Walking into the space at THE YARDS in late January was like being transported into a forest dream. The medium – cardboard, colors,artists/players, dancers, and food all came together to create a fairy glen. I heard several jaws hit the floor. I, myself, toured the room like a little kid – getting excited at each new intricate detail that I spotted.
THE YARDS is an art collective cofounded by Sarah Rutherford and Lea Rizzo, located above Cure at the Rochester Public Market. The show was Boys vs Girls 2 – the second annual team battle of cardboard creations between THE YARDS and 1975.
Every time I go to THE YARDS, though, something similar happens. Everything comes together. Whether it’s a sale among several artists, a special event for the collective, a gathering for dancing or poetry or anything, Sarah and Lea wrap everything together into a seamless theme. It was these themed experiences – which create the perfect environment and stimulus for stories – that brought me to them as the third profile in the Art ❤ Stories project.
Sarah: Lea and I met over 5 years ago when we did Erich Lehman’s first show with 1975 Gallery at Surface Salon. I remember going to Erich’s house and seeing his crazy collection of art – and Lea’s piece was my favorite. I met her one night at the bar.“Oh, that’s Lea!”
Lea: Same thing. I saw her Wonder Woman series. Yeah, “We met at a bar.” It’s kinda funny. Erich has been such a huge support for both of us to get us out there. “All these great, talented people. I need to bring them together and get them out there.” It started with him really, our relationship.
Sarah: And after that show, we realized we had a kindred spirit for wanting to be more than what we were doing. We were really interested in pushing this idea of installation and creating experiences, vs just paintings. We’re both traditionally 2D trained but we were interested in seeing how far we could push that.
Lea: Which a lot of people think is crazy. “How are you going to make money off of that?”
Sarah: Yeah, it’s not practical.
Lea: It’s not always about that. It’s about sharing. And it also – to me it seems that some of that stuff is so pretentious – you’re not going to get it on the level where people are going to feel comfortable. Not everyone’s going to go into a gallery. Something like, where you just come in, you’re not expecting what you see, and it makes it easy. There aren’t these huge price tags on things. The idea of the visceral experience, I guess.
Sarah: One of my favorite artists is Swoon. She’s a street artist. I had recently come across this video of her doing this crazy collaboration with, I think it was 15 people, up in Maine. I remember watching this video. I remember watching and just being in awe. “I want that.” I didn’t really understand it. Now, I do. I didn’t understand the logistics and the pain and the hardship but then the beauty and the reward… any of it, but I saw it and thought: “I want that.”
Lea: And then you think: “I’m sure somebody else would, too.”
Sarah: I thought of Lea: “Well, man, she wants to explore this sort of installation element.” I saw the video at the same time that we came together. We were looking for a space to do something in, just a raw space. I had a studio in the Hungerford and I found a space in that building. But it was huge – it was 2,000 square feet. We were going to rent it for a month. “We can’t do a show in 2,000 square feet by ourselves.” So, we talked to Erich and he recommended St Monci, who also had a studio in the same building. And St Monci brought on Mr Prvrt – and that was how Sweet Meat Co. was born, which is our collective, and we did our first show in the Hungerford building in 2011.
Lea: And blew minds!
Sarah: Right. And again, we came together not really understanding what we were doing.
Lea: And we didn’t even know St Monci or Mr Prvrt.
Sarah: We didn’t know each other at all. It was just crazy. It was this crazy intense thing and we were really proud of it. A lot of people didn’t know what to make of it, because it was different. It was kind of our debut, as well, onto the Rochester scene. St Monci had only moved here two years before.
Lea: And Mr Prvrt was new to town, too.
Sarah: Yeah, he’d just come from Albany. So it was us truly coming together and getting out there in this different way.
Fast forward a year and a half. We were all doing our own things and cultivating a better relationship with each other. We did little, separate collaborations then said: “It’s time to come together and do another Sweet Meat Co. show.” I was working at Good Luck restaurant at the time and I talked to Mike Calabrese, who owns both that building and this one. So I asked him: “What’s going on up there?” The bakery was maybe moving in at the time, nothing else was down on the other side, and upstairs was completely empty.
Lea: And raw.
Sarah: It was dirty. There was stuff everywhere. It didn’t have electricity.
Lea: It didn’t have the walls.
Sarah: It was a beautiful space, still, but it was raw. Basically, they just ripped out all the in-between walls. Mike said: “Yeah, do whatever you want.” He gave it to us for the summer. We built this installation in the center of it and we had a show here. Mike loved the energy behind it. We had the upstairs open, someone else was doing something downstairs, the bakery was open. He loved that the building finally had vibrancy to it. He approached us after. “You should keep doing this.” So we said, “Alright, we could move our studio over here.”
Lea and I had already been talking about doing more, sharing more of a studio space. This came up and we said: “We don’t know what this means, but we’re going to jump on this because we can’t pass this space up.”
Lea: It’s totally backwards to a business kind of approach. It was: “Here’s the space, what do we do with it?” Michael could have easily rented the space out to lawyers and people who just made offices. Instead, I always say the heartbeat happened here. That wouldn’t have happened if it was just some paper-pushing…
Sarah: He wanted artists up here. There’s two other studios on the second floor. He wanted it to be food downstairs, art upstairs. That was his vision for the building, so I think it made him happy, as well. They’ve been huge supporters of ours, that family. That is another main reason why we are doing this, still.
So then, we thought: “What do we want to do?” We knew we wanted it to be a collaborative space. We didn’t know who we wanted to collaborate with or how it was going to work. We knew we didn’t want to open a gallery space. We weren’t Erich. We don’t have the same skillset as him, or the interest.
We’re not really as interested in just the paintings – we’re interested in the experience. It has been kind of this backwards way of finding our way through it – and the same thing with the group of people that we’ve had to participate with us. It’s been a slow ebb and flow. People that are truly invested have stayed with us and as we’ve done more and more we’ve built a bigger team.
Lea: Each event we do, we have at least 2 to 3 people who say: “I want to do something. How can I help?” We had this guy Aaron, who came to us over the summer because of WALL\THERAPY. His email said “I’m not an artist. I crunch numbers…” something like that. “But I want to do something with you.” He literally came in here that first day and washed the dishes. Just behind the scenes, real quiet. But he launched The Yards store and it was amazing – and has so many other ideas on an end that are just out of my realm. And that’s another way for us to get out there, for people to see what we’re doing.
Sarah: That’s where the culmination comes with this show. It’s what you can build that’s bigger than yourself. And using the talents that everyone has. That’s what we’ve been doing, is trying to build a team that has a diverse enough skillset. And we still have some gaps. We’re still looking to round that out, but I think in terms of this show – the reason why we feel so good about it is that it really encapsulates that building one voice from all these many voices, all these many skills and backgrounds.
Lea: For the most part this show is all female artists, but we have our crew of guys that come in and help us on the other end. It wouldn’t be the same.
Sarah: We’ve never intended to just start a female-run space, but we’ve definitely attracted a crew of strong women. We’re not going to be exclusionary, but it is kinda funny and amazing. I love the fact that so many amazing, talented women are a part of it.
Lea: I feel very lucky. And everyone’s yearning for it. We’re going to make it stronger by being together.
Sarah: For us, the most beautiful part wasn’t the show, it was the process of making the show.
Lea: Oh, my god it was awesome!
Sarah: I wish my life could be like that all the time. In this beautiful land of imagination, and building, and everyone working. It was this fever of activity.
Lea: And it’s therapeutic. A lot of that stuff – if you’re doing it separately all the time, you don’t realized how much you really need that other person’s opinion.
Sarah: Or being pushed.
Lea: Saying “I’m comfortable here but I’m going to step out of that.” And having the support because someone is right there going “Yeah! You can do it! That’s great!”
The mornings when we leave here and the baker is making stuff at 5:30 in the morning, and the market’s opening, and the roosters … We love it so much!
Sarah: I think I was searching for everything out of Sweet Meat Co. I think what we did here I was kind of looking for in Sweet Meat Co.– but now I’ve realized, it’s different. It’s its own artist. And now The Yards is kind of its own artist – in a much broader way. What was fulfilling is thinking back to watching that video and now thinking “We just did that. And better.”
That video was great and I was in love with it. I loved a lot of the artists. But it was just a bunch of people working without a plan. The fact that we came together with a solid concept and that we’re trying to create one specific atmosphere. I feel like we made one artist who built that. That’s what I’ve always been searching for.
We try and hit all of the senses and we try and use our skills. One dance company has been a huge part of our space, so obviously they need to be part of it. We just factor that in. When we built the carousel we said: “We’re going to move it with dancers.” That was the first thing we came up with. It wasn’t an afterthought, it was integral to what we’re going to make because we want them to be a big part of it.
I think being at the market has flavored what we do. I think the space would be different if it were somewhere else. There’s something about doing these crazy things at night at the market, especially before Cure was open and we were the only thing happening. It’s like a secret.
For this show, when we were coming together with this concept, we wanted to focus on one thing, which is where we hit on the carousel – and then we just started dreaming. “Let’s not do a traditional carousel, let’s do something with a bunch of lost girls wandering in the forest and they come across this carousel with its enchanted animals. We were just trying to let our imagination and play happen.
Lea: Because it’s really not serious. I mean, we’re making stuff out of cardboard, too, so it’s got to be fun. Some people didn’t even work on the carousel, but they were integral in coming up with the concept, talking about it. Some people were working on the forest. And vice versa.
Even down to the color palette. That was another thing that really made it come together – having this cohesive color palette. Everyone worked with these limited colors. But its dramatic.
Sarah: Even thinking about us, as part of the show. It’s an excuse to be a kid and dress up and play with cardboard jewelry. Fun? It really was about fun, but everyone took it so seriously that it just made it that much better. I think that’s what made the show. It’s all in fun, but we were taking it very seriously. We didn’t clean our houses. We ignored our normal jobs. We ignored our lives for two weeks. To do something fun.
We aren’t trying to tell anybody what they’re supposed to be experiencing, we’re just trying to set a stage for people to come in and experience whatever they want to experience. It’s not like we’re trying to be so restrictive in the story or in the idea. It’s really more the stage that the story can be told in. Choose your own adventure!
Lea: And it’s just amazing for people – to see people walk in with that face …