Cal Cullen: Changing the Current

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Interview by Hillary Copsey. Photography by Kali Robinson.

In less than three years, Calcagno Cullen has transformed an old Camp Washington building into an art gallery and a thriving, vibrant corner of the neighborhood.

Cal, as most people call her, is the founder and director of Wave Pool, an arts center that aims to be a catalyst for social engagement and a cultivator of artistic development. In pursuit of that mission, the 34-year-old has many jobs: a landlord and small business investor, a curator and artist, a marketer and fundraiser, a community developer and a neighbor. She's also a wife and mother whose family lives in the Wave Pool building.

Stories are at the center of her own art, and connections among people are also at the heart of her work at Wave Pool. An example: This summer, at the craft boutique called The Welcome Project, which grew out of a partnership between Wave Pool and a refugee services organization, Cal witnessed a Syrian refugee and a prostitute strike up a conversation. Neither spoke the other's language, but they each shared a story about life's difficulties, and each listened to the other. And, after each had told their tale, the women hugged.

“There's something about providing a welcoming space to people that is very valuable,” Cal said.

The next exhibit coming to Wave Pool is, appropriately enough, called “The Gathering Space” and will transform the gallery into a used bookshop for most of September. It's meant to be a place to sit and chat, read and visit with your neighbors. In many ways, the exhibit embodies Wave Pool's mission, and we talked recently with Cal about her life and work here in Cincinnati.

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What all is housed in Wave Pool?

On the first floor, there's the gallery, and most people that come may only see the gallery space. Then behind that, there's studio space for five artists and a wood shop. The wood shop was, until very recently, just for the artists who work here, but now, on Saturday afternoons, it's open to anyone who is a member of Wave Pool. You can buy a membership for $35.

And then upstairs, there's artist-in-residence live-work space. We have usually a different artist here every month. Either they have a show here, or they are just in town and need a work space, or they win one of our residency programs. We give away two stipend artist-in-residence fellowships each year.

Then, there's the community space. There's yoga and classes and film screenings – just all kind of stuff happens up here. We're going to try to add a pottery studio in the basement.

And then we live here, too.

How did you end up in Cincinnati, starting Wave Pool?

I moved to Blanchester when I was 13, went to Miami University for undergrad, and University of Cincinnati for grad school. That's where I met my husband, Skip. When we graduated – this was 2007, 2008 – we felt like Cincinnati didn't have what we needed to really grow as artists and cultural contributors. We felt like we had to leave. We had to get to a coast. We decided to move to San Francisco, lived there for five years and we did pretty well there. I was working in education at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and he was teaching. But it just got to a moment when the city was getting inhospitable to artists – very expensive, people were moving away; it just felt like we were working all the time and weren't able to be as productive and creative as we wanted to.

And I was pregnant.

We weren't sure we were going to come back to Cincinnati, but we knew we wanted to start an art center. We'd had this idea since we met that we wanted to start a place that was very supportive of artists. We wanted a place that could offer a community to artists even after school, and also sort of feed the community at the same time.

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How did Cincinnati end up being your destination?

We knew we had to buy our building. We knew we wanted some place more affordable than San Francisco, and we knew we wanted a place where we could make a difference. Cincinnati fit the bill on both of those points, but also we had a lot of connections here. There's something to be said about coming to a place you know, at least the bones of it.

And how did you pick Camp Washington?

I feel like this building picked us. We had looked at this building for a long time, like more than a year in San Francisco. This building was so perfect. It has the gallery space. It has living space. It has the community space. But we thought there'd be no way it would still be available – and then it was. We scooped it up. It's a great space for us.

How has it been settling into the neighborhood?

It's actually been really easy. The first day we moved in, the head of the community board took us on a tour, introduced us to a bunch of neighbors. This neighborhood definitely has problems, but it's also a very welcoming community. People are very excited to see things happening here. And also,

people embrace the idea that Camp Washington is weird and you can do whatever. Our Campy Washington mural there sums it up. People are cool with it being, like, quirky and very diverse.

In all the time we've been here, we haven't had any complaints. We do some weird stuff. A couple months ago, we had a crazy rooftop performance that blasted the whole neighborhood with weird noise, music, and no one complained. Everyone is really nice. I love Camp Washington. I feel like we lucked out.

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You're supporting artists, but also feeding the community. What does that mean? It's a known factor these days that art develops communities. People bring in artists if they want a neighborhood to improve, and then, the artists get kicked out (priced out). That's kind of the cycle that happens.

When I'm talking about developing artists, it's just as much about finding them jobs, finding them homes, getting them into stable situations. And then that idea just expanded. Then, suddenly, we're dealing with real estate. We're dealing with our neighbors. We're dealing with plumbing and all sorts of issues I never thought I would have to deal with, and it really became about the whole neighborhood.

Like, okay, if we're encouraging artists to move here, where are they getting their food? Where are our neighbors getting their food? How are we all going to live happily and healthily together? Suddenly a gallery is just a foot in the door, and we're making art or showing art about food or food equity. And actually, the people in this neighborhood need a place to buy a tomato, and we're developing a partnership with a farm and with the community board. And it just keeps growing.

It's overwhelming all the time, but really amazing things are happening. Whenever I'm getting overwhelmed, it's like, “Well, look what just happened. That's so cool.”

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What is the thing you feel most amazed by?

I was really proud of the Camp Washington Mobile Produce – that was our way of getting produce to people via art. That was super cool.

And The Welcome Project, that's a Wave Pool partnership with Heartfelt Tidbits, a program that helps refugees and immigrants, for a year, and that's been so rewarding.

And I also am constantly amazed by how many world-renowned artists come through the space. We're such a small art center, with an incredibly small budget, and yet we get some very spectacular people who come stay here.

Why?

Artists respond really well to places that are really just trying to make a difference in a neighborhood. Because we are so entrenched in Camp Washington, artists respond to that and are like, “Yeah, I want to come do something with you guys.” Maybe more than work with a big museum.

Tell me more about the partnership with The Welcome Project.

It started as just a class up here in the community center, where once a week refugee women connected with Heartfelt Tidbits came to learn art. But then they said, “We want our own store. We want to sell what we're making.”

And we did it. We got the building (across the corner from Wave Pool), and so now, it's opened up this whole can of worms about what's possible and what we should do with the space, which has two storefronts: a kitchen and a shop.

The goal is to be a social enterprise that can employ and do workplace training that can help immigrants. It'll be part kitchen – that's not open yet, but it's coming – and part boutique shop. In addition to selling food and items, we do workshops and classes for the public and refugees. Out of the boutique, we're doing three to four classes per week. Refugees come and we do sewing classes and crafting, and they make items and sell them. Right now, we're just doing consignment, but we're working on a sustainable business plan. It's coming. It's exciting.

In addition to the kitchen and the shop, upstairs in the building, there's eight apartments. We're not kicking anyone out, but they're slowly going to transition to artists' live-work space and refugee housing.

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And you own the corner now?

Yeah. Which is nice because we get to paint it whatever color we want. Make it a really pretty corner. That's kind of cool.

Did you imagine that you would own multiple properties?

No way. And when my friends from California visit, they're just amazed. I always tell them, “Cincinnati! You could have this much space.” And actually, people from California are moving here. Artists are moving here.

What is your work as an artist?

Right now, Wave Pool and The Welcome Project are pretty much my work. I'm still making art, but I feel like this is consuming me right now.

I'm classically trained as a painter and in grad school, I started making work that was about communicating with other people, collecting stories, and after that, I never looked back. I am always making objects that shared stories or collected stories.

My last show, this summer, I did a project with an inmate at Lebanon Correctional Institution named Tommy. He wrote me because he wanted to figure out how to be a better artist while he was in prison. So we started writing back and forth and decided to do this year-long daily drawing project. Every day for a year, we each made these small objects from our daily life. So, he's got things like weights and TVs and cockroaches, and I've got things like wine glasses and drawing materials. It was 770 drawings total, and now I'm compiling them into a book. Tommy will get a copy and I'll get a copy. We sold some of the drawings; sales will pay for the book. And his mom came to the opening, and his aunt. It was cool.

Most of my drawings were co-produced by me and my daughter. (She's 3.) I would draw them and she would color or scribble on them. You have to figure out how to fit these things in. If I'm going to make art, I have to make it fit into what I'm already doing.

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You left San Francisco because you felt like the city was getting inhospitable to artists. How do you feel like Cincinnati is doing on that front?

Well, it depends on the neighborhood. One of the reasons why I think Camp Washington is thriving as an artists' space is because Over-The-Rhine is not. We've seen people moving into Camp Washington from OTR. [The change in OTR] leaves the door open for other neighborhoods to grow as, like, a gallery district.

But, Cincinnati in general is one of the best cities for artists right now. Cincinnati supports artists in a way that a lot of cities don't. We might not have the kind of grant support that a city like San Francisco or New York does, but we also don't have the competition that those cities do. You're much more likely to get a grant or get funded here.

We don't have a lot of buyers and collectors. But, one thing I always say is that the art in Cincinnati is much more cutting edge, provocative, and timely than the work I see in New York or LA. My hypothesis is that because artists in Cincinnati know they're not going to be able to make a living selling their work, they just make art that they want to make. In a lot of ways, it's very freeing.
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What else is Wave Pool working on that you're excited about?

There are a couple programs we're doing to develop artists and curators. We have critique nights, but we also started a curatorial residency. We're giving three young curators $2,000 budgets to develop a show, and we also provide mentorship.

And we also started a program with University of Cincinnati called Field Trip, which is a student-led arts review journal.

What advice do you have to young artists?

Find your way into every opportunity you can. Start volunteering at a gallery. Start working connections. Start showing your work to galleries or working at a museum. The reason why I'm running Wave Pool today, the reason I got my job at SF MOMA, if you track all the way back, it's because I worked the front desk at Cincinnati Art Museum.

Who is a woman who has inspired or influenced you?

The person who has influenced me the most is my old boss at the Community School of Music and  Arts, Linda Covello. She was so supportive of my art, encouraging, and she was one of those bosses who lets you take full ownership of a program and really run with it, and that was such a confidence boost and let me grow to my full potential. The ideal boss.