Making Art Island Center
By Andrew McCormick
One of the questions we get most often in our shop is some version of "Where did this place come from?" We're the only bookstore, only commercial gallery, and only public art studio on Naoshima, an island where most visitors don't expect to find any of the above. But more than that, we combine all three in a small, quirky house with exposed roof beams and eclectic decor. Where did it come from?
Before I dive into the making of our current location, a bit of history: In 2019, Eri and I moved into a house in Honmura, on the east side of Naoshima, and began renovating part of it to serve as Art Island Center. Just as we began, we entered the first phase of the long pandemic. We didn't know what was going to happen, so we took our time.
We hung our first exhibit in October 2020, but kept the gallery closed and presented it online. We hosted kids' art lessons in the back of the shop. In spring 2021, we finally opened our doors to the public for a two-week exhibit by a group of community artists. And then we moved out.
Sadly, our landlords decided to sell the house, as part of a large parcel of land including another house--too much for us. So we packed up. We moved to a house in Miyanoura, on the other side of the island, and opened a tiny pop-up shop/studio in a room on the ground floor.
As we got up and running there, we noticed that the little old house two doors down from us was empty, and asked a local friend about it. We were lucky: Our friend knew the owners and would put us in touch. More luck: The owners were delightful and happy to let us use the house. Commence phase three!
The century-old house had been empty for close to twenty years, had major termite damage, and one of the outer walls was dissolving. It had no plumbing, not to mention air conditioning. There was a cat skeleton out back. But the roof had been redone sometime in recent memory, and the interior was dry and structurally sound. Getting it to a state where you would want to live in it was beyond our means and ability. But an art space?
The first moment of excitement came when I took out the ceiling, exposing the beautiful whole-tree-trunk beams.
The floor was less exciting. Under the mite-infested tatami was a layer of moldy wood planks.
Under that: Mud! Sticky, perpetually-wet earth, thanks to runoff from the neighboring mountain.
We really opened up the space, taking out all the interior doors and many of the earthen walls above those doors. Earthen walls are very heavy, as I found out when one of them came down hard and broke part of the floor structure. (Bottom left-center in this pic)
After I had torn so much out of the house, without a real sense of how it would go back together, more than one friend on the island told me I was crazy. And they were probably right, but at this point the only way out was through. We took a break to plan the next phase. Then, in early 2022, we pressed on, starting with the mud problem.
The entire footprint of the house got a layer of thick plastic. On top of that, we dumped a few hundred kilograms of moisture-absorbing material. Think kitty litter.
Then, after tripling the framing, I started laying down the floor. I used 12-millimeter plywood for the floor as a long-term temporary solution.
You'll note the lack of insulation under the floor: for the time being, we opted to go without, but the plywood floor is easy to remove so we can add it in the future. Also, at this point we still didn't have plumbing and it wasn't clear where the under-floor pipes would go when we added it.
It's worth taking a moment here to talk about logistics. First off, we are on an island, which complicates everything. Neither Eri nor I have a car. Or a driver's license. So, every time we needed materials, we borrowed a friend's truck and got another friend to drive it for us. That second friend was Johnny, our local advisor/friend/hero. To date, Johnny has helped us haul truckloads of lumber from the mainland via ferry close to half a dozen times.
We converted a large closet in the front area of the space into our gallery. I recycled old flooring for the structural layer, then we put down plywood and finally drywall. The manufacturer of this drywall has a plant on Naoshima. Our very generous landlord works for them, so a shout out to Yoshino Gypsum.
I started playing around with decor and lighting. For the former, we relied heavily on objects we had brought with us from Honmura. Our first, short-lived location was once the home and workshop of a shipbuilder and many of his tools and other objects from his workshop now adorn our new space.
Once the lighting was in, we gave the plywood floor a coat of black deck paint. The paint has a clear base so you can see the grain underneath.
Our front windows had been replaced a few decades prior. The aluminum frames were not attractive, and they had privacy glass, so you couldn't see inside the shop. But luck struck a third time: Down the street from us, an old stationery shop was about to be torn down. Murao Shoten was one of the last remaining shops from a past era, when our street was known as "Naoshima Ginza Street," a bustling shopping corridor. Mr. Murao had passed away a few years earlier. The new generation wished to build a modern home on the site.
What does this mean for us? Old Naoshima families are often interconnected, and we learned that the mayor, an acquaintance of ours, was now in charge of the property. We asked him: "What about those nice old doors...?"
"Why would you want those? They're old!"
Fortune still smiling upon us, all I had to do was trim a bit off the bottom and they fit perfectly.
We were also able to salvage four large, antique cabinets from Murao Shoten. ("Why would you want those? They're old!") I fixed them up and added LED lighting. They all had beautiful sliding glass doors, which we didn't need, so I created a suspended partition out of several of them, dividing the shop in the front from the studio in back.
So this is how we looked when we opened in April of 2022, just in time for the Setouchi Triennale.
We weren't "done," but we were done enough to host several exhibits and lots of kids' classes! From spring 2022 to spring 2023, we had thousands of visitors, particularly beginning in the fall when the borders finally, haltingly reopened to international tourists.
A real challenge for us, particularly when it came to art-making, was the lack of plumbing. The house was a relic from the way things used to be everywhere on Naoshima. The toilet was a hole in the floor with a cistern below that a truck would come and drain periodically. The kitchen sink drew water from a well via a leaky pump, and drained into the gutter along the street out back. This setup did not lend itself to washing paintbrushes, or regular classes for little kids who have to pee all the time. Both operations relied heavily on our house two doors down.
With the help of a grant, we finally brought in the professionals in the spring of 2023. By far the most expensive portion of the project was connecting the shop to the sewer, which involved digging a trench the entire length of the building and laying pipe.
Then I jumped in and tried not to embarrass myself too much in front of the professionals, converting a little nook in the studio into a big industrual sink. (The sink itself was connected by people who know what they're doing.)
We also took the opportunity to redo the back door.
But the star of the project was the new toilet. Is it weird to show people your new toilet? Because I show this toilet to everyone.
And that brings us more or less to the present. We are still not done. Future projects include building a deck, repairing our still-dissolving eastern wall, and hopefully getting a little cafe running in back. But for now, that's the Art Island Center renovation story.
Thanks for reading! If you'd like to support our project, consider sponsoring a zine. You'll help a local artist publish their work while also boosting our efforts to raise funds for studio maintenance and community projects. Send an inquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org.