University alumni turn church-house into pop-up artist residency

Dylan Lysen/KANSANMatt Hislope and Josh Meyer stand at the pulpit in the studio of their church-house, located on the 1000 block of New York Street.

Josh Meyer and Matt Hislope are no strangers to artistic experimentation, but their most recent project is out of the ordinary even for them.

Meyer and Hislope, partners and owners of theater production company Rubber Repertory, began their most recent experiment in August when they moved into a house on the 1000 block of New York Street in Lawrence. Their plan was to allow two artists to come live with them and use the house's large living room as a studio space to work on whatever project they want to work on.

But the house they chose is not ordinary. It's actually a former church that was turned into a house.

Meyer and Hislope named the pop-up art residency the Pilot Balloon Church-House and invited artists that they met during their 10-year stint in Austin, Texas, where they were writing and directing plays.

“Some are people we met in Austin, some are people we met at KU and some are people we don't know at all,” Meyer said. “We specifically reached out to people who are doing things that had some sort of experimental bent to them, because that's what we're interested in.”

Meyer said that about 70 percent of the visiting artists were performance oriented, but the church-house is not used as a production space, only a workspace. Hislope said performance artists benefit from the residency by practicing in the studio that was once the sanctuary of the church.

“We have choreographers coming,” Hislope said. “The sanctuary is still wide open, so it's good to use as a dance studio.”

Meyer said that visiting artists live in the church-house for one to three weeks and each artist pays a $50 fee per week. According to the project's Tumblr website, 74 artists will visit throughout the year-long lease.

Before moving in, the two hosted a fundraiser to help offset rent costs so they could keep the price as low as possible for artists. Meyer and Hislope both work to pay their own rent.

Both are graduates of the University's theater program; Meyer graduated in 2001 and Hislope in 2002. After graduation, the two moved to Austin, Texas, to start their theater company that created 12 experimental plays, one of which Meyer said took audience participation to an extreme by physically touching the audience.

But in May of 2012, Meyer left Austin to work as an actor in Los Angeles as Hislope stayed behind. The allure to come back to Lawrence was enough to get the two back together, though. Meyer and Hislope said that they hoped to use the studio for themselves to work on new play productions.

“Our goal was to generate a lot of work this year and then be able to perform wherever,” Meyer said. “We haven't really gotten that far along in that yet. Just interacting with everyone who comes feels like it's own project.”

“It's really easy to just be entertained by everyone who's coming,” Hislope said.

Visiting artists Olivia Pepper and Llewellyn Cole, who moved in Oct. 30, used their time at the Pilot Balloon Church-House to work on their alternative jewelry that was created out of leather and featured images of constellations. In the converted sanctuary studio, they hung a long tapestry with markings of several ancient images for inspiration.

“We started out by discussing how people wear jewelry for a lot of different reasons, but the most prominent reason, or at least how they wore it historically, was because they were indicating something about themselves as a person,” Pepper said. “From there it just turned into this whole other world that we're sort of making up as we go along, which involves all sorts of things like divine messages from outer space.”

Pepper said they plan to sell their created jewelry in Austin, and Pilot Balloon was just one of the many artist residencies around the country they planned to visit. But for the time being, she said she enjoyed Lawrence because of its smaller size but also for its amount of local businesses.

“I love the coffee shops and the book stores,” Pepper said and explained that Lawrence's local coffee shops are what she prefers. “Austin has its fair share of coffee shops, but a lot of them are kind of like new. I can't really explain it, they just seem kind of yuppie.”

At the end of the lease next August, Meyer and Hislope plan to move on from Lawrence. Meyer said he will probably move back to Los Angeles and Hislope may follow him out there or move back to Austin. But they did say they hope Pilot Balloon doesn't die when they leave town, they have been asking visiting artists to think about taking over and passing the lease on to keep the art residency alive.

For now, Meyer and Hislope welcome artists who are dedicated to working on experimental art while they enjoy being back home, even if it is for just a short period.

“I'm just loving being here after being in Los Angeles,” Meyer said. “Here you can say 'Hey want to meet at this bar in five minutes' and walk there and you're both there, and in LA it's like next week from Tuesday.”