It's been a rough couple of years for cool kids in South End.
Sure, "cool" is subjective, but it would be hard to argue that the once-hip neighborhood hasn't lost a ton of its culture over the last year and a half, mostly to make room for condos, townhomes and office buildings.
Most Charlotteans are familiar with the businesses and events lost (Tremont Music Hall, Black Sheep, Phat Burrito, Amos' Southend), relocated (Common Market) or scattered (Food Truck Friday), all affected either directly or indirectly by development.
C3 Lab owner Glen Nocik admitted the changes have left a hole in the cultural scene of South End.
"As far as culture and music right now in South End, realistically, what do you have to do?" he asks. "Breweries? A couple restaurants and bars? There's nothing else."
Nothing else save for C3 Lab, the creative hub that Nocik opened with his wife Maria in April 2015. Over the last two years, the lab has operated as a coworking space, gallery, art studio, music and event venue and home for the Nociks' sign business.
Now, the couple is joining forces with Jeffrey Barninger, owner of Union Shop Studio in west Charlotte, for a bold expansion project that will nearly double the size of the already-massive arts cultivator by the end of 2018 — from 25,000 square feet to 45,000 square feet throughout three buildings.
The expansion will make C3 Lab one of the biggest art galleries and studios in Charlotte's history.
The team has already begun work on "Phase 2," the first stage of expansion, which will involve opening up a 10,000-square-foot gallery, event venue and bar two doors down from the current C3 Lab location. They hope to open that space in September.
In February 2018, they can begin to bring it all together by leasing out another 10,000-square-foot building between the two spaces, which is currently occupied. Thanks to large, rolling doors in each of the buildings, it will eventually be one continuous space that C3 Lab calls home.
When asked whether the move is an attempt to fight back against overdevelopment in South End, Barninger and Glen agreed that it's not a matter of fighting back, but more a call to other members of the arts scene that the culture is alive in the neighborhood.
"We've established in South End because we love it. We see everything going on," Glen said. "I'm not going to say it's fighting back, but it's more of a statement saying, 'You know what, you can do this. You can make something cool out of what's still here. You don't have to tear stuff down.'"
In fact, Nocik is hoping the expansion marks the beginning of a transformation, during which Distribution Street, where C3 Lab is located, becomes the epicenter of Charlotte's newest arts district.
"Our goal, our hope is for this whole street to turn into these types of things, so no one touches it. Hopefully people will start following suit. We want people to continue doing these types of things."
Over the last two years, the C3 Lab studios have served as a melting pot of mediums, with artists and entrepreneurs of all types working side by side, sharing tips and inspiration.
For example, Sharon Dowell is a local artist who works with multiple mediums (you've probably seen her United Buddy Bear sculpture outside the library in Uptown). Dowell is one of the C3 Lab originals, working in the studios there for most of the two years the Lab has been open.
On a recent day, we found Dowell working alongside Karla Sosa, a local paper-cut artist who's been in the studio for four months.
"I really like the community aspect of it. There's a lot of connection and we help each other — everything from business to Karla just showing me how to do this thing on Instagram that I didn't know how to do, to helping me with my art," Dowell said. "I'm used to having either my own space or a space with maybe one other person, so it was a big switch for me and I was wondering, like, 'I don't know about sharing a room with so many other people. Will we get along?' It's actually been really great. We all really do get along and help each other."
In contrast, it's the first experience working in a studio for Sosa, who moved here from her hometown of Merida, Mexico, six years ago.
"I like that there are different artists doing different things. You learn from them," Sosa said. "For example, Sharon and Kathie [Roig, a weaver who works in the C3 Lab studios] are kind of my mentors. I'm always asking questions, because they have been doing this for so long, so they have a lot of knowledge about the art business, and I ask questions about composition and just arts stuff. Everybody here is very helpful and nice, so it's a good vibe."
When Nocik speaks about the importance of making sure "no one touches" the lab, he's referencing a key aspect of why it's so hard to cultivate an arts district and, more importantly, keep that sense of culture alive in the long term.
He and Barninger have seen rising rent prices in places like NoDa push out the starving artists that made the neighborhoods cool in the first place.
"One of the things that happens, and it happens in every city, is artists move into a neighborhood that's less desirable, it's cheaper. They make it cool, people start to flock there, developers come in, development happens, the neighborhood improves, prices go up, and the artists get pushed out," Barninger says.
"They move somewhere else, five to ten years later they have to do it again. It becomes sort of this reinventing the wheel over and over and over again, and I really think that we need to start creating permanent, sustainable artist space in neighborhoods like South End — where it's affordable, you can be in a place you want to be and you're not going to feel like you're going to have to do it again in a couple years."
The key to such sustainability is usually ownership, although Barninger and the Nociks will continue to lease their space. All three buildings are owned by the Charlotte-based Vinson Enterprises.
Although Vinson management did not want to comment for this story, Glen says he's in constant talks with ownership and rests assured that he won't be pushed out of the space on Distribution Street.
"At the beginning, when we first started C3 Lab, that was always in the back of our heads: 'If we're going to do this, will we be here in five years?'" Glen says. "But [Vinson] are behind us more than we can say right now. They understand our vision and the way they're supporting us, with the relationship we've built with them in these last two years and these last three months showing them what we're doing with the expansion, that is out of our head, not one ounce of worry, we're here for a while."
Now that C3 is apparently here to stay, what exactly will the new space look like once it's finished?
The new building will be used mainly as a gallery and events venue, which will open up the existing building for more affordable studio space for local artists.
The new building will also include an applied craft space with a woodshop, a welding room, a metal room and space for printmaking, clay work and other mediums.
"It's about adding more to current studio space but adding more of these things that impact the community as well," Barninger says.
The new building will also include a bar called Alchemy at C3 Lab and a 3,200-square-foot patio that will host a range of activities and events, from outdoor movies with stadium seating to bocce ball.
"What we've been figuring out: the sustainability part, how do you do that? If it's just artist space, you don't survive. That model doesn't work. So you have to subsidize things with other things. We were doing it here in the early stage with the coworking and things. That helped us pay the bills," Glen says.
"Rent in South End is not cheap, so as we expand our overhead expands, so that's why now we're bringing in the bar component. The bar component is going to allow us to continue doing what we're doing, and in a sense, if you come here and have a drink, have a beer or a bourbon, you're helping the arts."
The Nociks run a sign business out of C3 that's their main source of income, while Barninger designs and builds furniture. He'll be shutting down Union Shop Studio in June and running his business out of C3.
The team takes just 10 percent of artist sales at C3 Lab, compared to average numbers closer to 50 percent around the city. They describe the lab as a passion project.
"We don't rely on these businesses for a living. We create these businesses because of passion. We're invested not only emotionally and putting our time in, but we've put our own money into all of this. We've done all this out of pocket," Glen says.
Off in a different corner of the C3 Lab warehouse during our recent visit, we came across Ayinde Rivera, known professionally as Ayinde the Drummaker.
Ayinde has been making his ashiko and djembe drums in the C3 Lab warehouse for about six months. He called it "the most fantastic experience in the world."
"Coming to work every day, I look forward to it. I look forward to all these different ideas and ways of thinking; the different characteristics of the environment itself. You go to one room, you experience one feeling, you go to a different room, you experience a whole different feeling. There's a variety of muses if you will; the muse is everywhere you look inside C3 Lab. It's chock-full, over the brim with inspiration," Rivera said.
"I think the C3 Lab is on the cusp, it's on the fringe. I don't see anything else in the entire city of Charlotte that's anything like this. And I've been involved in the arts here for well over 50 years, and I've never seen anything like C3 Lab anywhere in Charlotte, nothing coming close."
Next to Rivera, Angela Clousher was in the midst of work on a painting. Clousher said she began working at C3 Lab just two months ago. She was attracted by the affordability, but has quickly learned the advantages of working in such a diverse space.
"I love the fact that it's just more of a collective creative work space," Clousher said. "Everybody's got a lot of creative energy. Everyone's working and doing different stuff around you, so that's kind of cool. If I don't know how to do something I can always ask somebody else. I've definitely learned some stuff since I've come here."
News of the C3 Lab expansion comes at a precarious time for arts around the country, as a recent federal budget proposal from President Donald Trump would cut all funding to the National Endowment of the Arts, which funds the Arts & Science Council locally.
"I think in most places the arts scene is a very fragile thing and can be blown up very easily with just a few things happening," Barninger said. "I feel that way here in Charlotte. Even since I've moved here, it's been getting better. There are more things to go do. But by losing grant funding and things like that, it is going to hurt the artists in a big way. I think that's one of the cool things about our gallery is we have the opportunity to help these artists because we're not trying to make money from the gallery. Sales are not going to us."
As has been the case with Union Shop, Nocik has dedicated C3 Lab to showing more experimental pieces and installations, like Chrysalis, a recent exhibit by local artist and performer Lara Americo originally inspired by her photo essay Trans & Queer in the Workplace, which ran in Creative Loafing. Chrysalis included three-dimensional busts done by Americo, a rare medium in local exhibits but one the C3 team would like to showcase more often in the new space.
Barninger hopes the dedication to showcasing mediums of all types will inspire the Charlotte arts community and arts consumers to come together and fight for funding in an uncertain future.
"We have the opportunity to show some things in there that maybe don't get shown in some of the other galleries around the city. Hopefully, in a small way, that can push the arts community and community at large and what they want to see," he said. "If there's demand in the community for arts, you can get funding for arts. That's what it takes. It takes the entire community to demand funding and demand that there is availability for grants to artists and things like that because they want to see it."
As idealistic as that sounds, Nocik said he'd like to see it taken one step further.
"I think ultimately what we hope happens is we create newer models for everything," he said. "Everything has been the same for so long; you have institutions that are funded by the government. Well, what if there are groups of people doing things like this — investing or bringing investors in to do these things? So that's in a sense changing the model. It's breaking the traditional way of doing things. I think we need to change that, it's time that that changed."
It's a lot to hope for, but you had us at having a beer or bourbon for the arts.