It's no surprise that Spokane's new artist collective is absolutely plastered in art.
Located in the industrial East Central district, Make a Difference Co. Lab Studios, known as M.A.D Co., is tucked away in the second story of an old brick warehouse. As soon as you walk up the stairs, you're greeted with vibrantly colored wall-to-wall murals and paintings. Make your way through the maze of rooms and you'll see art of all mediums. There's a classroom, pottery studio, artist workspace and even a small coffee shop.
On the floor, a serpentine set of paintings called "Ego Trip" guides you through the main thoroughfare to bathrooms and an office. It was painted by students from Garfield Elementary.
"It's to show artists that I don't care if you're on the walls, we all start painting trees and clouds," says co-founder Morgan Walters.
Walters and her fiance, Anthony Mattox, founded M.A.D Co. in 2020. Over the past year, it's grown into a collective with more than 47 artists. Along with providing a space for local artists to create, network and display their work, M.A.D Co. offers regular classes for kids and adults.
"This is so much bigger than anything that we imagined. When we were setting the tile, we didn't have any idea really what this place was going to be," Walters says.
Walters describes M.A.D Co. as a sort of gym for artists. For a monthly fee, artists can become members with regular access to the studio and its various amenities. If artists aren't able to afford the membership, they can volunteer with one of several nonprofits instead.
Art can be a solitary pursuit, but M.A.D Co. helps provide a space for artists to work in the same room, on separate projects or in collaboration. It's an eclectic group, Walters says. Some of the artists are well established in the industry, but there are also lots of newcomers. The collective environment also helps up-and-coming artists get their foot in the door and navigate the business aspects of art.
"The higher-end artists that are really looking for the rolling out the red carpet, you know the galleries, they can handle all that," Walters says. "But the new artists who might not be confident in their skills, or they're looking for a community or looking to learn, that's more so what this place was for."
Walters says M.A.D Co. works hard to encourage new artists. If someone's work isn't quite ready to be sold in the gallery, they'll invite them to one of the regular artists nights where they can learn from other artists.
M.A.D Co. started as a for-profit business, but is in the process of transitioning into a nonprofit, Walters says. M.A.D Co. takes a 20 percent commission from art sold at the gallery, 15 percent of which is divided up between Jewels Helping Hands, The Jonah Project and Black Dog foundation.
Walters and Mattox both have backgrounds in construction. But when Walters started experiencing PTSD-related seizures several years ago, Mattox convinced her to stop working and focus on her art full time. They later connected with Denny Carman, who introduced them to the building's previous owner and helped them jump-start the project.
For Walters and many of the other artists, art can be a way of dealing with PTSD.
"A lot of the artists here, whether they've had their own traumatic experiences or they've had to completely revamp their life because of something," Walters says. "We've got some who've had accidents, for example, and art was their way of discovering their identity."
Walters says they've been in touch with people from the NEA Military Healing Arts Network, and are hoping to host a veterans event where veterans from around the country can come share their art. The event was postponed because of COVID, but Walters says they're planning to schedule it as soon as things become safe.
M.A.D Co. has an expansive ceramic studio that hosts regular pottery classes. The classes have various themes, including mug-making and date night. (Walters says the date night classes often involve calls from frantic, last-minute anniversary planners.) Brian Joyce, the ceramic studio manager, says they mostly teach beginner classes, but are hoping to start offering more advanced work soon.
"We want to teach a ceramic chemistry course," he says, "so you obviously need some foundation before we're going to let you jump into that."
Walters grew up in a small town in upstate New York. One of her fondest memories was when the owner of an abandoned building in town invited the elementary school class to come paint the building's windows.
"As a kid, being able to have an art piece to drive by all the time, it was pride, it was cool. It was a bonding experience." Walters says.
It's that experience of childhood discovery that Walters says she tries to replicate at M.A.D Co. They host regular youth events where kids of all experience levels can come learn about and create art. The work is proudly displayed in the building's Youth Gallery.
"I've had 14-year-olds who've never worked with clay and 6-year-olds who are just running around pretending that they're digging for treasure on one of the floor murals, they just really have a good time," Walters says.
Walters says she and Mattox are still trying to wrap their heads around the project's rapid success. The project has grown bigger than they ever thought was possible, she says. Things are changing so quickly they've given up on making long-term plans and started taking things as they come.
"The sky's the limit," Walters says. "We're honestly just reactive to what walks through the door at that point in time." ♦