Gretchen Schermerhorn sees to it that the Pyramid Atlantic Art Center (PAAC) treads a fine line between assuming the role of serious arts space and community center where “everything is great and everyone gets a ribbon.”
“We want to fall in that middle area of being the go-to and the experts, but also being welcoming,” PAAC’s artistic director tells me on a tour of the Hyattsville-based center, along with executive director Kate Davis.
PAAC moved back to Hyattsville in 2017 after 13 years in Silver Spring. And before that, they were in Riverdale, which is adjacent to Hyattsville.
“Depending on how long they have been with us, people either say, ‘Welcome’ or ‘Welcome back!’” Schermerhorn says.
The new space feels cavernous and has a number of retro arts studios including a bindery, darkroom, letterpress, print shop, papermaking studio and screenprinting studio. Additionally, the space houses 18 artists-in-residence.
Davis tells me that the building was first a church – hence the Corinthian columns inside – then was expanded into a silent movie house and after that, became a duckpin bowling alley. It seems to have been abandoned when they first moved in because Schermerhorn tells me that there were plants growing inside and they found duckpins in the walls, one of which is on display at the front desk. The top two floors are mainly gallery spaces with inconspicuous artist studios, but it’s downstairs that we spend most of our time.
“I like to call the downstairs the casino,” Schermerhorn says. “It operates all the time, and you may be having so much fun you lose track of the time.”
She shows me the different studio spaces. It’s the middle of the day on a Tuesday, so not all of them are in use. These include many of the machines at the front of the shop like the letterpress, the bindery and the Hollander beater used in papermaking. These machines are massive – they’re pure cast-iron and weigh around half a ton.
There are also a number of others which I don’t recognize, and one which looks like a guillotine. Schermerhorn tells me that it is in fact a guillotine, but it’s only used for cutting the homemade books. It could cut much more than that though, which is why it is kept chained up when not in use. In the print shop and screenprinting studio, a few working artists – part of the Art Gym program – look engrossed. I ask one of them if I can take her picture as she steps back to appraise her work, and politely she declines.
“I’m a social media holdout,” she says.
Schermerhorn then shows me her own personal studio, including the negative for a screenprint she made for artist Mike Bidlo for Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, a new Smithsonian exhibit at the Hirshhorn. At nearly five feet tall, it’s the biggest Schermerhorn has ever made.
“It’s nearly as big as me, though that’s not saying much.”
At the start of our interview, Schermerhorn had told me that she hopes the PAAC will become the go-to place for quality work, and working in conjunction with Smithsonian-commissioned artists like Bidlo speaks to the center working toward that goal. Davis, however, assures me that commissioned work comes second to being a home for artists, whether established or still budding.
“We’ll do some gigs, but philosophically, we would rather teach you to do it,” she says. “We’d rather put someone in a class so that they can learn to do it. It’s more exciting for us.”
Schermerhorn backs Davis up.
“We’re about enabling artists to do their own thing. I may not agree with your vision, but I want to help you say what you say best.”
That ethos in part comes from the PAAC’s founding impetus: to give artists a shared space to house tools and share techniques.
“We were a makerspace before they were a thing,” Davis tells me.
PAAC has all of the tools and the knowledge to turn even the clothes off your back into paper and then into a beautifully bound book. In so far as they have all of the tools and all of the knowledge under one roof, the center is the only place locally that affords that. The next closest place you might find that, Schermerhorn tells me, is Philadelphia.
When I go to leave, I take my coat from the handcrafted coat rack. It was made by an artist named Franc Rosario, who is also the woodshop and facilities manager at PAAC. Davis tells me that the coat rack almost never came to be.
“Once I threatened to buy something from IKEA and Franc almost lost his mind,” she says laughing. “I was like, ‘We can just get some coat hooks from IKEA,’ and he was like, ‘I think that we have a look here and I don’t want to mess it up with your IKEA hooks.’”
Looking around the center, you can get a sense of what Rosario means. Aside from the 19th-century machines, most everything exudes a personal touch, and it’s this passion – simply for making – that PAAC hopes to impart to its visitors.
For more information on lessons and workshops, visit the PAAC website. Or just stop in for one of the studio happy hours, to check out the gift shop or to take a look at the current exhibit, Not Too High, Not Too Low, featuring the world’s largest pop-up book.
Pyramid Atlantic Art Center: 4318 Gallatin St. Hyattsville, MD; 301-608-9101; www.pyramidatlanticartcenter.org