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Lowe Mill

A sunset over Lowe Mill ARTS and Entertainment. Photo by Lowe Mill
A sunset over Lowe Mill ARTS and Entertainment. Photo by Lowe Mill

Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment hums with visitors in search of local food, art, music and handmade goods

By Jennifer Crossley Howard

This former textile mill-turned-arts hub in the outskirts of Huntsville opens to the public four days a week, while other days are reserved for the 120 artists and business owners to fine-tune their crafts.

Green Pea Press - Studio # 111 & 122
Rachel Lackey of Green Pea Press talks about her 1914 letterpress. Photo by Lowe Mill

While many of America’s forgotten textile mills become loft apartments or sit empty until they fall down, Lowe Mill has been transformed. Three floors of studio and business space house artists as diverse as sculptors, printmakers, photographers and yogis. The public can watch artists work at pursuits as detailed as painted glass and cartography.

Catherine Shearer, owner of Happy Tummy Gastronomic Delights, has been here since the mill reopened seven years ago. Then, there was no air conditioning, paved parking or outside lighting.

“It’s come a long way since then,” she says, sitting in one of her booths. “It’s hard work of anyone who’s been a part of it for more than a decade.”

She started in a trailer outside the mill and now she serves a lengthy menu of sandwiches, wraps, vegetarian fare, and sweets from her first-floor restaurant. Diner-style booths and tables and chairs lend a modern touch to an otherwise industrial landscape of exposed beams and concrete floors. Poles throughout the mill bear initials, love for Alabama football and some multiplication.

Though known for rockets and engineering, Huntsville is investing in the arts by supporting Lowe Mill, says Shearer, a Huntsville native.

“This is a facility unlike any other,” she says. “It’s a major thing for Huntsville.”

She attributes its success to Lowe Mill developer and owner Jim Hudson and his son, Jimmy Hudson, who oversaw much of its transition. They modeled the mill after another mill turned arts center, The Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Va. Lowe Mill calls itself the country’s largest independent center for the arts.

Marcia Freeman, executive director of Lowe Mill, said she thinks every city should have such centers for artists of all backgrounds.

“There’s not a lot of space for visual artists to come together,” she says. “People are coming to me and asking me how they can do this.”

A model for other communities

She said the city of Fayette, Ala. — population 4,619 — adapted Lowe Mill’s arts community by renting studios to local artists. Downtown Athens, Ala., 20 minutes from Huntsville, began High Cotton Arts in April after touring Lowe Mill. Two city officials from Florence, Ala., a longtime cultural haven in the state, recently approached Freeman about how to begin such an endeavor.

Most artists at Lowe Mill work seven days a week and are required to keep a certain number of studio hours. Shearer uses her closed time to prep food and take care of business.

Rachel Lackey and Martin Blanco spend much of their closed time filling orders for screen prints, letterpress, T-shirts, posters and invitations.

While print struggles in some forms of media, it’s alive and well at Green Pea Press, also on the first floor of the mill. The business, begun by Lackey, started as merely a place for artists to have access to presses. Instead, the press attracted clients eager for handmade products and images in place of slick, digital copies. Going back to scratch is a major theme at Lowe Mill.

Green Pea Press intern Andrea Parham prints T-shirts. Photo by Jennifer Crossley Howard
Green Pea Press intern Andrea Parham prints T-shirts. Photo by Jennifer Crossley Howard

During a summer afternoon, many people peeked through large windows to watch intern Andrea Parham screen print.

“We have a target audience walking in every day so we don’t even have to advertise,” Lackey says.

A recent visitor described watching printers work the presses as being “invited back to the kitchen,” Blanco says.

He joined Lackey in 2012 to handle ever increasing retail sales. T-shirt, poster, coaster prints are the bread and butter of the business, and the press began on-site event printing this year.

“We’re kind of a backlash to the digital age,” Lackey says. “You see that in all aspects of artisinal food and music and handmade instruments.”

She brushed her fingers across an indented letterpress business card.

“It’s more real,” she says.

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