Early Days (2003)

Early Days by Chris Alexander, 2003
published in the booklet Antfarm Decade to commemorate our first 10 years

The rundown warehouse at 303 Kinsey Street was once a hidden and forgotten part of Raleigh’s past. A haven for the homeless and an eyesore to the community, the building was about to experience a true renaissance when Brad Watkins stumbled upon it in the summer of 1993. Brad and I, and six other aspiring artists and recent graduates from the School of Design at North Carolina State University, were looking for a space. A space that, through a common vision, would allow us to explore the principles and skills we had forged throughout our education and put them to practice. 303 Kinsey Street was that perfect space. Despite its neighborhood repute and descent toward condemnation, we began working feverishly to draw up a rental agreement and begin the mountainous task of bringing the building back to life.

Our first priority was to reckon with the current residents. Not everyone had forgotten this brick building by the tracks. Over the previous ten years, Raleigh’s transient population had overrun the warehouse to seek shelter, fix meals, and congregate en masse. Unfortunately. their treatment of the building left much to be desired. The preceding year, the warehouse had nearly burnt to the ground after a cooking fire, set curiously on the second-story wood floor, flamed out of control. If not for the quick action of the fire department, 303 Kinsey would have been remembered only for its first and principal occupant, The Carolina Washboard Company.

With some firm coaxing, the word slowly got out that the free ride was over, and we promptly began securing the building with working doors and new locks. One woefully neglected squatter, however, would not hear of this new arrangement. The dog had lived like his previous owner, fending for himself. But Bear’s sweet demeanor, hidden under a thick matted coat, quickly won us over, and he was adopted as unofficial mascot and chief of security.

“The feeling that this might be the beginning of a sustainable cultural groundswell for downtown Raleigh could not be ignored.”

Our list of work to return the space to a minimum level of usefulness was long: numerous window panes had to be replaced, there was fire damage to the floor and ceiling, new electrical wiring needed to be run, plumbing repaired, the roof patched, and a thorough scrubbing was in order. We began dividing up the work. Some hosed down the interior walls and threw out the old clothes, bedding, and hypodermic needles of the previous residents. Others focused on the repair and renovation of the structure, ripping out old drop ceilings and the first floor’s seventies-era offices, and fixing the damage caused by the fire. The space was coming along. 

As we worked, we also found time to relax and formulate the direction we wanted this idea of an artists’ community to follow. Many summer nights were spent sitting around, drinking and exploring what our goals should be, both as individuals and as a group. The space became a comforting environment where we felt invited to do whatever we wanted, whether it was arguing over the ethics of destroying art or just sitting on the roof at night watching meteorites fall into the Raleigh skyline.

It was around this time that the first piece was created in the studio. The upstairs of the building, used as materials storage by the previous owners, housed a large heart-pine rack structure that had to come down. After painstakingly disassembling the rack and saving the wood, I decided I would make a table for use in my goldsmith operation. With only a hammer, handsaw, and nails salvaged from the rack, I completed the table from start to finish that hot summer afternoon. Aware that I would be storing precious metals and stones, I incorporated two secret compartments into the table that to this day still elude those that are challenged to find them. This table is on display in the Antfarm Decade show, and visitors are more than welcome to attempt to gain access to these hiding places.

Upfitting the studio managed to take almost all of our time that first month, but as projects were crossed off the list, the topics of our weekly meetings turned to our mission. We all knew each other from four years of late nights and studio critiques, so it was generally understood that we wanted this experience to be a communal effort. We had always referred to the space we had worked in at school as “the studio,” but as this was a new beginning for each of us we knew that such a name just wouldn’t suffice.

“We were at each other’s throat when someone suggested we consider the personification of ants. Simply put, we had been and should continue functioning as a colony of ants… In fact, we were and wanted to remain exactly like an Antfarm.”

Unexpectedly, agreeing on what to call ourselves was our first real test. Hours were spent arguing what name would clearly define who we were and what we wanted to accomplish. We were at each other’s throat when someone suggested we consider the personification of ants. Simply put, we had been and should continue functioning as a colony of ants, with no single member carrying more weight than any other as we worked toward a common goal. In fact, we were and wanted to remain exactly like an Antfarm.

That fall we settled fully into our respective spaces. The upstairs was divided up along the perimeter without the use of walls. At first, we saw such ramparts as a barrier to the free flow of ideas and interaction, but as time went by, this rule was abandoned for the practical purpose of getting the most use out of what little space we each had. The downstairs, we decided, should be used as a communal shop area where one could work using power tools while not worrying about making a mess or disturbing others. This arrangement seemed effective, and everyone was busy generating ideas and creating that fall.

Our weekly meetings evolved. Beyond the general discussion of Antfarm business, we would regularly invite artists and craftsmen from the community for roundtable conversations on art, design, and life in general. Prominent local artist and legend George Bireline took an interest in what we were doing and was a regular visitor, leading many passionate debates on the topics of art and inspiration. With many of us holding full-and part-time jobs to support our involvement in the Antfarm, hours of operation varied wildly. Despite the time and money constraints, we found ourselves so prolific that first year that we started to consider having an Antfarm show. By this time, having fallen in love with the building and the creative environment we had established, we quickly decided not only would this be a showing of work, but a showcase of the Antfarm as a work space and of the ideals behind it.

The downstairs shop was rearranged to create one large open space. Having ample room, we constructed large panels that hung from the joists above. The end result was a fully portable gallery, which could be suspended for shows and removed during the rest of the year. On opening night no one knew what to expect. This was, in essence, a representation of all we had been working on so diligently for the last six months. Art and design were never meant to exist in a vacuum. Understanding that, we were very eager to see what kind of reception our work would garner.

Art and design were never meant to exist in a vacuum.

The result exceeded even our loftiest expectations. As the night progressed, discussion of our work and our motivations raged, while red dots were placed beside our efforts on the walls. Our mission of sharing art with the community was being embraced to the fullest. The feeling that this might be the beginning of a sustainable cultural groundswell for downtown Raleigh could not be ignored. The opening a success, a party which came to be an annual trademark of the December show lasted well into the night.

In 1996, I left Raleigh and the Antfarm to move to the West Coast. At the time I was the last of the original members. Over the previous few years, others had moved on, only to be replaced by new blood. The regular change in the group dynamic allows for a constant infusion of new ideas to the Antfarm, while the collective still works to adhere to its basic mission. This may be the truest reflection of what defines Antfarm and, at heart, our original hopes born that first summer a colony, independent of individuals, working together toward a common goal and vision.


Chris Alexander returned to Raleigh and has been the Director of Exhibits at Marbles Kids Museum since 2005 and the Vice President of Exhibits since May 2021.


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