John Chamberlain’s former studio, Sarasota, Florida. All photos: John Sims

From the Chambers: A Memorial to a Creative Space 

For the past few years, I have had a daily ritual of going down to the Sunoco station to get my morning coffee. While the coffee there is basic, the gas station is not. It sits on the corner boundary of downtown Sarasota overlooking the intracoastal waters that separate the viewer from a barrier island that contours the Gulf of Mexico. The view is stunning, picture perfect, and almost makes my coffee unnecessary.

Let’s make no mistake here, coffee is very necessary, but it is not the main reason I take this trip. This walk gets my blood moving, arms swinging, and ideas flowing. The walk calibrates my energy for maximal creative delivery and brings a way to reflect and strategize the plans of the day. But new-age language and euphemisms aside, this is basically my way of waking up. 

The path I take is a straight shot down a street with get-to-work traffic, a few trees, and a direct embrace of the morning sun. I walk with my shadow when the clouds permit and in near silence when traffic lights are red. Along this path is a daycare center, military school, Salvation Army complex, an empty building that used to be an architectural salvage place, and the studio site of the world-renowned sculptor John Chamberlain. 

His studio building, a huge 18,000-square-foot yellow metal factory type structure, is situated on the better part of a city block, and for the past 20 years, I traveled past it by car, bike, foot, and plane. Sometimes, I would peep in between the cracks in the industrial garage doors and see heaps and heaps of scrap metal on the ground or the white sparks and zappy sounds of welding. 

Often, when I would go by, I would feel moments of pride, knowing that such a great artist had created work on the same street, a few blocks away, as my own studio. I wondered about all the things that happened inside. I had heard many stories about the many parties and adult fun with Mr. Chamberlain holding court, after his arrival to Sarasota in the early ’80s. But this was also a space where he made very big and important works, including the monumental American Tableau for the plaza at the Seagram Building in Manhattan. 

Often, I had wondered what it would have been like to run into Mr. Chamberlain and chat with him over beer, about art and politics. I would have asked him to show me his trick with crushing cigarette packs, the very thing that inspired the crinkled car sculptures for which he is so famous. I would have asked him if he knew my buddy Joe Overstreet, a painter who ran in Greenwich Village’s art circles back in the ’60s, or about the films he did with the actor Taylor Meade, who was a part of my own work at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York. 

I would have invited him down to my studio and showed him some of my work, especially my sculptural clocks, chess sets made with flowers, recolored Confederate flag, and the Pi Quilts I did with Amish quilters in Sarasota. I most certainly would have asked him about Jackson Pollock, Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, and what he thought of Basquiat’s work. Or about his time at Black Mountain College and how poetry inspired his work. Or what it was like to represent the U.S. in the Venice Biennale in 1964. Or what it was like to live on a boat in Sarasota Bay when he first came down to Sarasota, something I’ve always wanted to do.

Sometime before he died in 2011, Mr. Chamberlain moved most of his operation up to New York where he built a studio on Shelter Island, a town on the east end of Long Island. Though I never got to meet him, I became content with having a neighborly relationship with his building–the kind of space artists dream of having, a space that cradles the spirit of the creative and constructive process, a space that incubates objects for the history books. So walking by this studio was always one of the highlights of my morning.

When I walked by this past summer and saw the “sold” sign posted on the front of the building after having been on the market since 2015, I could hear in my head Sam Cooke’s song, “A Change is Gonna Come.” And shortly after that there was a blood-red sign inviting folks to a meeting to rezone the property. I thought about going to the meeting, but the date had already passed. Then I saw businessmen-esque developers going in and out of the studio. I knew their presence signaled an end of something well-lived, and that they were like funeral directors coming to take a body. 

Sometime later, en route to get coffee, I saw the yellow bulldozers in position to make the first strike. I quickly returned to my studio to get my camera phone, and before I got back the west wall was already gone. For the next week, I faithfully documented the incremental destruction. At some point, I came back after the demolition workers had left to check out the inside and see what I could find.  

When I entered the building, I was greeted with metal scraps everywhere, organized in piles of various sizes. I went to the back part first, just in case the cops came through and I needed to duck out. There in the back corner was a part of a machine that I had no idea what it was used for. From the rails on the ceiling, I could see how massive heavy objects were prepared for departure. The floor was marked, chipped, and stained, indicating serious construction work. 

As I played forensic detective imagining all of the planning, welding, propping up, and cursing that went on in here, I also wondered if anyone ever got hurt or if any sculpture ever fell over and got damaged, or if anyone got laid in here. As I made my way to the front part, I saw that there was a room with a mattress and all kinds of wrappers and litter, confirming my previous thoughts. Overall, the place felt and looked like the aftermath of a rowdy music festival that got rained out at the end. 

A lot has changed in Sarasota in the last 15 years: the skyline, the new hotels, multitudes of condos and restaurants, the frequent sighting of Ferraris, Lambos, and Maseratis making the common Mercedes and Range Rovers seem so middle class. The roundabouts and palm trees lining the middle of U.S. Route 41, aka Tamiami Trail, are pushing towards the visuals of a baby Miami. Even my street is changing, with a new dog park and office-looking condo on one end and a new roundabout on the other. 

Lost Chambers: A Tribute to John Chamberlain’s Studio (on reserve by The Ringling Museum of Art)

This seems dynamic and exciting on the one hand, and fraught with anxiety on the other. The historic downtown Black community has been replaced with a boutique cheese cafe, a dog salon, and places that serve $5 black coffee. The church that once was a soundbox for gospel music is now a fancy office building with artsy loft spaces. All that is left is a historical marker on the corner of Central Avenue and 4th Street that reads like a pink slip combined with a tombstone. Gentrification and cultural loss is a real thing here. 

So where do the artists, their spaces, and their memories fit into all of this fancy Robin Leach development? I have seen a number of murals popping up, giving the idea that Sarasota is a bustling art town. I wonder where all of these artists are and where they live and how their studios are situated. And where are the art spaces like Mr. Chamberlain’s that are home to work created for the world stage? Where are the markers and memorials for those who have occupied these spaces, created greatness, and moved on?

Economic concerns seem to overshadow the spiritual capital to protect the anchors of our memories and future cultural production. I have written about this kind of loss of such anchors in my own hometown Detroit city, where all my neighborhood schools are gone. And more recently, we see this loss in the closure of the San Francisco Art Institute, the iconic art school and home of the incredible Diego Rivera mural, the school which has produced notable artists such as Annie Leibovitz, Karen Finley, and Kehinde Wiley. What will happen now to the mural? What will happen to its gallery that housed and inspired the work of countless student artists?

Studio image of From the Chambers, 2021.

As the demo workers were collecting the last bits of metal from the roof, I did one final tour. Then I got the idea to do a piece, a tribute to Mr. Chamberlain, to the death of art spaces, to the resurrective memories of creative spaces. I asked one of the guys in charge if I could take some scraps. He nodded yes and off I went looking for something to carry back to the studio. Luckily, I found a long gutter piece there waiting, as if it were selected for me by the Art Gods, or Mr. Chamberlain himself. With medium roast coffee in hand, I balanced the long piece over my shoulder and began my Passion of Christ walk home. When I got to the studio, I folded the metal in sections and placed it in the corner to wait for my inspired art direction. 

The next morning, on the way back from getting my coffee, I stop and stand before the empty lot, where once stood the great art studio of an iconic artist in a growing city on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. My thoughts are as blank as the lot itself. I pour some coffee libation to the ground in memory, in honor and respect for the spaces that bring forth the best evidence of our humanity and capacity to create. Now, I am ready to get to the studio and work on my newest piece.

John Sims, a Detroit native, Sarasota-based conceptual artist, writer, and social justice activist, creates art and curatorial projects spanning the areas of installation, performance, text, music, film, and large-scale activism. He is currently artist in residence at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club and at the Ringling Museum of Art, where he developed the performance piece 2020: (Di)Visions of America. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.