It is 2002. Sunlight streams through the windows of Corner Store Arts, highlighting the red in co-owner Kris Swanson’s hair, and illuminating her reflection in the shards of mirror and the tiles scattered everywhere. There are thousands of tiny pieces, many fired and glazed by Swanson’s friend, Laurie Siegel. Swanson hands the glue gun to her assistant, Raymond Brown, and walks over to the windows, looking back to survey the giant mosaic, a glistening tree with branches that extends across the entire floor of the gallery space.
Swanson is preparing the YUME (you/me) tree, a mosaic that will be placed on the north wall of the CVS (500 12th St. SE) building across from Watkins Elementary School a year later. The art piece is a tribute to the community and involved the participation of dozens of artists, hundreds of neighbors and more than a thousand children who sculpted and signed the three-inch name tiles in the body of the tree.
Laid out to the exact dimensions of the Corner Store Arts gallery space, the tree is a literal and figurative representation of the footprint of the arts center on the community. For nearly twenty years, the space at the corner of Ninth Street and South Carolina Avenue SE was a place for lively performances, storytelling and art showings as well as fitness classes, dinner clubs and community meetings. Art built community, and community built art in the home of Kris Swanson and Roy Mustelier, until they decided to retire and close up shop in December 2019.
Love and work brought Swanson and Mustelier to the District. Married in 1994, they moved to DC shortly afterward when Mustelier was transferred after graduating from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Already a successful mid-career sculptor, Swanson immediately began looking for studio space, opening her first studio on E Street SE.
There, Swanson began a twenty-year working relationship with the kids across the street in Potomac Gardens, offering after-school activities and art classes that began with a group of about 12 kids.
In 2001, Swanson and Mustelier bought the property at the corner of Ninth Street and South Carolina Ave. SE, and in 2002 started a non-profit as part of the fundraising effort associated with the YUME Tree project. Committed to both her art and the kids she had begun working with, the sculptor continued to run the after-school art program and pursued her work in the new space.
The rear of the building and the upper floors were their home. The front of the building started as Swanson’s studio and a daily classroom for the Potomac Gardens kids. When their friend David Weiner suggested his jazz ensemble perform at the very first Corner Store Arts holiday student art show in 2002, he opened up new possibilities. “That was the beginning of us realizing it was a pretty great space for live performance,” Swanson said.
‘A Three-Ring Circus’
Weiner’s performance kickstarted regular performances of all varieties: an annual Valentine’s Day dance party featuring The Fabulettes, a local 60s-style singing, became a popular regular event, as were the Classical Sundays performances. Local Grammy-winning bluegrass artists Frank Solivan and the Dirty Kitchen treated the Corner Store as something of a home base.
“The two of them were kind of fearless,” Weiner said of Swanson and Mustelier, saying the two gallery owners would invite artists and performers who had experienced national success to perform in the art center, which could accommodate about sixty people comfortably.
“It’s not really all that big a space, but she’d have people that you wouldn’t necessarily imagine would gravitate to the space come and perform, and they always loved it,” Weiner said, adding that some touring groups would later say it was their favorite place to perform.
Swanson was still a working sculptor, producing notable commissions such as a bronze of a grizzly bear and two cubs that was installed outside Colton Hall in Monterey, California. Activity at the Corner Store halted briefly in 2006 when she was one of three finalists selected in a competition to create the statue of Frederick Douglass that would eventually be placed in the Capitol Visitor Center, a commission eventually won by Steven Weitzman.
Music would soon pave the way for theatre. In 2007, Hill resident and nationally known actor Robert Prosky put on a performance called “An Evening with Robert Prosky” that packed the house. Realizing the potential for live performances extended to theatre, Swanson purchased a stage and lights in honor of the actor, who died in 2008.
All manner of activities took place in the Corner Store space: art showings, poetry slams, story-telling nights, Bananagram tournaments, dinner clubs and aerobic classes.
“It was really a three-ring circus for a while in that space,” Swanson said. “We were in perpetual motion for about 15 years.”
Choosing Between Two Lives
Swanson enjoyed the controlled chaos of the Corner Store life, but five years ago her father passed away and she began spending more time with her family in California, going out every couple of weeks to help her mother out on the family ranch. Swanson said she enjoyed reconnecting with friends and family there, but said the cumulative effects were exhausting.
“It just about killed me, to tell the truth,” Swanson said. “I had to choose one life or the other.”
Now, Swanson wakes up in the middle of a sunny California pasture on the side of a mountain. She wanders from her small cabin to her sculpture studio that is located in a converted hayloft, where she is reconnecting with her art on the land next to her family’s ranch that she purchased when she was 29 years old, and where she now lives with Mustelier.
She said the two are living in even smaller quarters than on Capitol Hill, but now they are surrounded by “the great big outside all around” them. Mustelier has embraced his new home, taking up fly fishing and voyaging on the wild rivers nearby. The two help out Swanson’s mother, now 90, and run an Air BnB, coaxing as many friends from the District to visit as possible.
It is a dreamy image, and they have busy lives. But Swanson said that their choice to close Corner Store Arts is still a difficult one. “If you stress nothing else, stress how much we love the community, and how hard this [decision] was,” she said. “It still hurts us every once in a while. What a fabulous fun time we had.”
The legacy of Corner Store Arts lives on with Weiner, who was a member of the Corner Store Board and its final Chairperson. In 2009, he began to put on a monthly jazz salon under the auspices of Corner Store Arts. That party will continue on in Gessford Court, as will the story-telling sessions, Weiner said. Attendees make a donation, bring a bottle of wine and share food. Those with the inclination can also sit in and jam along with Weiner and his jazz ensemble.
However, Weiner said that while there is still the sharing community spirit that was embodied by the arts center, the many things that were done at Corner Store Arts won’t be easy to replicate, citing Swanson’s particular ability to make things happen.
“The continuing legacy is that when we want to try to make something happen or pull an event off on our own, we have to think about it in those terms. What would they do? How would they do it?”
Swanson said that while the Corner Store may have closed, she is confident that the creative spirit of Capitol Hill will stay alive, saying it resides with the people who live here.
“People will keep this going at their own homes,” she said, “because basically this was just one long house party. We just had a big front room, that’s all.”