Over the years, Wichita Falls has gained the reputation of a pothole along 287, a black hole that sucks the life from people, the armpit of Texas. How many times have you heard “there’s nothing to do here”? I, myself, recall driving through the vacant space of downtown and thinking “this place will never get better”. Well, it appears that I, along with many others, was wrong.
Anyone willing to turn off the tele and peel themselves from their couch can see that Wichita Falls is experiencing a renaissance. The arts have momentum like never before, and local business owners are supporting each other for the greater good. Even local musicians have replaced their competitive spirit with genuine camaraderie.
So, how does a city change its culture? This happens when individuals catch a vision that surpasses the status quo, individuals like Stephen Taylor. Stephen is the manager at 9th St. Studios and a multi-medium artist. His art has served him well over the years.
Stephen has always been involved in the arts. “I don’t remember not drawing”, he said. Cartoons were his preferred method of creativity as a youngster. He recalls being asked to draw cartoons for the school paper, which didn’t last long before his hidden images (pot leaves) were discovered. Stephen loves to participate, but he prefers to do so with his own set of rules.
After one semester of art school in Waco, where he met the woman that would become his wife and mother of his child, Stephen landed a job as a foam sculptor in Dallas. He recalls, “I didn’t sleep at all the night before my first day.” He had never done foam sculptures before and feared his failure, but he didn’t fail. Turns out, he had a knack for it. After about a year and a half he felt that he learned the trade well enough that he decided to venture out with his own small commercial art studio in Dallas. He, a friend, and his wife did that for a couple of years, but some hard-learned lessons led them to close the doors. “The lease was up and the business was low. It was time to move on”, Stephen continued.
Pride in tow, Stephen and his family headed to Vernon to spend some time with his parents. During this visit, he stumbled upon a real estate investment opportunity that took the sting out of his failed business venture. The Vernon Theater was closed and on the market. Well, he and his wife talked it over and decided to make on offer on the structure. The plan was simple. “Let’s low ball ‘em.” And low ball they did. They went to the property owner with an extremely low offer and he took it! Stephen and his wife were the proud owners of a crippled old theater. “It was in poor shape. We were dragging dead animals out. There were no screens on the wall.” Getting the theater up and running was a chore. They worked full time, polishing the old relic and bringing back her beauty.
Another page in the coloring book of life, divorce led to the sell of the theater and Stephen was once again scribbling outside of the lines. Playing the game by his own rules, he hit the road and found himself in front of a judge facing a lengthy prison sentence (details aren’t necessary). Lady Luck shined her face on him one more time and his debt to society was drastically reduced. Stephen made the most out of his time behind bars and used it as one more learning experience. He began drawing on envelopes as well as free hand tattoo art to barter for commissary items. “I drew a whole back piece on a guy once, a dragon. Another guy inked it on him in one sitting. They didn’t get caught. That one paid well”, he shared.
Following his release from prison, Stephen spend a winter in Vermont cleansing his mind and finding a renewed spirit. A new man, he landed in the “Emerald Triangle” of California. Starting another chapter in what seems like an adult version of a Dr. Suess book, Stephen found himself to be a “trimmagrant”. A trimmagtant is a slang term assigned to people that travel to work for weed farms. Yes, marijuana. Stephen landed a job among the serenity of redwoods and the Pacific Ocean. It was this season of renewal, in Vermont and California, that he decided to get back to his roots. He packed up and moved to Wichita Falls to be near his son.
Once settled, Stephen began looking for his next project while slinging motorcycles for Harley Davidson. He was seeking a place to call his own and produce art. It was during this search that he bumped into Linda Deason, and her daughter Becky Raeke in the driveway of a property in which they were all interested. Deason and Raeke were the owners of the Farmer’s Insurance branch at the corner of 9th and Travis, as well as the building that officed them. It is this building that would become 9th St. Studios.
The space was raw. The ladies needed a handyman and Stephen needed a roof over his head. After a handful of meetings, the trio had an agreement and a basic plan. This was cemented with a handshake. Stephen would live in the upstairs space while remodeling it into working studio spaces that local artists could rent. Stephen recalls, “the first year there was no air conditioning, no toilet, and a big hole where birds flew in and would die. I would wake up in the morning with dead birds in the room.”
This experience helped Stephen continue his personal transformation. It afforded for him the opportunity to keep his hands busy while immersing himself in the community. New to Wichita Falls, he was able to align himself with people that shared his passion for the arts without the negative attitudes that many held about the city. “I’ve always felt that I landed in the right place at the right time,” Stephen shared.
9th St. Studios is thriving with the creative assistance of Taylor. “It’s become more than anyone expected,” Stephen explained. “It’s taken on a life of its own”. So much more than the initial plan of just rent-able artist space, the downtown beacon has held some of the year’s largest art events. Stephen’s artistic abilities have been able to shine through these events. Events like Los Muertos, for which he sculpted 5-foot tall skulls that were used as center pieces for the day of the dead themed event.
When one considers the caliber of events, along with the influence and impact that the space and its crew has had on the art community and the downtown area, it is hard to believe that 9th St. Studios opened their doors merely 18 months ago. “An artist mind and a solid work ethic, that’s how things get done,” he said.
Stephen Taylor has had colorful life, an artist’s life. He has embraced his experiences in both the valley and from the mountain top. He treasures the relationships that have helped define him, his family and friends, the Deason’s and Raeke’s. “Because of the trust they put in me, I am where I am now,” he says with a thankful tone. Taylor does not take for granted these blessings, for they are clay with which he is crafted. He is enjoying the day, living in full color, albeit not always within the lines. Stephen plans to continue practicing his art and contributing to the Wichita Falls art community and downtown area. It is his contributions, and other passionate individuals of this fine city, that are changing the local culture. Stephen jokes that he works for no man, but a lot of women…… He wanted to thank some of those women: Amber, Becky, Betzy, Carrie, Christy, Debbie, Kelly, Linda, Olive Leaf, and his Mom.
– David Fowler