The Mill Studios provides local artists with affordable studio spaces that foster creativity, camaraderie, and community.

By Ainsley Maloney
Photography by Susan Beard Design Co (susanbearddesign.com)

Walking through the entrance to The Mill Studios is like stepping through the secret wardrobe portal to Narnia. The single black door off of Baker Street is nondescript, but beyond it lies a colorful gallery of hand-painted artwork and winding hallways with pops of purple painted doors that open to artists’ private studios.


Natural light flows in from high vaulted ceilings, which for nearly three decades, has provided affordable studio spaces to over 50 prolific local artists. Home to a range of talent from painters, potters, and sculptors to jewelers, architects, and web designers, The Mill offers them a quiet and safe place to do their life’s work.


“The space invites concentration and creativity,” said Irene Nunn, spanning her arms around her intimate studio as sunlight illuminates her stunning oil portraits.


Back in the early 1990s, decades before coworking spaces entered the public consciousness, owner, Scott Gressen, had a 150-year-old mill from his family’s synthetic plant manufacturing business. Manufacturing was quickly moving overseas. This left Scott with a lot of empty space, and one really creative idea: to break up the mill into smaller 20-by-20-foot studios and rent them out to local artists.


“Scott put one advertisement in Art Matters Magazine and got something like 300 phone calls in one day,” said Scott’s right-hand man Johnny Olszewski, General Manager of Gressen Properties and The Mill Studios. “He was the only person in the area doing this. Scott had a big part to do with the Manayunk art community and its beginnings.”


One of the very first tenants, Susan Beard of Susan Beard Design Co. has been in the same space from day one and remains to be one of the most esteemed professional photographers in the Philadelphia area. With the largest studio in The Mill, her entrance on 123 Leverington St. opens to a gorgeous workspace that feels more like a comfortable living room with hardwood floors, elegant glass tables, and modern sofas for client meetings.
Susan started in fine arts, but over the years, she has evolved beyond classic portraiture, weddings and other events, to include fine art encaustics (WaxWorksPhoto), pet-inclusive digital works (the popular “Regal Beagle”), and framed organic sea fans.


“I loved that this space was a 150-year old mill with the lofty ceilings. It felt really raw,” she said. “I know everybody now. I’ve been here for so long. It’s like a real family.”


Another long-time tenant, Elaine Lisle, a local artist who has received national recognition for her cityscape oils, has found many benefits of having a studio at The Mill. Schooled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the University of Philadelphia, Elaine rented her first studio in 1992.


“I tried working from home, but it’s so difficult to not be constantly interrupted or diverted by all of the things that need to get done,” Elaine said. “As a professional, it’s important to have a workspace that’s your own.” She also uses the space to host workshops and painting lessons for up to four people.


Elaine, like many of the artists, can also look out her window to find a rich source of inspiration. Some artwork in the gallery features local landmarks, such as the Manayunk Bridge, views of the Schuylkill River in the fall, and al fresco dining scapes. Elaine has also been inspired to host en plein air (outdoor) painting workshops.


“Manayunk has a European feel with its colorful storefronts and awnings — it’s very artistically inviting,” Elaine said. “I love the different elevations. The urban scape is varied because of the hills and trains, and I love the intersections of parks, water, and buildings. There’s everything here. It’s a great place to be a painter.”


With so much space in The Mill Studios, artists have the room to grow as their business expands, and many tenants play “musical studios,” Johnny said. Working among such a talented community can be a rising tide that raises all ships. Every year on the first Sunday in October, The Mill Studios hosts an open house that welcomes visitors, free of charge, to tour the center gallery showcasing hand-crafted works of some of Philadelphia’s most talented and prolific artists.


“The open houses attract art consultants and collectors, which allows me to get my name out there,” Elaine said. “One sale leads to more sales and commissions,” whether for corporations, hospitals, or individual collectors. Elaine is currently represented by Gross McCleaf Gallery in Center City Philadelphia.


Working in a community with like-minded individuals has offered these artists a level of support they wouldn’t have had if they remained working from home. Irene coordinates monthly meetings between artists and runs The Mill Studios’ Facebook group to share tips on topics such as how to price their artwork and creative ways to market their business.


“The studio offers the camaraderie of excellent artists, whose work is readily on display. It’s inspiring,” Irene said. “It’s not competitive. We all support one another.”


Johnny added, “Our tenants have a lot of skill and talent, but what they don’t often learn in art school is how to promote their work or price their product. Here, our artists can share financial advice to take what they’re doing from hobby to business. We’ve had artists who, since being in our building, have met other studio owners, and the next thing you know, they’re marketing themselves in art galleries and exhibits.”


As for Scott, he reflected on the mark he’s made on the artist community in Manayunk over the past 25 years.


“In any business, it’s great to be able to love what you’re doing,” Scott said. “It’s been a pleasure working with a wonderful group of talented people who consider this building their home away from home. We let the artists work in an environment they created.”


For visitors interested in seeing all of the talent The Mill Studios has to offer, the artists will be hosting an open house on November 3 from 12-5 p.m. at 123 Leverington Ave.


“Our Open Studio is a consolidating and bonding force that challenges us to see each other anew,” Irene said. “It’s amazing how many outstanding artists we have here — all in one building.”

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