San Angelo, Tex. Roger Allen had wearied of losing his art studio space to the whims of landlords.
He was forced out of his ceramics studio three times, and on another occasion, his effort to restore a building was halted when a decision was made to tear it down to build a post office.
"That's when I got smart enough and said, 'I want to own the place and not be at someone's mercy,'" Allen said. "That's when I went and found the building."
"The building" was actually a small group of small structures that comprised a mostly vacant chicken farm on the northeastern edge of San Angelo, a west Texas town south of Abilene. For more than 30 years, The Old Chicken Farm Art Center has been home and studio to Allen, his increasingly popular ceramic works and countless other artists.
"I always had dreams about being around other artists," said Allen, who paid $25,000 for the acreage and buildings in 1971. "So the next best thing is to be next door to them."
The unique compound on 3 acres houses 15 studios, two small galleries, a learning area, a bed-and-breakfast and some apartments. Studios rent for a paltry $125 a month and 1,600-square-foot apartments are $250. One woman has worked at a studio for 25 years.
"I'm not a high-dollar operator," Allen said. "Money is not my driver. I don't require a lot."
The bed-and-breakfast The Inn at the Art Center was added in 2000 and stands on what was once the chicken farm's silo. The Silo House Restaurant and the nearby Gecko Gallery are part of the inn's operation.
"It's intriguing in its location and development," said Michael Dalby, president of the San Angelo Chamber of Commerce. "It's such a neat collection of buildings that have a history. And the art there is really first class."
The chicken farm was built in the early 1940s and closed about 20 years later when the owner could no longer compete with poultry conglomerates. It was rented to a neon light company and other small concerns until the art center arrived.
Allen, who grew up in Lubbock and earned his bachelor's degree in art education from Texas Tech University in 1966, taught art at Central High School in San Angelo from 1967 until the art center became a full-time endeavor in 1977.
"It is great doing work that you love for a living," Allen said. "I get up in the mornings and I want to be in my shop."
Saddle makers, leather and bronze workers, potters, painters, jewelers and sculptors all have drawn inspiration from the chicken houses-turned-studios.
Rene Alvarado, a 29-year-old oil painter from Coahuila, Mexico, has lived at the center since 1997, although he worked for Allen for three years before moving to the center. He says he appreciates the creative environment, the access to the artists' rotating equipment and the interaction with bright minds.
"You get to pick them," he said. "It's kind of like a big, ol' free school."
For this or for that
Allen has also made the art center a focal point in the community, promoting art through the school district, the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts, scouting groups and events for children on most of the first Saturdays of each month, when youngsters are introduced to various art forms.
Allen and others at the art center stage an annual show on the grounds at Thanksgiving. He also showcases his ceramics at the San Angelo museum once a year.
"The whole community comes to him for this or for that," Alvarado said.
But it isn't just Allen's art center that has enjoyed prosperity.
One of the center's galleries features Allen's ceramic works, including his popular StarKeeper series, which he created in 1989. The whimsical StarKeeper designs on plates, platters and mugs depict landscapes of the Southwest and clear, starry skies. They also embody American Indian symbols and ceremonies.
In 1993, Allen wrote a tale to explain the spiritual aspects of the StarKeeper; another story about women is now in the works and features its own ceramic pieces.
His works at the art center range from a $29 large coffee mug to a $300 platter. Allen peddles his works in galleries in Texas and elsewhere. He also has annual road shows in places like Dallas, New Braunfels and Lubbock.
"I spent 25 years starving to death and now I can't keep up with it," said Allen, who with the help of assistants produces about 2,000 StarKeeper pieces a year. "You can only do so much. It's so bad, it's good.
"It sure used to be easier when I was a bum potter than trying to be a businessman," Allen said. "It's probably more fun being a bum potter, but you do have to eat."