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Artists' space in Braddock inspiring

| Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009

Chris Kardambikis has shared a studio space with friends in Bloomfield, and painted and drawn in his Lawrenceville living room.

But he ultimately found a home for artistic expression in an unlikely place -- a former parochial school in Braddock.

"It's a very comfortable space," said Kardambikis, 25, one of the artists renting studio space at Unsmoke Systems on Braddock Avenue. "I wouldn't say the building is a microcosm of Braddock ... but it is an example of something very positive that can happen in Braddock."

Unsmoke Systems started about a year ago, when Braddock resident Jeb Feldman bought the former St. Michael's school, which was being used by a disaster recovery company, for $60,000. His vision was simple: he wanted to revitalize the neglected 15,000- to 16,000-square-foot building, and a space for artists seemed like a natural fit.

"Gallery and studio space work well because I think Braddock is an artistic place, a creative place and a place for innovating -- and I think people are figuring that out," said Feldman, 34, Unsmoke System's owner. "We're trying to sort of reframe Braddock as a place where great things happen."

The building, now carved into about 10 studio spaces, is at full capacity, Feldman said. Its first-floor gallery has been home to a half-dozen shows -- from a 16-artist retrospective titled "Out of This Furnace" to a fundraiser featuring nearly 100 photographs of Braddock. It even hosted a wedding.

"This was a building that was discarded," said Feldman, as he stood in the century-old building's gallery. "I think it's sort of important to bring life back."

Unsmoke Systems offers Kardambikis, who moved in last February, a discounted studio space big enough for a large drawing desk and couch, and a collaborative environment where he can communicate with other artists.

Stephanie Armbruster enjoys the amenities of her space -- about 600 square feet, natural light, high ceilings, wood floors -- but sounds more captivated by the aesthetics of her surroundings. The painter grew up in the Cleveland area and the visual language of the Rust Belt, on display at the nearby Edgar Thomson Works mill, speaks to her, she said.

"It's hard to pinpoint exactly what that thing is (but) I'm really influenced by my environment," said Armbruster, 25, of Squirrel Hill, who used to have space at the Ohringer Building. "To be there, I ... feel like that place is really tied in well to the concept of my work."

"I love the space," said Jeanine Hall, 25 and of Squirrel Hill, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate student helping to plan shows at Unsmoke Systems as part of a school apprenticeship. "It's raw and industrial and yet very clean at the same time. It really lends itself to different installations and art events."

Projects like Unsmoke Systems show there are places to be reborn and re-imagined in Braddock, those close to the project said.

"We want to match these buildings with people that are taking it in a positive direction," Mayor John Fetterman said. "Never underestimate what one building can help do."

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