The popop spirit: Nassau’s Popopstudios International Centre for the Visual Arts

Founded by artist John Cox in 1999, Nassau’s Popopstudios International Centre for the Visual Arts has become an international art contender

A  courtyard at Nassau’s Popopstudios shows traces of the handiwork of its community of artists. Photograph by Nadia HugginsArtist John Cox, founder of Popopstudios. Photograph by Lisa WellsArtist Michael Edwards leads a workshop at Popopstudios. Photograph by Lisa WellsCollaborating on a Popopstudios silkscreen. Photograph by Matthew CromwellOne of the art centre’s studio spaces. Photograph by Nadia HugginsPhotograph by Nadia HugginsPopopstudios’ colourful façade welcomes visitors to meet its community of artists. Photograph by Nadia Huggins

Rolling up to Popopstudios International Centre for the Visual Arts on any given day is a bit of a risk. Not because the art space is nestled in the heart of Chippingham, a once well-to-do west Nassau neighbourhood that has fallen into disarray — in fact, the cheerful yellow picket fence enclosing psychedelic pink porches emits a welcoming glow, a sign that a special community thrives here.

It’s because any member of that community could be huddled away in one of eleven or so studio spaces, or installing work in the main gallery, or teaching a workshop, or gathered around one of those porches for a quick chat that gradually and inevitably develops into deeper meditations on life and art.

At any given time, ready to welcome any visitor could one be artist, or two, or all of them. Every person who has become part of Popopstudios’ community has contributed a particular energy to its ebullient spirit. The building reverberates with a constant hum of creative energy that rises and falls in pitch depending on who inhabits the space.

Almost always, you get lucky, and spend hours touring the studio spaces, on the receiving end of some true Bahamas hospitality from the varied resident artists — who at any given time might include painters, photographers, sculptors, ceramicists, filmmakers, jewellery-makers, and quilters, and who might hail from Nassau, from the Caribbean region, or even the wider world. If you’re really lucky, you might even become part of the family and begin to tap into the intangible core of what Popopstudios is all about.

“I feel like, in a way, that’s the mysticism of Popop,” says its founder, Bahamian artist John Cox. “It kind of manifests itself in different bodies, in different ways. There is a compassion there, and sometimes it manifests itself in warm and inviting and welcoming ways, and other times it comes across as kind of a dragon, more ferocious. Both things are important.”

For Cox, balance is not so much a goal as a constant exercise in conscious creativity. His mixed media paintings and assemblages often engage the life cycle of balance: struggle, transcendence, and acceptance. This drive encapsulates not only his creative work, but also his pitch as curator at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, his mentorship of emerging artists as a professor at the College of the Bahamas — and his journey to build a hub for contemporary Bahamian art at Popopstudios.

That journey now faces a crossroads, as the space tries to find the right approach to stand on its own in a globalised conversation about art. “We’ve always been a place that is about the ‘art’ part of art,” says Cox, “because art has a lot of parts, the majority of which are not about art, and which become more convoluted every day.” He adds, “We need to understand those things, and we need to realise how important they are.”

He expresses constant amazement at how Popopstudios, which started as his personal artistic practice, has grown into something beyond his ability to define. It began in a cottage on the family property in Chippingham, built by his grandfather Edward Dillet — known affectionately as “Pop Pop.” In 1999, in the large working space he built next door to the cottage, Cox exhibited a series of dynamic chair designs branded “Pop.Pop Studios.” For the next seven years, Popopstudios existed as an alternative gallery space in both cottage and studio, not only for works by Cox but also for several of his peers — Toby Lunn, Heino Schmid, Blue Curry, Michael Edwards, and Jason Bennett. Their group exhibitions, approaching subject matter, material, and installation in unconventional ways, finally gave contemporary and experimental artwork a platform in the Bahamas. Cox was surprised that people sought out the space, in order to see how Bahamian art was progressing.

“At the beginning,” he says, “we wanted to create a community of artists who shared the same philosophical stance. It was about having similar intentions with our work — kind of bucking the system and its nostalgic view of the landscape, and challenging presentation.

“My work and work of close friends were not seen as part of the mainstream,” he adds. “The older generation had done their thing, but I felt like there was such a generation gap. I felt like we could cultivate something that took that momentum they started for Bahamian art and take it even further.”

The chance to expand the community came in 2007, when Cox’s aunt Iris Dillet-Knowles, proprietor of Dillet’s Guest House, handed the property over to him. The guesthouse was previously the family home, cobbled together by none other than Pop Pop himself. A self-made man who left school to pursue a prosperous career in the building trade, Pop Pop regularly added to a modest central structure to make space for extended family members, eventually ending up with more of a compound than a house.

Cox never met his grandfather, who died in 1964 — almost a decade before Cox was born — yet he remains in many ways a reincarnation of Pop Pop’s exuberance, kindness, and creativity. The property, too, he decided, needed a reincarnation worthy of its eighty-five-year-old history.

“When we came here for the first time, I remember driving through Chippingham and thinking, Oh gosh, where are we?” says artist Danielle “Dede” Brown. “I love it here, the whole vibe of the property.”

In 2008, when Cox turned the numerous bedrooms of the house into a collection of artists’ studios for rent, Brown and her partner Dylan Rapillard were among the first to snatch up a shared space. Since then, they have been constant pillars of the Popop community. Brown credits Popop with changing her perspective on her creative practice.

“The support from everyone here is so natural and informal — Popop is my art family,” she says. “You go through those moments where you question yourself and the way your work is going, and then someone like Dylan or John would come in and give feedback. It’s definitely very personal and emotional — you don’t feel like you’re just renting a space.”

When artist Heino Schmid returned home to Nassau in 2003 after studying abroad, he quickly formed a creative kinship with Cox and became a central member of the Popopstudios community. “There was no other place I could think to go for contemporary Bahamian work,” says Schmid. “People underestimate how important it is for an artist to feel like they can activate an area. It’s very important to feel like you can manipulate the physicality of the space your work exists in,” he explains, “because it sort of thickens the content. There was no other place on the island that allowed for that opportunity.”

Now, in his role as Popop’s exhibitions director, Schmid pushes for shows that generate conversation about contemporary Bahamian art. And in March 2013 there was a chance to expand that conversation, when Popopstudios ICVA represented Schmid’s work at the VoltaNY Art Fair in New York City. To fund the VoltaNY project, the community rallied behind Schmid, as he organised a special exhibition of his work in Popop’s gallery space. The turnout, says Schmid, showed that people not only support him as an artist, but recognise the relevance of the institution. His work at VoltaNY went on to be viewed by an estimated fifty thousand guests.

“There’s no other place like it,” says Schmid of Popopstudios. “If I had to work someplace else — I don’t actually know where that would be. I tell people all the time, when I travel and I get homesick, I don’t miss my house — I miss my studio.”

In 2010, Popopstudios gained non-profit status, and became an International Centre for the Visual Arts: part of a push towards expanding its community beyond the Bahamian artists based in its studios. Workshops and critical discussions, offered by resident artists as well as artists from the wider community, were the beginnings of what Popop hopes will become a rigorous education programme, making the space a dynamic school of arts. Artists’ residencies are also part of the plan.

Popopstudios’ residency programme is twofold. On the one hand, visiting artists-in-residence get to expand their artistic practice in a new context, while also providing the Bahamian community with glimpses of the international contemporary art scene. On the other, Popop’s Junior Residency Programme — a partnership with the D’Aguilar Art Foundation and artist Antonius Roberts — gives young Bahamian artists a chance to find their bearings in the art world.
Now in existence for five years, the Junior Residency Programme has proven to be a turning point for its participants. Veronica Dorsett, a 2012 Popopstudios Junior Resident, recently participated in Caribbean Linked II, a residency based in Aruba. Dorsett credits her time at Popopstudios with giving her a context for her artistic practice, and the confidence to apply it to other creative opportunities. “During the residency,” she says, “the reality of creating my own points of interest and subject matter was the biggest eye-opener. Popop gave me an inkling of hope that I could be a functioning artist.”

The expansion of Popopstudios ICVA has brought both exciting opportunities and harrowing realities as it looks to the future. The biggest anxiety is an all-too-familiar struggle for art spaces: fundraising. The second-biggest is a little harder to define, but includes the shift of responsibility for running the space. Along with a new board, Popopstudios has gained a manager of operations to move the space through its new set of growing pains.

Jay Koment is a freelance art dealer who previously ran New Providence Art and Antiques. No stranger to the less glamorous details of running an art space, Koment knows the importance of the big picture, but is aware that the devil is in the details. “Popop needs to be a place where people can do what they do, which is make art,” he says. “That’s the endgame. People have to be comfortable making their work here.”

Slowly, over the years, the mission of Popopstudios has shifted from its anarchic origins into something more all-encompassing: a community that thrives on its own internal debates about art. In a way, Popopstudios ICVA is John Cox’s single greatest creative work, if only for its struggle to find the perfect balance between maintaining its inspiring organic pace and recognising the need to harness, categorise, and formalise that inspiration, to make Popop a weighty contender in the regional and international art world.
Popop’s biggest hope is also, paradoxically, its biggest fear: what if its growth and the attendant bureaucratic realities begin to formalise the space in a way that hinders its very spirit? What if the family becomes too big for the space? But like his grandfather Pop Pop before him, Cox knows there is a way to make room in the house for everyone.

“The most important thing is the spirit of Popop,” says Cox. “The most meaningful part is the hardest thing to articulate, and what we are trying to do is expose people to that experience.”
“I’ve been blessed enough to have this experience over and over again, and most artists know what I am talking about. We want to take that to everyone.”