In an old building in a gritty neighborhood, Erika Greenberg-Schneider and Dominique Labauvie have created the 21st century equivalent of a 19th century artist's studio and atelier. Along with a home for themselves and their 12-year-old daughter, Esther. ¶ Tampa Heights is a far cry from the bucolic French farm outside Paris they lived in for almost a decade before relocating to Florida. ¶ So how did two authentic Francophiles — he by birth and she by inclination — end up in this very odd (for internationally connected artists) place? ¶ The answer is both easy and complicated when the couple talk about their lives.
Greenberg-Schneider was born in Brooklyn in 1957 and spent her youth in Queens. Her arrival was a surprise to her parents, who were told they couldn't have children and so had both settled into demanding business careers. A happy solution was offered by their obstetrician, a French Jew who, with his family, had fled the Nazis and brought several orphaned children with him. One, a young adult, needed work and became young Erika's nanny.
"She was like my second mother," Greenberg-Schneider says. "I learned French before English and had Camembert before I tasted peanut butter."
Greenberg-Schneider spent her junior year of college in France and vowed she'd return. After a detour at Albany State University for her master of fine arts degree, she went to work in a Parisian print shop in 1981. She became a master printer, expert in intaglio, photogravure, lithography, photolithography, relief and monotype.
Several years passed.
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"Erika was searching for a place to practice etching," says Labauvie, who was born in the Alsace region. "I was by chance in such a place, and we met under the auspices of creation."
"He needed a printer," his wife says.
Labauvie, 60, was the son of a surgeon, but knew, from his earliest memories, that art was what he wanted to do. He became a successful metal sculptor, known for his lyrical, calligraphic interpretations of an unyielding material. He also created prints related to the sculptures, hence the need for a printer.
The artists fell in love and bought an 18th century farm, where their daughter, Esther, was born. They married in 1996.
"It was a beautiful moment," Labauvie says of their time on the farm. "But in France, as soon as you make a name and money, the taxes start. It became very expensive to live there."
More compelling for Greenberg-Schneider, her father, now a widower and retired in Boca Raton, was not well.
In 1998 they chose Tampa as home base because she was hired as a master printer at Graphicstudio, the prestigious incubator at the University of South Florida for groundbreaking prints and limited edition sculptures that has enlisted famous artists in its collaborative process for decades.
They rented a house in the Channelside district of Tampa, and he found studio space in a warehouse. She commuted to Boca Raton on weekends. He shuttled back and forth to France to keep the farm going, see his aging parents and participate in gallery shows.
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In 2002, Greenberg-Schneider left Graphicstudio, wanting to set up her own print shop. She and Labauvie also wanted a salon and gallery. And, they wanted to live on site.
The couple paid $110,000 (helped by an $80,000 federal loan administered through the Tampa Economic Development Corp.) for a 1925 building at 109 W Columbus Drive that consisted of four vacant storefronts on the verge of being condemned.
Greenberg-Schneider oversaw most of the work on the building and did a lot of it herself, as Labauvie had commissions in Europe and Asia to deal with.
When she ripped out a false ceiling, she found that the last occupants, a soup kitchen for a local charity, had lined it with metal pans to catch water from roof leaks.
"I made some money selling all those pans for scrap metal," she says.
When she removed the ceiling, the rear wall caved in.
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Those setbacks, she says, were nothing compared with getting permits from the city of Tampa.
"The city wanted cottage industries," she says, "but was not prepared to meet halfway with permitting," insisting, for example, that if she installed a kitchen it had to meet industrial standards because the building was zoned commercial.
"I wanted to walk away from this at least five times during the process," she says. "Finally, I met some sympathetic staff members who were trying to make Tampa Heights into something."
So they compromised. She abandoned a type of plywood deemed a fire hazard. The inspector relented on the need for commercial vents and grease traps in a family kitchen.
"The good thing is that as a printer, I understand compromise," Greenberg-Schneider says. "I do it all the time in collaborating with artists. This was about understanding each other. Once we were on the same page, things went quickly."
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In 2003, after spending about $150,000, the family moved in along with Sandy, their Jack Russell terrier. About 2,200 square feet were divided into two spacious studios. The remaining 2,000 square feet were for a gallery in the front of the building and an open kitchen, office, bedrooms and baths for the couple and Esther, a student at Tampa Prep.
The interiors have a domestic loft look. Walls are white for the rotating art exhibits. The living area is a large gallery room with a single sofa, separated from the kitchen by a long refectory table (a.k.a. the dining room) and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.
They named the building and their venture Bleu Acier. French for "blue steel," it is the moment when intense heat turns metal blue. Pronounced bluh a-ZHAY, it is a metaphor for the transformational power of art.
Bleu Acier Atelier is Greenberg-Schneider's contract studio where she works with artists from around the world on limited edition prints.
The studio is dominated by three 19th century presses she brought from France for processes that fall into three basic categories: intaglio (the image is recessed into a plate by carving, such as etching), relief (the image is a raised surface on a plate by carving, such as woodblock), and lithography (the image is drawn on a plate). She has a darkroom for photogravure (a complicated etching process involving photographic methods). Shelves and drawers hold hundreds of sheets of expensive papers. Stone and copper plates are stacked on tables. By printing standards, it's low-tech, because Greenberg-Schneider believes that older, time-consuming processes yield richer, more interesting results.
Next door, Labauvie's studio is filled with piles of metal sheets and the hot, heavy equipment needed to soften and shape them: torches, anvils, callipers, hammers and long-handled tools. In the back yard, reached through a huge sliding metal door he keeps open when he works, are small hills of more metal scrap he recycles.
His works are assemblages of rough, curving shapes he melds into free-standing or wall sculptures that seem to move and flow from mass to void.
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For the first several years, Greenberg-Schneider launched an ambitious schedule of exhibitions that included local artists and those she knew in Europe. Her shows were consistently strong, aggressively contemporary. The work was priced as if Tampa were New York or Paris. Her openings were always packed.
No one bought a thing.
Greenberg-Schneider and Labauvie admit they were naive about the local market and luring wealthy collectors into an "emerging" neighborhood. They approached disillusion, even defeat.
"It took us a long time to appreciate the benefits of Tampa," Greenberg-Schneider says, "of being in a community so far from everything."
"New York, it is a fantastic city, but to exist is very expensive," says Labauvie. "Even Paris can be boring sometimes, artistically."
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They sold the farm not too long ago.
"We are not gentleman farmers," Labauvie says. "This is completely adapted to our lives, shelter for my family, school for Esther, our studios."
Greenberg-Schneider continues to have exhibitions and has come to accept that local collectors mostly look but don't buy. Much of her time now is spent printmaking and teaching at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. The couple have just completed a series based on the constellations, and she's in the middle of a project with French artist Bernar Venet, with proofs going between continents. All are destined for New York or European galleries. Esther is happy in school, a budding actor. Labauvie travels for exhibitions of his sculpture.
Alone, they tend to speak French but increasingly, they chatter in a hybrid of French and English.
Theirs is a contentment, even a happiness, tempered by realism. Compromise.
"The more I stay," says Greenberg-Schneider, "the more I like it here. We can get to New York in two hours when we need to. Here, we have space."
"It is important to stay light," Labauvie says.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or email@example.com.