Arts / Galleries

Inside the Winter Street Studios Fire Bombing and How the Houston Arts Community Is Already Rallying to Help Devastated Artists

A PaperCity Exclusive

BY // 12.30.22

On Tuesday, December 20, 2022, as I was wrapping up my desk before the holiday, a series of texts came in. Then my Facebook exploded. One of the pillars of the Houston art scene — Winter Street Studios — had been fire bombed, resulting in a devastating blaze.

The suspect in the arson, which targeted photographer Jack Potts, took his own life, jumping from the window of his apartment when Houston police showed up with an arrest warrant. Potts told KTRK Channel 13 that the suspect was a former friend upset over a $1,000 dispute. 

This story focuses on what’s next and recognizes those who stepped forward to help, reinforcing many’s faith in the strength of the close-knit Houston art community. 

The arson victim was a behemoth of a building: the 75,000 square-foot space at 2101 Winter Street, a historic brick-and-concrete structure dating from 1928, originally built by E.A. Hudson for the Houston Transfer Company. The rambling two-story fortress later become Harris Moving & Storage, before being turned into studios for rent for professional artists by developer Jon Deal in 2005. Deal took a chance on rehabbing the rambling elephant of a building, betting artist-generated income could be financially successful. 

The developer also had to convince the permitting department, which granted the building the first permit ever under the groundbreaking Artist Studio Ordinance in the City of Houston.  

The Silos at Sawyer Yards, adjoining Winter Street Studios, was another successful artist-centric project by Winter Street developer Jon Deal. The Deal Company won a <em>PaperCity</em> Design Award in 2017 for Historical, Restoration/Preservation of a Commercial property.
The Silos at Sawyer Yards, adjoining Winter Street Studios, was another successful artist-centric project by Winter Street developer Jon Deal. The Deal Company won a PaperCity Design Award in 2017 for Historical, Restoration/Preservation of a Commercial property.

Flash forward 17 years, and Winter Street had become the bedrock of what would morph into one of the largest communities of working artists in the country. The thriving Sawyer Yards complex, that has also birthed under Deal and other partners, a plethora of pendant properties for artists, other creatives, stores and restaurants, led by Spring Street Studios, Silver Street Studios (home to the international biennial of photography FotoFest) and The Silos at Sawyer Yards. Winter Street Studios has also been the headquarters, thanks to generous owners, of countless fundraisers, mostly notably the art auction benefiting affordable housing and artists, the iconic Art on the Avenue presented by Avenue CDC.

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Winter Street Studios in happier times: Guest Juror Project Row Houses' Danielle Burns Wilson and First Prize Winner Danyelle Lakin at the 25th Art on the Avenue anniversary event held at Winter Street Studios in November. (Photo by Wilson Parish)
Winter Street Studios in happier times: Guest Juror Project Row Houses’ Danielle Burns Wilson and First Prize Winner Danyelle Lakin at the 25th Art on the Avenue anniversary event held at Winter Street Studios in November. (Photo by Wilson Parish)

The Winter Streets Studio Fire Attack Aftermath                                                            

As you read this, all the artists tenants of Winter Street, nearly 100, have been affected. These artists are scrambling to survey damage and make plans for their creative future. One of the most important — and the first to move in more than 17 years ago — mid-career painter Sandi Seltzer Bryant, played an integral role in working with Jon Deal beginning in 2004.

Sandi Seltzer Bryant holds out the T shirt that was giving out to the original Winter Street Studios artists that moved into the revitalized building in 2005. (Courtesy Sandi Seltzer Bryant)
Sandi Seltzer Bryant holds the T shirt that was given out to the original Winter Street Studios artists that moved into the revitalized building in 2005. (Courtesy Sandi Seltzer Bryant)

“Winter Street Studios began with a vision as a community of artists, a place to challenge one‘s own creative energy,” Bryant tells PaperCity. “A place with colorful people and colorful objects. So many diverse artistic souls have created in these studios. Safe to fail and safe to dare express their ideas.

“Now the exploration has  been put on hold. Abruptly and with malice. Black, greasy, toxic soot has filled the air and covered everything that an artist values. The hue in this space will not be stifled for very long. The Houston art community is unbreakable.

“The outpouring of support gives me hope that the white walls will return, primed and ready to receive colorful expression.”

Artist Erika Alonzo and curator/art adviser Moriah Alise at Winter Street Studios Gallery, on the opening of Alonzo's solo "Land(E)scape." (Photo by CDA)
Artist Erika Alonso and curator/art adviser Moriah Alise at Winter Street Studios Gallery, on the opening of Alonso’s solo “Land(E)scape.” (Photo by CDA)

An emergent talent Erika Alonso — shown in the above photo at the opening of her Winter Street Studios Gallery exhibition on Saturday, December 10 — is also sharing the details of her fire losses.

Alonso and I recently become acquainted (thanks to collector/patron Lester Marks), and I’d been to opening day of her solo at Winter Street’s central gallery space — scene to countless exhibitions and fundraisers for since the building’s opening 17 years ago. Alonso’s moving solo show was funded by a grant from Houston Arts Alliance. Entitled “Land(E)scape,” it detailed via abstract figural language the migration stories of fellow Cubans and other women from Latin America. Presented by dynamic arts adviser Moriah Alise, the work exhibited was fresh, moving and lyrical.

At the invite of the artist and Alise, I popped in to see Alonso work in her studio — filled with promising canvases and filled-to-the-brims flat files  — a few suites away from Winter Street’s main gallery.  

The realty that Alonso has been hurt by the fire is heartbreaking.

“They gave us the go ahead last night (Thursday, December 22) but I’ve been in there a few times and the smoke smell is so toxic I am going to wait until I can get some heavy duty PPE,” Alonso texted about her first visit to  severely damaged Winter Street Studios. “As for when the studio will be useable. . . I really don’t know but I assume it’s two-plus months.

“I’m definitely interested in a residency if you know of any I can apply for! I won’t be able to work out of my studio for the foreseeable future.” 

Art on the Avenue 2018 at Winter Street Studios: Chairs Fady Armanious and Bill Baldwin, Mayor Sylvester Turner, developer Jon Deal &amp; Katie Deal
Art on the Avenue 2018 at Winter Street Studios: Chairs Fady Armanious and Bill Baldwin, Mayor Sylvester Turner, developer Jon Deal & Katie Deal

What’s Next For Winter Street  Studios                                     

There is some good news in the aftermath of the Winter Street Studios fire bombing. Winter Street Studios will rise up again like a phoenix, promises developer Jon Deal.

PaperCity has covered Deal for more than a decade, breaking the news in 2014 of Deal’s game-changing acquisition of Riviana Foods’ Mahatma Rice/Success Rice silos, which he and his partners transformed into The Silos at Sawyer Yards — which would go on to win a PaperCity Design Award in 2017 in the commercial category for preservation/restoration of an historic structure. 

Back then, artist Sandi Seltzer Bryant told PaperCity about the early days of Winter Street, the original building that Deal developed which literally paved the way for the Washington Avenue Corridor/Houston Arts District and made the Sawyer Yards of today possible. 

“Jon (Deal) invited me in late summer or early fall (2004) to meet him at what was then  an old warehouse on railroad tracks on a street named Winter — but it had no sign,” Bryant recalled then. 

What Deal once did to rehab the raw, cavernous space of Winter Street —later replicating that model throughout Sawyer Yards —  makes many confident that he can and will do it again. 

We reached out to Deal the Friday before Christmas. Within hours he emailed back details to PaperCity of his new plans that provide uplifting news to not only the Winter Street Studios artists, but also members of the Houston art family at large. 

“Definitely arson,” Deal tells PaperCity of the cause of the devastating fire. “I reviewed some of the video with the arson investigators and it was a targeted theft and firebombing of a specific studio. With our building and campus cameras we were able to follow the thief/arsonist’s steps from the time he entered campus to the entry into Winter Street Studios then directly to the studio door without hesitation at any turn.

“Clearly he had been in the studio before (photographer Jack Potts’ studio). On the video you can see him leaving the studio at a rapid pace and then seconds later the explosion.”  

An image of Winter Street Studios before and after conveys the tragic damage of the arson.
An image of Winter Street Studios before and after conveys the tragic damage of the arson.
 

“The eastern 1/3 of the building, Section C, looks like a war zone on the first level,” Deal details of the damage. “The remainder of the building (Sections A & B) suffered severe smoke damage, which left a thick soot. The second level of Section C shows signs of structural damage due to the heat of the fire.”

A scene of devastation: Winter Street Studios after an arsonist bombed the building. (Courtesy HAA)
A scene of devastation: Winter Street Studios after an arsonist bombed the building. (Courtesy HAA)
 

Now that a plan is in place. Deal has a timeline in mind.

 “Our plan is to have Sections A & B (2/3 of the building) cleaned and ready for the artists to move back in in February,” he tells PaperCity. “Section C will require some structural repairs and complete rebuild of about one half the studios in that section of the building. We are estimating that it will be six months before we are able to get those studios ready for the artists to move back in.”

As to who will rebuild Winter Street, Deal dispatched his own crews immediately.

“The fire occurred at 5:20 am Tuesday, December 20,” Deal details.” We had crews on site at 7 am on Wednesday, December 21, and have already made it possible for artists to enter their studios in Sections A & B. Many already have. We made the decision to remediate in-house (Dealco) as we felt like we were able to mobilize quicker with more manpower and equipment than the remediation company could.”

Another silver lining is the nearby presence of warehouses under the Sawyer Yards umbrella.

“Silver Street opened up warehouse space that had recently been vacated and is allowing the Winter Street artists to store their artwork there until we can get them back in the building,” Deal shares. “We are prepared to open two of our warehouses a little further away if needed.”

And wall space will be provided, Deal notes.

“Alexander Squire, Sawyer Yards creative director, will be coordinating with management and other building artists to help the Winter Street artists to display what artwork they have left during the second Saturday event in January and in February if necessary,” Deal tells PaperCity.  

I have long been impressed with Deal, a sharp business mind who’s humble and low key, eschewing Brioni suits for Levi’s, and who has been an all-around good guy who puts his tenants ahead of making money. Deal is more focused on building community than making mega profits. 

But Deal is really coming through in this crisis.

“Our plan is to put the building back together and improve the space where we can,” Deal tells PaperCity.

For Deal, the studio complex represents far more than just another real estate deal.

“Winter Street is the backbone of Sawyer Yards,” he notes. “Sawyer Yards would not have happened had I not taken that risk of acquiring the building at 2101 Winter Street and been fortunate enough to stumble upon Sandy Seltzer Bryant who helped me convince the working art community that we were real and were making longterm plans for working art studios.

“Taking that step changed the course of my career. I never looked back and have loved every minute of it.”

For this developer, it’s about the creators who are his tenants.

“Although this situation is devastating to all, I am finding myself reconnecting with the artists and those who helped me seed and grow the great community of artists we have at Sawyer Yards,” Deal says. “We will do all we can to help the artists get back to work in their studios. 

“Houston Arts Alliance quickly stepped up and will be getting funds to each and every artist who was impacted by this. Many, like David Brown, who with Spacetaker was one of the early tenants at Winter Street Studios, have stopped by to offer their support.

“We are all one big family and the family is coming together during this challenging time.” 

Community Art Heroes   

Another bookend to the Winter Street Studios fire story comes in the pivotal role played by Houston Arts Alliance. As soon as details surfaced about the fire bombing and studio devastation, texts came in from friends in the art world relaying that they’d been contacted to help spread the word about donations for HAA’s Houston Artists Emergency Relief Fund. The fund is set to provide rapid financial assistance for Winter Street Studios’ devastated artist tenants. 

Houston Arts Alliance CEO John Abodeely is taking a proactive and artist-centric approach — not unexpected given his organinzation’s role empowering Houston artists. Abodeely and his team quickly responded to my email request for details about their commitment to relief efforts.

Not only was a plan firmly in place within hours via a fund with existing assets (one jump started by collector/patron Jereann Chaney) but also in-kind donations are being sought and managed by HAA, along with assistance from the Fresh Arts Coalition, which offices at Winter Street Studios. That makes it uniquely poised to be on the ground floor for hands-on relief efforts and assistance.  

“The artist community is an incredibly supportive community,” Abodeely  says. “We have seen them show up for Houston during every tragedy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, artists worked through uncertainty, lost jobs and social isolation in order to heal the community, create joy and speak their voices.

“This time is no different. Many artists are donating to our fund and even offering to help salvage work and rebuild studios.”

Abodeely stresses that “HAA is partnering with the Fresh Arts, which serves artists throughout Houston and also manages the arts district where the fire took place. We recommend artists head over to their Instagram: @Freshartsorg — for additional resources.” 

“The tragic fire at Winter Street Studios means hundreds of artists will lose thousands of hours of work, their livelihood — and their life’s work,”  incoming Houston Arts Alliance board chairman Michele Leal Farah emails PaperCity. “But I am proud of HAA and Fresh Arts for stepping in to help. More so, I’m inspired by the Houston community for donating to get these folks back to their work and their lives.”             

HAA’s Emergency Relief Fund is set up and activated to receive donations, and/or make an in-kind contributions. Materials from art supplies to cleaning supplies are welcome. To make arrangements to drop off materials to HAA you can contact Aubrey Burghardt, Houston Arts Alliance manager of external affairs, at [email protected].

Burghardt emailed PaperCity to update the latest on the fund raising efforts. “Notably, as of 12/29/22 our community has donated a total of $33,250 to the Emergency Relief Fund,” she writes.

Winter Street Studios is already starting its comeback.

To contribute to the Winter Street Studios artists’ cause, go here. To contribute to the GoFundMe of photographer Jack Potts, the target of the arson attack, go here

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