BY NATALIE LARIMER
Downtown Des Moines has a hidden art center and culture: the Fitch Building. It is a block away from the Pappajohn Sculpture Park downtown, yet it is not the first thing that pops into mind when people think of the Des Moines art scene.
The Fitch Building has four floors filled with artist studios, occupied by tenants ranging from sculptors to videographers, and that is not even half of it. On Saturday, Dec. 3, all but three artists opened their studios to the public, as they do annually, to come in and experience art straight from the source.
The Fitch Building was originally a shampoo warehouse in 1914, producing Fitch Shampoo. A bottle of this shampoo is on the shelf of artist Catherine Dreiss in her fourth floor studio that she shares with her husband, Jeff Thompson.
The building closed in the 1940s, but in the mid-80s some artists in Des Moines asked if they could use the top two stories for studios. It is now completely filled with artists, and the annual open house originally started as a fundraiser to save the building.
Back in 1999, the owner went bankrupt and the city council was working to tear it down and replace it with a skyscraper. However, Dreiss and Thompson came up with the idea to have an open house to save the building and to help make it more visible to the public.
“It’s a great opportunity for the artists to clean their studios,” Dreiss said.
Inside the building are concrete floors, which are perfect for spilling paint on and high ceilings that are perfect for sculptors to work under.
“We don’t have a working elevator now, but years ago I could bring this (printing) press up,” Dreiss said.
She focuses on woodcuts and screen printing, while Thompson is a painter and printmaker. Their shared studio is full of vinyl records, recycled yogurt containers of ink and paint and, of course, their art.
Downstairs on the third floor is Larassa Kabel a painter and Ben Easter, a photographer. On two walls of their studio are realistic paintings of a horse jumping, but that was not their talking point for the night.
“I don’t have (an elevator speech). This is new work,” Kabel said. “It’s a collaboration called ‘A Death In The Family’ using dead animals. It’s about death and compassion.”
Though it may seem gross, the photos featuring Kabel posing with the animals make it seem as if they just caught the animals taking a peaceful nap. They are waiting for snow to fall and bring on “a new season of death,” she said.
To get the animals, they have people on the lookout. One of the photographs includes a deer that a friend saw on the side of the road. This friend then guarded the animal until Easter and Kabel arrived, where they had to move it to a different location for the photograph.
“I’ve got my freezer full and she has her freezer full,” Easter said, pausing to laugh. “It’s crazy. I never thought that I would be exploring this, but I’m completely immersed and fascinated. It’s a whole journey.”
Down on the second floor is Andy Lyons, a photographer who works for advertising agencies as well as on his own projects.
“I’m a commercial photographer by day, so I guess I work with the pretty during the day and I do the gritty on my own,” Lyons said. “I like to travel the back roads and find interesting bits of Americana that are just a little bit out of the ordinary.”
He used to work on small-town newspapers, which is how he stumbled upon photography.
“I like to create moments with some of these assemblances,” he said. “It all started, I don’t know, as if I woke up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘What’s it like to be a traveling salesman on the road during Christmas in the 40s?’”
Some of his work is in black and white, which he took on a film camera, then scanned the negatives into the computer and edited on there.
“I don’t do darkroom stuff anymore,” Lyons said. “I was not a good lab monkey.”
Way down in the basement of Fitch is a pop-up gallery called “Subculture III” by Saul Schlegel and Angelo Rossi.
“I do all the visual artwork and Angelo is the guy with the camera,” Schlegel said. “I’m an installation artist and performance, lately, but traditionally a visual artist.”
They don’t have the studio as a permanent workspace, so they just rented it for the month.
“We have been wanting to do a lot of things that are difficult to show in a gallery,” Schlegel said. “So what you have to do is document the process of that work, and that’s where Angelo comes in.”
The gallery was set up with the open house in mind so they could draw in a larger audience.
They taped arrows onto the floor leading from the front door to their installation, which included four chairs set out inside of a projection of a car driving around. About 15 photographs taken by Rossi were also hung up and for sale of different performance art pieces that Schlegel had done in the past.
The Fitch Building open house is the first Saturday of either November or December every year, and each time there will be new work possibly with new artists.
Many artists in the city got their start at Fitch, before moving on to more traditional artistic occupations.
For instance, companies like the furniture and art creators at Sticks Inc. started in a studio rented from Fitch. For artists like Schlegel and Rossi, they’re just looking for some recognition and a way to get their art out into the world.