When you think of Alabama, do you think first of art? Do! Why? Turns out the largest privately-owned arts facility in the United States, is in Huntsville, AL!
The Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment Complex is a must-see attraction in northern Alabama. At Lowe Mill, 144 working art studios sprawl across 171,000 square feet of the former textile mill. The building is open to the public, so you can see the 250 artists in action, yourself!
I spent over four hours last week wandering the facility, mouth a-gape, camera a-snapping, mouth a-chatting with the artists. Not only is Lowe Mill a feast for the eyes (those colors!), but it’s a delight for the emotions and mind, too, as the artists are some of the most charming and creative people around. Whenever possible, I’ve linked these photos to artist websites, so just click a pretty picture to learn more.
You can certainly make a full day of the mill, as food options mean starvation isn’t a danger. Me? In the name of researching this article, I devoured a turkey sandwich with strawberry cream cheese at Happy Tummy restaurant, a peach basil popsicle at Suzy’s Pops, and an artisanal S’more at Pizzelle’s Confections. Edible art!
What is the history of Lowe Mill? The building was erected over 100 years ago in 1900 by Arthur Lowe of Fitchburg, Massachusetts (my state!) as a textile mill. It pumped out fashionable ginghams until the economy shifted in 1937, and the structure was converted into a cotton warehouse.
By 1945, the building was flipped into a shoe factory, ultimately supplying boots for soldiers in the Vietnam War. Come 1978, it shifted to a heating systems warehouse. The arts finally landed in Lowe Mill in 2001 when Jim Hudson, the founder of Research Genetics (a partner in the Human Genome Project), bought the building to enact his creative vision.
What was Hudson’s inspiration for turning Lowe Mill into art heaven? Before coming to Huntsville, Hudson was living in Alexandria, Virginia and stumbled across the Torpedo Factory, an 82-studio artist facility created out of a 1918 factory that used to manufacture — you guessed it — torpedoes. From war to beauty!
Hudson’s innovative investment has paid off. Lowe Mill has been so successfully innovative as an arts facility that in 2011, it was put on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to art studios, the building also houses a multi-use theater (the “Flying Monkey“) and several other performance spaces.
To give you a taste of how much fun it is to wander Lowe Mill and chat with the artists, here’s a sampling of my favorite conversations during my day.
David Nuttall: “Hello! My thing is painting plausible fictitious maps, sometimes on human skin.”
Me: “Um, how do you find people to paint on?”
David: “Find people?! They pay me!”
I later found out that David frequently gives presentations on the topic, “Turning your passion into a business (no matter how STRANGE).”
As I strolled through what seemed to be an innocent quilting studio…
Deb D’Zio: “Can you put swears on your blog?”
Me: “Er, no, because I’m also a middle school teacher. Why do you ask?”
Deb: “My specialty is quilts with naughty phrases on them.”
While having a delightful conversation with Bill Teoh, creator of gorgeous photos…
Me: “Would you mind if I took a few photos of you?”
Bill: “That would be a waste of film.”
After nearly fainting from fright in a pottery studio when the artist’s dog stealthily snuck up on me and licked my leg…
Me: “I’ve taken so many photos today, it’s going to be a challenge to make sure I label them all correctly in the article.”
Stacy Morgan: “Here, let me write a reminder on my business card: OCTOPUS CRAWLING FROM BOWL.”
At Magic Mill Music, interrupting a music lesson to browse the artistic guitars…
Me: “You have guitars made from Star Wars lunch boxes?! And license plates?!”
Magic Mill: “That’s not all. Look more closely at the box we used for the guitar in the window…”
Me: “Oh my!”
Magic Mill: “Hey, it’s medicinal.”
Yeah, I could have stayed in Lowe Mill all day to chat with those creatives. If more hands-on activities are more your thing, though, never fear. The facility has lots of art classes, craft supply shops, clothing and jewelry to try on, event space, and even music lessons!
The only thing that makes me sad, writing this article, is that I don’t have room to acknowledge each and every person whose creative energy makes Lowe Mill such a joy. Luckily, there’s an excellent directory of every artist studio (replete with search filters) on the mill’s official website, should you crave more artist details. Even if you won’t be in Huntsville any time soon, do feel free to reach out to individual artists through those links, as many of them ship their work.
Some may be wondering at this point: do the artists live in the mill? No, these 144 studios are just work and display spaces. That said, artists do their craft during… creative hours, so even though the official visiting hours of Lowe Mill are of the more traditional 12-6pm flavor, you better bet there are some night-owl artists.
What about cost? Are the studios free for artists? No, artists must pay rent and need to be selected from a rigorous juried process in the first place, but the cost of having studio space in the mill is kept very affordable so the art has room to grow.
It’s not just the affordability or glorious big-window sunlight that makes Lowe Mill such a dream for artists, however — it’s the community and creative cross-pollination. Heather Baumbach, painter of donuts and winsome cows, explained, “When I get stuck on a piece, I just pop down the hall and get another creative opinion on it. A lot of times, that other artist will point out a way forward that I would never have realized if I were just working alone.”
The artistic synergy crosses disciplines and media. In Bill Teoh’s photography studio, my friend and fellow travel blogger, Tomiko, was admiring Bill’s portrait of a gorgeous woman. “Is that a professional model?” she asked.
“No,” Bill replied, “that’s just Kanthi, one of the painters from down the hall who volunteered her face for the shoot!”
Now that you have the background goodies, I invite you to lift your heart by doing a leisurely scroll through a few more studios. Notice that it’s not just the actual art which is art — the manner in which each studio is decorated is art, too, so you might just get ideas for your next home reorganization! Let’s go.
Visiting Soon? Here are Great Accommodations in Huntsville:
- I stayed at this Springhill Suites and really enjoyed it, especially the hot breakfast. (Note: These links are affiliates that support this site at no cost to you. Win-win!)
- Friends liked this Embassy Suites, which is conveniently connected to the Von Braun conference center.
- For a more homey feel (and kitchen!) VRBO has great options (click for deals) in Huntsville.
So what do you think? Does Lowe Mill thrill you, too? Which are your favorite studios and works of art pictured here? What else do you have to add? Do share!