In recent years, Austin has welcomed a new annual tradition as fall reluctantly settles over the city.
Since 2003 the East Austin Studio Tour has demystified the largely private work of artists, allowing audiences to experience processes and gain insight directly from the source. For nine days, the culturally in-tune populous of Austin scatters through east side galleries and work spaces for the chance to buy from, interact with and learn from local art authorities.
E.A.S.T. is not a tour in the traditional sense. There are no group leaders, headsets, quiet halls or critical curators. Rather, the self-guided and exploratory event seeks to give the public a hands-on experience of their own. E.A.S.T. events predominantly occur on two tour weekends, but events will be held in the evenings of the week in between.
Studios will open their doors from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on both weekends, allowing tour participants to experience the creative environment that artists thrive in on a day-to-day basis. Exhibition galleries that display the art will be open during the same hours.
Original work and exhibitions created specifically for E.A.S.T., called Happenings, will take place throughout the entire nine days of the tour. Happenings range from performance art to demonstrations and lectures by local artists. They are designed to be more participatory than exhibits.
E.A.S.T. is organized by nonprofit art promotions group Big Medium. Artists ranging from glass blowers to painters apply directly to the group to participate in the event, but the selection process is less about exclusion and more about authenticity.
“This is a community event, so we’re trying to make it about the community and give a picture of the artists working over here,” said Big Medium director Shea Little. “We get a little selective when it comes to artists just coming in to set up shop and trying to festivalize the event. We don’t want people coming in just for one weekend, we want to represent the people who are working here.”
After attending east side art openings and coffee shop art events, Little began brainstorming bigger ways to promote these underrepresented artists.
“The basic goal is to promote the artists and create a way for the general public to experience the art,” Little said. “There are artists looking for a way to connect to the community, and we wanted to help give them that opportunity.”
The event began with 28 participating exhibitors. By the next year, the number of studios doubled. This year E.A.S.T. will feature 150 artists and studios. The tour, which began as a single weekend and a few days of events, expanded in 2009 to include a second weekend because of the program’s growth.
“By the third or fourth year, it had become too big for one weekend,” Little said. “We had too many people trying to see everything. It became too much of a rush.”
Visual artist Liliana Wilson has watched E.A.S.T. grow from the inside, participating each year since its start. The Chilean painter has recently exhibited her work in San Antonio and New Mexico, and will bring some of the pieces from these shows back to the tour.
Wilson said she enjoys participating in the studio tour largely for the local camaraderie.
“A lot of times you’re working in the studio by yourself, so it’s nice to have people come by and see your work,” Wilson said. “You get to meet a lot of people that are coming from very different places in life, which is helpful because it can be a lonely profession sometimes. I enjoy meeting local people and local artists.”
Wilson, who explains her exhibits as more of a party than a stuffy art show, seeks to bring her Latin American culture into more than just her work. Her show this year will feature traditional South American food and music by Trio Valendoza.
She said she also looks forward to a new element in the tour that will allow specific times for exhibitors to have the chance to leave their posts and see the works of other participating artists.
For new tour-goers, Big Medium has provided catalogues at various local businesses and an iPhone application mapping studios by medium and providing a searchable artist database. Little cautions that although there is a lot to see, getting overly ambitious should be avoided.
“Seeing everything isn’t the point of the tour,” Little said. “The idea is to find things that inspire or interest you. We encourage people to take their time, research and take things at a slower pace.”