Meet Becca Balmes
“Gabriel, my husband, is a writer,” says Becca Balmes, the 33 year old self-taught visual artist and owner/operator of [&] Guild, Macon’s only public artist-run space. “He can go to coffeeshops and write. He can sit there all day if he wants to – he has writer friends who do just that. But I can’t go to a coffeeshop and paint.” She laughs, “Even if I could get all my stuff in there, they’d hate me! ‘You’re making a mess!’ ‘That stuff stinks!’ It just wouldn’t work. When we were figuring all this out, that was kinda what was on my mind – I wanted to make a coffee shop where I could do my work.”
Becca and Gabriel met in Milledgeville, where they both attended GCSU; Becca is, refreshingly, one of the only people I’ve ever heard say that she wished she’d studied something less sensible in college: “I was silly and practical and got a Poly Sci degree,” she says. “I should’ve been doing all art all the time, but I didn’t.” After college, they got married, moved to Washington, DC, had kids (the couple has four children, ranging in age from 6 to 11), and spent the better part of a decade there before feeling the pull to return to middle Georgia. Becca, who had been working as a legal assistant for the National Geographic Society in DC, realized that she wanted to be a full-time artist; attempting to balance full-time work with motherhood wasn’t leaving much time for that.
Downtown Macon had been transformed in the years since Becca and Gabriel had last been to Georgia – “We loved what the city had become,” Becca says. “We had no idea; it was like coming home to a whole new place.” Trying to connect with other artists in meaningful ways proved as difficult as ever, though – first of all, where were they? Where did they do their work, and why didn’t they ever come out to art shows? Guided by one of her favorite, most influential art spaces, Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Virginia, which actually was housed in an old torpedo factory, and which is subdivided into individual studio spaces with some common areas and workshop space, Becca gravitated more and more towards the seeming inevitability of opening her own public artist-run space in Macon.
“Macon’s artists and creatives are really spread out in terms of what kinds of mediums we’re working in, how we work, and how we find work,” Becca says. She devoured and scrutinized the middle Georgia arts climate tirelessly for months on end in order to get an accurate portrayal of what local artists need most – what she found out was that, more than anything else, “local artists really, really, really need each other.” Support and reassurance, constructive criticism and alternative arts education, a way to feel less alone – all this and more can organically happen when artists have a reliable place that is theirs. [&] Guild offers memberships beginning at $12 a month; these come with access to studio space, materials, technology, space for gallery shows or performances, and more – “crazy access,” as Becca puts it. The guild also offers unparalleled inspiration and visual thrills in its ambience; there’s no shortage of fascinating art of all varieties to check out, and there’s also a charming café where you can get the best cup of tea around.
In one year’s time in their home on 5th Street at the edge of downtown Macon, [&] has amassed over 200 members – “When we first started, our goal was to have 30 the first year,” laughs Becca. That number is fantastic for obvious reasons, but also, it means they’ve nearly outgrown their space; soon it’ll be time to consider the best next move, if there will even be one. [&] Guild was never intended to be a long-lasting moneymaking venture for Becca and Gabriel; instead, they saw it as more of an art project – “What can we do with the resources we have? How far can we go?” Becca says. “We’re gonna build this really, really cool thing, and if it lasts, great! If it doesn’t, it was still worth it.”
Worth it indeed, especially because Becca’s managed to do the thing she wanted most to do when she returned to Georgia – work as a full-time artist. Art is her life – both creating a space where others’ art is nurtured and encouraged without boundaries, and creating work of her own. She has the confident, focused, appealing demeanor of a fulfilled artist. It can be incredibly difficult, especially as a parent, to make time to pursue your dreams; if your dreams involve making art or writing or any other solitary creative pursuit, the tendency is to deprive yourself of doing that work. It’s easy to feel selfish for taking time for art, especially in a society that can consider creative work less integral and more frivolous, but it’s such necessary self-care. “I still feel guilty going off by myself all the time, but we talk about it with the kids and they’re very excited about the work that I do,” says Becca. “I involve them at every chance I can, just as my mom did for me with her work. I think it’s very important, no matter what parents do for a living, that they let their kids into that world with them to see who their parents are when they’re most alive – that’s usually not while doing laundry or helping with homework.”
One of the more satisfying creative endeavors Becca’s undertaken this year is painting one of the pianos that Friends of Macon Music is placing downtown as part of its Painted Pianos community-building endeavor; her piano features bright, captivating portraits on all sides. She used several local photographers’ shots of downtown citizens as reference (except on one side, where she painted her two daughters). “When I’m out downtown, and I see people hanging around the pianos, it’s not about music in a commercial sense, it’s about music in a community sense,” Becca says. “Ever since the piano was invented, people have been standing around it – it’s democratic – so I wanted my painted piano to be about the people that are present here in Macon. That’s what Macon’s all about – the revival, especially downtown, is about choosing to be active and present here in this city.”
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