Fifteen years of CWOS: Looking back, looking forward

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Artist Chris Mir in his Erector Square studio at City-Wide Open Studios. (2004, photo by Leslie Kuo)

By Hank Hoffman

For painter Christopher Mir, participation in City-Wide Open Studios, or CWOS, was instrumental in launching his career — a career marked by shows in New York and Europe as well as New Haven's Artspace and Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum. About a decade ago, Mir opened the Erector Square studio he shared with his wife, painter Karen Dow. Unbeknownst to him, Artspace had arranged for up-and-coming New York curator David Hunt to visit some studios opened for CWOS. Artspace Director Helen Kauder — feeling that visits from outside curators could be a boon to local artists — encouraged several New York-based curators to come to New Haven.

"He was very irreverent, a funny guy," Mir recalls in a recent phone interview. "We instantly hit it off. I think if I had known who he was, I don't think I would have been as casual and straightforward as I was. We talked a lot about adolescent stuff: the books we read, comic books, graphic novels we read in high school, video games, Burgess, mysticism."

Hunt was taken with Mir's paintings, which melded elements of myth and mysticism with a photorealist style. Within the first year of their Open Studios encounter, Hunt included paintings by Mir in about five group shows. "I got tons of exposure. He put me in shows in Williamsburg, Chelsea. And we did one in New Haven — Proper Villains at Artspace. It was one thing after another. He kept saying, 'Do you want to do a show?' and of course, I always say yes and we had this really nice rapport," says Mir.

Mir had work shown in a group show at the Aldrich Museum the previous year but says, "This David Hunt thing really launched me. There's no other way to think about it. Everything else that was good and lucky that happened to me came from that one moment. I'm super-grateful for it."

Creating community

Artists gather in front of Artspace at an early City-Wide Open Studios.

This fall's City-Wide Open Studios, extending through the first three weekends of October, marks the event's 16th anniversary. Mir is but one of hundreds of local artists — lifelong dedicated professionals and enthusiastic amateurs alike — who are grateful for the exposure gained by participation in CWOS. Helen Kauder recalls artists gathering on a loading dock at Erector Square early Sunday morning in 1998, the first year of City-Wide Open Studios. Before they opened their studio doors for the day, they assembled for a group photo shoot.

"What we saw was people shaking hands, meeting each other for the first time, people who had worked at Erector Square for many years," Kauder says in an interview, reflecting on CWOS' 16th anniversary. "That sense of networking and community meant a lot to us."

"Community" is the word that comes up most often in discussions with artists about City-Wide Open Studios. CWOS became a platform through which the extent and depth of New Haven's visual arts community could be showcased and also a vehicle for artists — who most often work in isolation in their studios — to connect with other artists.

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