By: Jonah Eller-Isaacs | Photo: Jen McDonald
In the midst of just their second season, Artistic Director Lauren Snelling and the leadership of contemporary art space OZ Arts Nashville have created something truly special.
Day One: Shake
A nine-year-old boy is rampaging through Shake, an exhibition of contemporary art. His name is Silas. Silas and his brother each grab a sculpture, pulling with every ounce of strength contained in their young bodies. Their mother and I watch idly. Dragging the objets d’art with long ropes, the boys step slowly from each other, facing away, as if preparing for a duel. When they can force the ropes no further, they wheel around and, shrieking with delight, they let loose their burdens. Momentum carries the sculptures toward an inevitable collision. KA-SMASH!
In nearly every contemporary art space around the world, this story ends in disaster. The sculptures are destroyed. Silas is grounded until he’s a teenager. His mother, Julie, spends the rest of her life paying for the art her children obliterated. But this is no ordinary art space. This is OZ Arts Nashville. This is ten thousand square feet meticulously designed for the presentation of multidisciplinary art at the cutting edge of modernity. The forward-thinking creativity in this venue may seem a bit out of place—tucked away a half-dozen miles northwest of downtown, OZ Arts shares a dead-end stretch of Cockrill Bend with industrial depots, a prison, and the John C. Tune Municipal Airport—but those making the trip will discover something special.
Today, Silas and a handful of young visitors have come to explore. The children run through the dim warehouse that has been painstakingly converted into an art space. Pausing where beams of bright spotlights pierce the darkness, they find illuminated the imaginative, playful (and, importantly, nigh-indestructible) creations of Alex Lockwood, a self-taught artist from Seattle now living in Nashville. Over the years leading up to this ambitious exhibition, Alex collected countless items most would consider the scraps of society: piles of scratched lottery tickets—I assume no winners among them—become intricate, twisted forms; plastic bread tabs turn into wearable textiles reminiscent of medieval chain mail; a tapestry of ten thousand spent shotgun shells hangs from specialized trusses thirty feet up in the air, a sparkling, vertical ocean of dynamic color and texture. Alex’s art is the ultimate expression of creative reuse.
A pair of “Bottle Cap Smashers” are made up of long tendrils of plastic bottle caps in a variety of sizes. Here I recognize a bright green top from a bottle of laundry detergent, there I spot a line of Sprite caps. The many gathered strands call to mind the Yip Yips, the hilariously discombobulated Martians from Sesame Street. The Smashers hang from long shock cords attached to the high ceiling and, as their name suggests, they’re designed for smashing. Alex’s interactive, kinetic sculptures are dramatic, enchanting, and totally unique, which just so happens to be a dead-on description of the magical world that is OZ Arts.
Lauren Snelling, the artistic director of OZ Arts, peeks in to watch the children at play. I met Lauren during my first visit to OZ Arts early in their inaugural season. I’d come for a performance of The Intergalactic Nemesis, a remarkable presentation of a “live-action graphic novel,” with hundreds of hand-drawn,comic-style projections accompanying a staged reading with live sound effects and music performance. I was blown away. Since Nemesis, I’ve rarely missed a show, and I’ve never been disappointed. Like many local enthusiasts of contemporary art, I’ve come to trust that whatever OZ Arts puts on stage, it’ll be worth seeing. Whether they’re presenting theater, modern dance, live music, or an interactive art installation, Lauren and her team provide an experience like no other. “OZ is something unexpected,” Lauren explains. “Something unexpected for me, something unexpected for the institution, something unexpected for audiences, and something unexpected for this region.”
Day Six: OZ-ward and Upward
To get a better sense of the unexpected story of OZ Arts, I make five visits over the course of two-plus weeks. I’m present for bustling, packed houses for major events, and I tiptoe through calm(er) weekdays in the labyrinth of offices and production workshops. It’s my privilege to get a modest glimpse of an exceedingly rare sight: the blossoming of a new contemporary art space. Lauren’s passion, her radiant personality, and her deep dedication to her craft and to the institution are all part of the extraordinary skill set she brings to her position. Put together, it makes her the perfect guide.
We sit together in her office for a chat. Art is everywhere. Art is stacked knee-deep on the floor, and art books, notes, and articles are piled across her wide desk. Art is even on her person. As Lauren takes a sip from an oversized cup of coffee, I comment on her jewelry, in particular a fascinating bracelet made of thin wire mesh that she picked up last year at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. “Lots of people like to touch it!” she laughs. I recognize some of the pieces on the walls from past exhibitions; even months after the artists have come and gone, Lauren is still promoting their work. “There’s a reason why we’re doing this,” she tells me. “There’s a reason why artists are making the work they’re making . . . There’s a difference between entertainment and art. Art is speaking to humanity about what we’re doing. It’s a reflection of where we are, in this time, right now, and how the decisions we make every day are affecting us as a community, as a human race. And that to me is really important, that we consistently reflect on that, look at it, and listen to it.”
I have only a vague sense of the responsibilities of an artistic director, so Lauren gives me a better picture of everything she does. “My job,” she says, “is to see as much work as I can and keep thinking about that work for a long time. Most of the artists that I currently work with, I have either had a relationship with for a long time and I know them personally, or I have watched their work over a course of years. My job is to know the community of artists.” Of course, along with keeping the pulse of not just the local artistic community but the broader national and international scenes, Lauren also oversees “the boring administrative parts . . . budgeting and contracts and logistics and all kinds of things like that.” Just looking at her calendar gives me a tremor of anxiety: on top of all her responsibilities with Shake scheduling, the slate of upcoming shows in March, and preparations for a world premiere in mid-June, she’s also finalizing the program for what will surely be an exciting third season. Oh, and did I mention she and her husband, Rus (who happens to be OZ Arts’ production manager), also have a rambunctious, adorable four-year-old girl named Indigo?
Understatement of the year: Lauren’s plate is full. Thankfully, she’s spent years honing her skills, both domestically at institutions like the Park Avenue Armory and internationally with the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and more. Delving deeper into her professional history, Lauren mentions her long, fruitful working relationship with Kristy Edmunds, a mentor and colleague who is currently the director of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA. In fact, Kristy programmed the first season at OZ Arts and continues to volunteer her services.
Though Lauren is quick to communicate the massive, sometimes overwhelming nature of her work, she retains an appealing modesty, so I connect with Kristy to get a little perspective. She writes via email: “It is extremely important that people are interested in the vision of the artistic director of an arts organization, because that is the first building block of trust . . . Lauren brings a global artistic perspective and does so across numerous art forms. She has a very large network of arts leaders and artists that trust her. She has an unflappable work ethic, and she is not just building a program of substance within OZ, she is trumpeting the awesomeness of Nashville as a whole.” Kristy concludes her email by saying, “Every single artist that I have spoken to after having been on her program is not only forever in love with OZ, but leaves with an incredible enthusiasm for Nashville itself.”
After our conversation, I shadow Lauren as she navigates an already-chaotic schedule through unexpected changes. Multiple snowstorms have delayed the opening of Shake. Alex’s exhibit is part of the TNT series, or Thursday Night Things. The presentations last a single night, making for a mad rush of planning and labor. This time, though, OZ Arts will keep Alex’s installation up for one week. Lauren tells me that “it’s heartbreaking to see the work that artists put into this space,” only to have to break it down by morning. She hopes that the weeklong run will set a precedent for longer shows, and even though she explains, “It was never my intention for TNT to have this kind of format,” she adds, “and yet, things evolve.” The monumental scale of Shake makes for a complex and time-consuming assembly and tear-down, and the snow has forced Lauren to postpone the exhibit one week. It’s a logistical nightmare. The rescheduling means that less than twenty-four hours after the Smashers and spent shotgun shells must be cleared out, the main event for the month of March—a performance from legendary avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson—will have its sound check.
Day Fourteen: The Family OZ
Allow me to pause here for a moment.
What the heck is OZ Arts Nashville doing out by the old airport? Someone looked at a dormant warehouse and said, “Why, yes, I see a contemporary art space of the highest caliber.” Who is this mad genius? And why is it called OZ? Are they from Australia? Or maybe Kansas?
In fact, the person I’m looking for turns out to be a family. They’re not from Kansas or Australia. Cano (pronounced COHN-oh) Ozgener, an Armenian born in Istanbul, spent a long career in engineering before changing directions and founding CAO, a company specializing in hand-rolled cigars, luxury humidors, and custom-carved tobacco pipes made from meerschaum (a soft, white mineral found near the Black Sea). CAO’s products came to be considered among the world’s finest, and Cano was (and still is) proud of his accomplishments, achieved in part with the help of his family. Still, though hand-hewn ornamental pipes and fine cigar boxes are indeed a kind of artistry, the CAO production warehouse would be the last place one would expect to find a contemporary art center. And Cano might never have led CAO toward its remarkable transformation into OZ Arts if not for a life-threatening cancer diagnosis. Forced to endure a stem-cell transplant and damaging toxic treatments that led to an open-heart surgery, Cano found great solace in art.
In the midst of a frenzied week of programs, Cano generously makes time to meet with me. We sit in his office as the propeller planes come and go beyond picture windows. This man bubbles with energy, passion, and intelligence. Behind him, exquisite meerschaum pipes are inset into a large O, making for an arresting display. I ask him to tell me the story of what he calls his “epiphany.” One night, as Cano was suffering through debilitating pain in his hospital bed, a nurse approached and offered him a gentle back massage. As she began to soothe his aching body, Cano recalls, “She started to sing an Irish lullaby.” The melody was so beautiful, and the moment so tender, that soon, he remembers with a soft smile, “We were both in tears . . . That stopped my pain rather than the medication. That shows you how important art, singing, any kind of art is to you.” Cano shares that, as an immigrant who found great success in his chosen home, “We wanted to give our thanks to this country, and we wanted to do it with art.” And so began the unexpected path to OZ Arts.
Day Fifteen: The Language of the Future
Tim Ozgener, Cano’s son and president/CEO of OZ Arts(as well as the former CEO of the family-operated CAO), knows the importance of delivering a quality product: “It was the same [in] the cigar business: the content is king,” he relates. “It needs to be quality. No matter what people come to out here, they need to say, ‘I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be, but I know it’s going to be very good.’ That’s what we’re doing here.”
I don’t know exactly what to expect when I return to OZ Arts for Laurie Anderson. Still, I’m absolutely certain that it will be a remarkable experience. I’ve come to believe in OZ. Walking into the performance space, I can hardly believe this is the same place. Gone are the smashers and shotgun shells. Gone are the children and their delighted giggles. Still, this new audience simmers with excitement. The house lights fade and Laurie steps onto a wide stage lit with candles and gentle ambient lighting. Armed with a boxy electric violin, a small keyboard, an array of effects pedals and a tablet, Laurie sits and begins to play. The music is rich and dense with texture. Laurie’s disarming smile exudes charm and supreme confidence. As she moves from one tale to another, the lighting shifts subtly, creating distinct locations without props or backgrounds. “What I love about stars,” she declares sagely, “is that we can’t hurt them.” Her performance is simultaneously deep, philosophical, and hilarious, a strange and satisfying amalgam. For her encore, Laurie changes positions and stares directly at her audience as she coaxes a final tune from her violin. Her eyes shift from person to person, alighting on each for a moment and then moving on. I can only imagine what she sees in our dark eyes.
Laurie Anderson’s performance is another magical moment in the world of OZ Arts Nashville. The next Thursday Night Things, William Tyler’s Corduroy Roads on April 16, is “a multimedia exploration of the American South.” Trisha Brown Dance Company arrives in May, and June will bring the world premiere of Phantom Limb Company’s Memory Rings. We may not be somewhere over the rainbow, but we’re certainly not in Kansas anymore. As Lauren puts it, “I don’t like the cliché of the red shoes and the clicking your heels together. But at the same time, there is very much a sense that OZ is a destination for possibly something that is unknown, something that is an experiment, something that is new. You check your cares at the door. And once you’re here, we take care of you. Everything is gonna be just fine . . . It’s a place where you lean forward. You think. You ask questions.”
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