The new Columbus Printed Arts Center begins its inaugural season with a show displaying the work of legendary Athens County artist and former OU professor Aethelred Eldridge

On the far South Side of Columbus, in an area below Reeb-Hosack known as Steelton, there’s a giant brick building on High Street that once housed the Seagrave Company, which made ladders and other apparatus for fire engines onsite from the 1890s until the 1960s.

Today, the sprawling complex is known as The Fort, and while much of the interior looks like an empty time capsule from a bygone era, with heavy fire doors and remnants of hand-painted signage, several tenants now occupy the space, including the Columbus Printed Arts Center, which opened in December of 2018.

On a recent morning, inside the studio’s airy, white-walled corner of the building, CPAC co-founder Elisa Smith puts on purple rubber gloves and carefully opens a box with a razor blade, not knowing exactly what she’ll find inside. As she unwraps the printed material, her voice drops to a whisper. “Oh, my gosh,” she says. “This is so beautiful.”

The work is from artist Alexandra Eldridge, made in the 1970s, when she and her then-husband, Aethelred Eldridge, lived with other artists on 80 acres in Athens County in a community called Golgonooza. The residents believed in the supremacy of the imagination and had Sunday morning services at the Church of William Blake, where Aethelred would give a sermon, of sorts, on the 18th century poet. In Golgonooza’s Scriptorium, artists published prints and booklets inspired by the themes and ideas of Blake.

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In one of the prints unboxed by Smith, hand-lettered poetry surrounds an image of a yellow lion on a red background with an intricately decorated border. “The wrath of the Lion is the wisdom of God,” it reads, excerpted from Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” A multicolored eagle adorns another print with more of Blake’s words: “When thou seest an Eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius; lift up thy head!”

These works and others will be part of CPAC’s inaugural season, which is themed "What is the Difference Between Playing and Working?" This particular exhibition, titled "News from Golgonooza; Aethelred Eldridge and Instructions for Imaginative Living," opens with a reception on Saturday, Sept. 21; it’s only the second exhibition of Aethelred Eldridge’s work held outside of Athens, where other Southeast Ohio institutions (Ohio University, Dairy Barn Arts Center, Majestic Galleries) will hold concurrent shows and events related to the work of Alexandra and Aethelred, who died in November of 2018.

Before graduating from Ohio University in 2009, Smith took a class from Aethelred Eldridge called “Autopsical Art,” but it wasn’t a typical classroom experience. There was no coursework. It was all a performative lecture.

“I understood that I was just there to listen to him,” Smith said. “And the lectures were not about any one subject. He would jump between different things, a really poetic stream of consciousness. … It was the most profound thing I ever heard, and then also very confusing. It would go in and out of that. That was the thrill of the experience.”

Smith, who has a background in photography and interdisciplinary art, and her husband, Shawn, both grew up in Central Ohio but until the summer of 2017 they lived in Philadelphia, where they helped manage an artist-run gallery. Over time, they felt an urge to start something similar in Columbus, so they began traveling west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on weekends to look at spaces, finally landing at the Fort in the summer of 2018.

In addition to an exhibition space, the Columbus Printed Arts Center is a community studio with an emphasis on educational programming and affordable access to printmaking facilities. “We're passionate about the way that our past led us through the art labor field, and providing a space for people to have different opportunities at different levels to work on projects — something accessible,” Smith said. “We have a membership that's a subscription, so instead of a one-time payment for a year, the base level is 10 bucks a month, and we make a print for you every month and send it to you.”

The Smiths also intentionally built flexibility into the space. “We left it really open to be able to change the shape of things and have room for sculptures and performance and have an interdisciplinary approach to looking at contemporary print,” she said.

During the "News from Golgonooza" exhibition, Smith plans to play audio recordings of Eldridge in one corner of the space on Sunday mornings as an homage to the Church of William Blake services in Golgonooza. That Blake-ian, imagination-based form of spirituality appeals to Smith personally, too.

“As a student, I had no idea the scope of [Eldridge’s] life and work. What's really interesting to me now, looking at the whole picture, is the entire scope of his life and the bravery to blaze a path that was specific to what they wanted to do,” Smith said. “As somebody who imagines alternatives to things, I was curious about what our tolerance for that is now. Doing that sort of thing now would be way [more] outside the lines than it was then. But do we still have room for that? And do we still have room for imagining different ways of living together and working land and eating food and making things?”

In that way, this big room inside an old fire truck warehouse is a conduit for Smith and her husband to address some of those questions. “We kind of live, eat and breathe this space,” she said. “I try to think of everything as part of my practice.”