lot is intentional and was one of the first things owners Edgar and Deshea Guzman did. Working with Katy Larsen at The Agora Borealis, they created a unique gallery space to hang and show art. Artists were also given eight-foot round tables to create works of beauty used daily at The Lot, which hosts various art-filled events. Along the way, the venue has become the area’s premier live music venue and recently attracted two top-notch chefs to create and promote creative cuisine at The Lot several days a week.

They join new art director Michael Miller, a Shreveport native who returned home from school in Houston during Covid, but is staying to be a part of something bigger. "I'm a dreamer," he told me, "but I think with the arts, you can use relatively little money to make downtown safe and happy and beautiful." Miller points to the Millennium Mural on the side of the AT&T building across from The Lot and talks about a trip he took to Cincinnati, Ohio, to see murals. "They (Cincinnati) have a mural initiative,” Miller says. “So many tourists come just to see the murals, and businesses cater to those tourists and make money.” How to make art part of a bigger economic development picture is something he thinks about often.

Ka’Davien Baylor has been making creativity work for him for more than a decade as a public artist. Originally from Shreveport, he moved to Houston but now finds himself traveling the road north to his hometown regularly as more opportunities come his way. Though he grew up in Shreveport and went to school at Louisiana Tech, Baylor the artist was better known in Texas. His murals graced businesses ranging from Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream to printing operations, but it took a plea on Facebook to find his first wall in Shreveport. Since creating "Leaders of Tomorrow" at 1533 Marshall St., interest in his murals has increased. He has started conversations about murals throughout the city, a downtown office/studio and how to use art to promote self and social understanding.

Art leads to change, of that there is no doubt. Creativity is catalytic, and both artists and non-artists are drawn to vibrancy and excitement. James Michael LeBlanc falls into the "artist" category. He and his husband, Justin, will be moving into a newly rehabbed space just across from The Lot in about six months. “It makes me excited to be here with the change happening. I think I am part of a larger community of creatives and business owners finding value in downtown,” LeBlanc says. His J Michael Photography Co. will soon be headquartered in the 400 block of Crockett Street, as two long-neglected buildings are transformed into apartments, commercial space and a restaurant.

James and Justin moved to Shreveport- Bossier in 2015 with no jobs and no connections. Justin found work quickly, and after some soul searching, James decided to make the leap from corporate sales to photography. He started slowly but saw his business take off in 2018, when he moved to his first brickand-mortar, a downtown office space. “It was a huge impact on my business,” he told me. “Downtown was where I always wanted to be.” James and Justin now live downtown and walk to Parish Taceaux, have drinks at Abby Singer’s Bistro, recommend the Shreveport Hot Chicken at Noble Savage Tavern and explore events at Caddo Common Park and elsewhere.

With James, the conversation and the story come full circle. “C & C Mercantile is close to my heart,” he volunteers unbidden. “We just need to help more people find these wonderful places.” To do that, he has started a magazine called The Creative to showcase the many good things about Shreveport, the wonderful spaces, places and people, and the importance of art. He will continue that work to share awareness with others.

Lauren Ross-Simmons, Ka’Davien Baylor, Michael Miller and James Michael LeBlanc are four artists among many making a difference in downtown’s growth, look and feel. “Artists bring the ‘cool factor’ everywhere they go,” says SRAC’s Atchison. “What they do, and the personal engagement we have with them, makes us believe in our own power of creativity.” Other projects are under construction or planned – The Uneeda Artist Lofts, Every Man a King Distillery, properties at 721 Marshall, 408 Cotton and elsewhere. Some have direct connection to the arts; others will simply benefit from its presence, but all will work to form a critical mass of vibrancy downtown.


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