Corner Store Arts: Capitol Hill’s Hidden Gem

By Phil Hutinet on June 24, 2015
Corner Store Arts owners Kris Swanson and Roy Mustelier.  Image courtesy Kris Swanson.
Corner Store Arts owners Kris Swanson (right) and Roy Mustelier (left). Image courtesy Kris Swanson.

On any given weekend, the home of Kris Swanson and Roy Mustelier teems with artistic life. The main living space in Swanson and Mustelier’s residence hosts gallery openings, black-box theater productions and musical concerts. Visual and performing artists from around the globe connect Capitol Hill neighbors through rich cultural experiences in an unexpectedly close and intimate setting.

Swanson, a fifth-generation Californian, worked primarily as a sculptor, specifically, creating bronzes including large commissioned work. Of particular note, the Golden State native had the privilege to sculpt California Grizzlies, commissioned for the 150th anniversary of California’s admission to the United States and installed on the grounds of the original capitol building of California, Colton Hall in Monterey, CA.

So what does it take to uproot a native Californian? Love of course! Swanson met Roy Mustelier while he was training with the Navy in Monterey, CA.   They married and Swanson followed Mustelier to DC where he was stationed. Swanson and Mustelier moved to Capitol Hill in the mid-1990s and immediately fell in love with the neighborhood.

Initially, the couple rented a home on E Street SE across the street from Potomac Gardens. There, Swanson ran her studio, known as the E Street Studios, where she continued to sculpt and work on commissions. However, Swanson opened her home and studio to the neighborhood children, many of whom hung out after school with little or nothing to do.

Preliminary interactions with the neighborhood children quickly grew into a structured educational experience with Swanson instructing the children. Her newfound students helped her in her studio, learned various artistic techniques and eventually, Swanson produced an annual art exhibition to showcase the children’s work. At the first opening, many pieces sold and the children gleefully kept the proceeds.

To this day, Swanson still keeps in touch with many of her students. Some went on to become professional artists in their own right and many still practice art as a hobby. Others now have children of their own and bring them over to meet Swanson and Mustelier.

By 2001, Swanson and Mustelier decided to plant deeper roots in their newfound city and began a search for the ideal residence—close enough to Potomac Gardens to continue interacting with the neighborhood children and one that would have enough space for a sculpture studio. Little did they know at the time that their home would eventually grow to become the Corner Store Arts.

After a seeing a string of unsuitable homes, Swanson and Mustelier’s realtor showed the couple a property which had been bought by a speculator and sat vacant for several years falling into a state of terrible disrepair. The building in Swanson’s words was “a total rehab” needing a new roof, new floors, a new electrical system—in essence—just about everything in the home needed to be replaced or added. However, the couple saved as many of the original elements as they could.

In addition to rehabbing the property, Mustlier did extensive historical research on his new home at 900 South Carolina and interviewed a living descendant of the Cuozzo family who ran a corner grocery on the building’s ground floor. Mustlier interviewed Tony Cuozzo in March of 2001 who recalled his father coming over from Italy, sending for his mother and opening up the store at a time when groceries were still delivered by horse-drawn carts. The property had chicken coops in the side yard along 9th Street SE and Tony’s father stabled the family horse behind St. Peter’s Catholic Church until he eventually bought a Ford Model T. The store had prominent displays in the window but the Cuozzo’s only used non-perishable goods like tea or coffee as the sun’s intensity, due to the south-facing siting of the building, would almost instantly spoil or bleaches anything placed there.

Gallery opening at the Corner Store.  Photo by Phil Hutinet for East City Art.
Gallery opening at the Corner Store. Photo by Phil Hutinet for East City Art.

Mustlier and Swanson’s current use of the property has some parallels with the Cuozzo’s—the couple open the ground floor to the public, regularly change the window display and connect the neighborhood through a vital service. However, Mustelier and Swanson do not keep chicken’s in the side yard much to Mustlier’s chagrin! Instead visitors and curious passers-by, who peek over the fence, can enjoy garden art including a fused glass trellis, mosaic fence panels and a stone river-walk.

In keeping with her experience as a creator of public art, in 2002, Swanson turned her attention to her adopted neighborhood working with other artists and local elementary schools to create the YUME Tree (you/me tree), a sculptural mural located on the north facing wall of the CVS on 12th and E Streets SE. The piece may appear as a mural from a distance but upon closer inspection, one observes a number of materials including ceramics, tiles and mirrors which form a large tree. The late Capitol Hill artist Laurie Siegal assisted in the project’s inception by glazing and firing hundreds of the initial tiles used to realize YUME Tree.

While originally conceived by Swanson, elementary school children designed and created many of the tree’s elements. YUME Tree has grown in the past 13 years and continues its expansion as students and neighbors have added their names to the tree, making it a publicly interactive piece. In the fall of 2013, in a public ceremony attended by former Ward 6 Council Member Tommy Wells, Swanson dedicated YUME Tree to her friend Laurie Siegal.

Upon completing the renovations of 900 South Carolina Avenue SE, Swanson continued her tradition of exhibiting neighborhood children’s work in December around the holidays. Soon she began to take requests from local artists who sought a venue to exhibit. At openings, Swanson would invite musicians to play music and the pairing led other local musicians to inquire about performing as well. Then, around 2006, while attending a performance at the Warehouse Theater downtown, Swanson realized that her space was about the same size. As such, she decided to branch out into black-box productions and purchased a folding stage and theater lights. And so, Corner Store Arts was born.

South African legend Abigail Kubeka and Peace Train's Sharon Katz live at the Corner Store.  Image courtesy Corner Store Arts.
South African legend Abigail Kubeka and Peace Train’s Sharon Katz live at the Corner Store. Image courtesy Corner Store Arts.

Initially when Swanson moved to 900 South Carolina Avenue SE, she had envisioned continuing her practice as she had at the E Street Studios, working on commissions and teaching neighborhood children. However, as artists began requesting space, a neighborhood cultural venue emerged, connecting neighbors not only to the arts but to one another. Now, Swanson could not resist her new calling.

These experiences have transformed Swanson and Mustelier into seasoned producers and now look forward to a series of varied cultural programming in 2015-2016. Corner Store Arts will host more staged readings, month-long theater productions, gallery openings, a wide array of musical performances and genres, workshops that will include dance and storytelling, fitness sessions for yoga and Pilates and will host “Classical Sundays” from 5-6 p.m. On the 21st of every month, Corner Store Arts will continue to co-sponsors a musical series off-site at 21 Gessford Court SE.

Philosophically, Swanson believes that “if you have a stronger community, you have happier people. If people are happier, then you have a warmer community.” So what of Swanson’s sculptures and public art commissions? Swanson sees the community connections made at Corner Store Arts as one large piece of interactive art—her piece of public art—and the one of which she is the most proud.

For more information on Corner Store Arts, visit their website which includes a monthly schedule as well as information about the history of 900 South Carolina Avenue SE: