Stereotypically speaking, walking around most urban areas means you're faced with the requisite dilapidated building, an abundance of rats and lots of street art (Lower East Side anyone?). While the majority of us pass by edifices that have long since retired without so much as a second glance, some of us wonder how the burnt down pizzeria on our corner might look as a cultural center or a restaurant or even an art gallery.
It takes a keen eye and a desire to create something new to take the time and energy to re-claim a space. Amie Batalibasi, Australian filmmaker and the creator of Colour Box Studio, wanted to create a place for artists to promote their work, exchange ideas, and learn new skills. In 2012, Amie decided to turn an old tattoo parlour into just that. Working with a dedicated team of volunteers and an exceptional drive, Amie createed a space that has turned into a communal and artistic hub in Footscray, a diverse and artistic inner city suburb in Melbourne, Australia. CultureFphiles spoke with Amie about the process of creating something out of nothing, why Footscray is such a special place to live and the importance of promoting your work.
You created Colour Box Studio in late 2012 after noticing an old tattoo parlor you wanted to change into a community hub/creative space. What sparked your interest in reclaiming that space?
The tattoo parlor was pretty awesome – it had skulls and roses painted on the outside! And although the interior was dull and dark, as soon as I stepped inside the building, I knew that it was the right space. It had a shop front, a large room in the back and a courtyard outside. In my mind, I immediately saw these three spaces filled with art, creative workshops, pop up shops, events, community and creative people! So in one month on a shoe string budget, with the help of an awesome team of volunteers, we plastered, sanded, painted, knocked things down, built things and transformed the tattoo parlor into Colour Box Studio. It was such a wonderful show of community spirit and we opened with a bang on November 7th 2012 – 140 people through the door in one evening!
Why did you think it was important that Colour Box Studio exist? What sort of need did you envision it fulfilling?
Because I have a creative practice myself [as a documentary filmmaker and community arts practitioner], I know that as an artist, there are challenges to generate income and find support, a lack of opportunities to showcase work and a need to network with like minded people. So I guess I hoped to fill some of those gaps and address some of those issues with Colour Box Studio. And it was really important for it to be set up by artists and creative people for artists and creative people. In the short time that we have been open [8 months], I think that we have achieved some of this vision.We’ve showcased over 100 artists through our programs and enabled artists to gain an income through our Pop Up Shops and facilitating workshops. We’ve also run events and exhibitions that are free and accessible to the broader community.
For folks unfamiliar with Melbourne, Australia, what is Footscray like? What makes the neighborhood so special to you?
Footscray is unlike any other place I know and it’s a very unique suburb of Melbourne. The most notable thing is that it's rich in cultural diversity...I’ve lived here for over 6 years and can’t imagine living anywhere else in Melbourne. The thing that makes Footscray special to me is the sense of community – it’s not just a suburb, it’s a community of diverse people and cultures...sometimes a walk in Footscray can feel like you’ve traveled to another country.
As an Australian Solomon Islander, coming from a diverse background myself, I feel really comfortable here. Also, there’s a bit of a rising art scene – there are quite a few galleries and artist run spaces and we’re happy to be one of them! I just hope that with all of the recent gentrification and new development in the area that Footscray can hold onto its unique character. The building where Colour Box Studio is at the moment will actually be knocked down next year to make way for 12 Storey apartments – so we have to relocate at some point.
Most people who see a space and have a dream to create something from it are stopped by a number of challenges. What inspired you to move forward on this idea? What were the first steps you took to make that a reality?
Yes, I would agree that there are so many challenges in terms of following your creative dreams whatever they may be. I knew nothing about setting up a creative space – all I knew was that I had an amazing creative network that would be able to use and benefit from Colour Box Studio so I just jumped right in. I am a pretty determined person – once I have my sights set on something I give it everything I’ve got. I am lucky to have had strong women role models in my life to look up to. The first steps I made were to educate myself – I researched other creative business models and I spoke to a few people running them.
The most important thing I did was to consult with my creative networks, invite them to the space in the middle of construction phase and ask them over a glass of wine, what they could see happening in the space and how it could benefit a place like it. From there I ‘rallied the troops’ (volunteers) and promoted like crazy. I think that for me, the three key elements to setting up Colour Box Studio were persistence, team work and listening to my community. These are still key to how we operate.
What have been some of your challenges and how have you overcome them? What keeps you moving through these challenges?
Running Colour Box Studio is a volunteer position for me and everyone involved and it seems that everyday a new obstacle presents itself! One challenge would be that everything we do is for the first time, so we are constantly learning! We have run four completely different programs accessing very different artforms and creative communities - an Art & Craft Program, Digital Media Program, Ethical Fashion Program and a Writing and Performance Program. Our next program will be Music and Sound...the good thing is that with every program, we increase our networks for the next time.
It has sometimes been hard to find media opportunities in more mainstream media – especially with one big Australian newspaper stating that we’re 'not newsworthy enough.' We don’t have an advertising budget so we have to think creatively about how to promote our artists and programs for free. So we’ve really tried to focus on local newspapers and bloggers who have been very supportive. And we’re really trying to grow the Colour Box Studio blog with quality content written by our volunteer blogger team. Of course, we’re all over social networking! I think that the small successes along the way keep me inspired – whether it be someone coming in to buy a locally produced item in our Pop Up Shop, seeing a local musician perform at an event or attending a creative workshop by a local artist. This is why we’re here – to provide a platform for artists to pursue their creative passions and that’s the vision that keeps me inspired.
It’s been really tough starting out and getting our name out there – and it’s been a big learning curve personally. I think what has got us through, is the community around us – the amazing volunteers and our creative community. This year we ran a Pozible crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to keep our doors open. Thankfully, we were successful! It was so humbling and awesome to see that our community really wants us to be here!
How do you manage the responsibilities of running Colour Box Studio and other areas of your life?
Finding work/life balance is tricky for me. Apart from volunteering to run Colour Box Studio I am a documentary filmmaker, media trainer and community arts practitioner. At the moment I am making a documentary film called Fishing for Culture about people from diverse cultural backgrounds who like to fish; and I’m also volunteering for a group called the Australian South Sea Islander Secretariat – a group that works to be a representative voice for the descendants of 62,000 Pacific islanders who were brought to Australia in the late 19th Century to work on the cotton and sugar cane fields as laborers. So I am busy - but very happy and lucky to be busy! The truth is that I work a lot (people often get emails from me sent late at night!), but these are the things that I am passionate about so I am driven to do them! And I can say that I truly love the work that I do.
You've gotten a lot of folks on board as volunteers for the project. How did you manage to do that? What do you think was the draw for people to get involved?
Colour Box Studio is 100% volunteer run and operated. I think that this helps us to build a sense of community around what we do and it means that everyone who is here, really wants to be here and shares the vision of supporting our creative community. At first I used my own networks to get people on board, and now through word of mouth and social networking people are coming on board. Our most recent volunteer found us on Twitter! I think that people want to be involved at Colour Box Studio because it's a chance to give back to community and we provide hands on experience...but also I think that our volunteers like to be a part of our community, they can network and meet other creative people here.
How has creating Colour Box Studio differed from the creative process of making a film? How has it been similar?
I think that some skills from my filmmaking practice like project management, managing people, producing skills, organizational skills, teaching skills etc. comes in handy. [In other ways] setting up Colour Box Studio and running it, is entirely different to my filmmaking practice. My film work is quite diverse – sometimes I am making documentaries for other people, sometimes I am teaching/sharing filmmaking skills with diverse community groups, sometimes I am producing community film projects, sometimes I am working on my own film projects. I have been developing my filmmaking practice over the last few years so I feel like I have been able to hone my creative processes a bit and I have certain ways of working. But in terms of Colour Box Studio – when we started in November 2012 I had no idea what I was doing and no experience in setting up a creative space. It was like starting from scratch again. I had no business plan and I had no processes and procedures in place!
Basically we have been learning as we go, making lots of mistakes and then fixing them. I basically just try to make sure we can keep our heads above water in terms of covering costs and then I try to keep the overall vision of Colour Box Studio strong in my mind and keep moving forward.
Folks tend to have lots of romantic notions of the "life of an artist" or being an entrepreneur. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions?
Hmmm...I’m not sure who thinks that about artists! Maybe because all of the people I know are in creative fields and we all know that it’s a tough gig – especially in the beginning. I know a lot creative people and artists who have to work at another job (that they don’t like that much) to sustain their creative practices. In Australia, it is really difficult to do the creative things that you love full time, and make an income from it. I’m not saying that it can’t be done but it is challenging.
That’s part of the reason why I wanted to set up Colour Box Studio – to allow creatives and artists to pursue their creative passions and make a bit of income from it. If we can at least be a stepping-stone for someone on their creative career path, then I am happy...if you want to be an artist and make a living from it, you have to become a business person as well. After university, I did a business short course and found that it was invaluable to have the basics of how to write a business plan, how to do your own accounts and the most important lesson was not to be afraid of promoting your work – because basically, if you don’t do it in the beginning no one else will. And this is probably why we try to promote our artists at Colour Box Studio as best we can.
What legacy are you looking to leave with your work?
Wow – this is a big question. The word ‘legacy’ is scary especially since I am only 32! Much of my work is collaborative and centered around community, culture, creativity and storytelling. I feel very privileged to work with the people I work with - whether it’s the volunteers at the studio, participants and collaborators in film projects, or the audiences and communities around that. I think that with whatever I do, I can only strive to give it 100% effort and 100% honesty in terms of setting out to achieve my aims and objectives. If by doing that, my work can help to create a little bit of positive change for people and communities, then that's an added bonus.