Arts Education in Smyrna
It takes a village to launch a movement, something Susan Gulley knows all too well after eight years of being both COO and CFO of Carpe Artista, an arts-driven non-profit in downtown Smyrna.
The vision for Carpe Artista stemmed from Ron Alley, the former worship arts director at First Baptist (now LifePoint Church) who grew his music ministry from a choir of barely 40 to more than 900 musicians spanning all ages and instruments. According to Gulley, he wanted to create a resource for these artists to continue their craft and do excellence not just in church, but also out in the community. However, like many good ideas, Carpe Artista took years to actually take flight.
At the time, Gulley was, as she calls it, a “professional church layperson”—an artist, performer and music teacher, among other things—who also worked a corporate job at Nissan. Best friends with Alley and his wife for more than 20 years, she was a natural fit to help lead such a movement when he approached her about the concept for Carpe Artista.
“There’s so much more about being creative than just making a bunch of money, so the main idea is to create excellence in your craft, be positive, give back to the community and pay it forward,” Gulley explains of Carpe Artista’s ethos. “So many things in our lives happen surrounding art and music. That’s what we live for, really. We don’t just get up and live for the paycheck—or at least we shouldn’t.”
Carpe Artista officially launched in 2011, with Carpe Cafe—“the door to the community,” according to Gulley—following two years later. The colorful coffee shop on Front Street features home-roasted coffee, specialty java drinks, a wide variety of breakfast and lunch items, and, of course, ample opportunity for community and collaboration.
“People sketch drawings on napkins, they write song lyrics on napkins, they break bread together over Bible study or for business meetings,” Gulley says. “People don’t know their neighbors anymore, so that’s why we’re here. Come sit on the patio, meet your neighbor, drink some coffee and hang out.”
Gulley herself is a Jill of all trades and the perfect public face of such an artistic endeavor as Carpe Artista. Not only does she oversee operations of the non-profit and run the academy, but she also constructs costumes and builds stage sets for local theater productions. In fact, when The Lion King was officially released so schools could perform it a few years back, there were no costumes in circulation just yet. Gulley and artist Larissa Reed got to work making all the costumes from scratch for a single weekend’s worth of performances at Thurman Francis Arts Academy, but then other schools heard about them. For three years, the women’s collection of original costumes traveled around the South, only recently returning to Smyrna; they’ll soon be for sale at local costume shop Performance Studios.
“Ron calls us the dumpster divers,” Gulley jokes. “[Larissa and I] build a lot of things out of Styrofoam, cardboard and donated products. We can make anything pretty.”
Carpe Artista’s official home is now at the south end of Front Street in what was Smyrna’s original department store. The building was constructed at the turn of the nineteenth century and needs around $2 million of renovations to bring it up to standards, according to Gulley.
“It is where everybody did life. They bought their blue jeans, your little red wagon, anything you needed for your home,” she says. “We’re trying to capture that history.”
Currently, the airy, 8,000-square-foot space with high ceilings is used for lessons, photography space, workshops, art galleries, and as a private venue for parties and family reunions, the donations from which are used to fund the mortgage. But hopefully, renovations will get underway in 2019.
“This is the year we need to really get started,” Gulley says. “We need all new electric, all new plumbing, insulation, suppression—everything. It’s got great bones and a great history, but that’s it. We want it to be the cultural center of Smyrna and North Rutherford County.”
Once the renovations are complete, the café will move into that building to allow more space for the live music nights. The proposed layout, for which there are already renderings, will also be more conducive to the various arts workshops and music classes—guitar, bass, drums, strings, piano, voice, songwriting—that Carpe Artista’s academy is already holding, but Gulley adds that they’ll also need to look for additional studio space to accommodate the organization’s growing educational offerings. A donation from the Nashville Predators will also go toward adding a pottery wheel once the new electrical is added and conducive to using a kiln.
One of Carpe Artista’s big focuses is providing arts education for children. The organization keeps a full calendar of special workshops for kids throughout the year, from musical theater camp to the annual Jukebox Hero Youth Rock Band Camp where aspiring rockers from 6th to 12th grade are grouped in bands and given instruction all week leading up to the culmination: Rock Your World Concert. Many musicians who go through Carpe Artista’s programs turn around and become the entertainment in the café, which has live music every Friday night.
“A lot of times we have younger, inexperienced musicians looking for their first gig, and we’ll do it here,” says Ernie Fabian, café and live events manager, adding that the staff vets their skill level first to make sure it doesn’t become an open-mic night. “From there, we have connections with being able to put together more DIY type of shows down in the other building.”
Fabian, who plays in the band Idle Threat, spearheads a two-night music festival, Threat Fest, inside Carpe Artista’s headquarters in late summer, bringing in dozens of alternative rock bands—both local and out-of-towners—to play on three different stages. Carpe Artista also hosts Simply Smyrna every June, which brings in vendors and a wide genre of live music ranging from jazz to country to classic rock.
On top of everything else they’re doing for the community, the non-profit has helped the city fix up and reopen the old train depot for public use, as well as runs the weekly farmers’ market—which features locally-grown produce and handmade art from June through October—out of the historic building. Additionally, the non-profit has been instrumental in the splash of public art in the downtown district by way of several murals and new sculptures. Its ultimate hope in five years, according to Fabian, is that downtown Smyrna will evolve enough to see regular foot traffic even when events aren’t going on.
“We’d like this to be like you see in a downtown Nashville setting,” Fabian says, “just more people out enjoying this historic heart of Smyrna.”