Apex Art Center
Explore Massive Collection of Urban Art Form in Everett
BY ELLEN HIATT
Photos by Josh James
“An unbelievable find.”
Johnny Carswell is excited about the century-old Knights of Columbus Hall on Everett Ave., a grand, brick structure with arched windows and studded with knee braces under its eves. When he found it, broken panes of glass and graffiti tags lined its basement level windows. The diamond in the rough weathered its days first as a celebrated and lavish gathering space following World War I and then as a gritty music club and casino before it was abandoned.
Carswell opened it for an urban and graffiti art museum in October 2022. It houses his massive collection – possibly the largest of its kind in the world.
The center also is home to a new cocktail lounge, complete with the original, plush, green velvet dining booths, preserved for a century in mint condition. Slide onto its sumptuous velvety seat and imagine a black tie occasion with a martini in hand.
The building’s glory days are just ahead. A full restoration is expected to be completed by early 2023. When complete, Apex (dubbed by Carswell for “aerosol paint expressionism”) will host performances, and presentations, specifically cultural enrichment events intended to share the diverse subcultures responsible for the art genre he collects.
Thousands of pieces of curated graffiti – from tagging to fine art – have found a home in the newly renovated building, displaying as many as 350 pieces at a time. Carswell won’t put a number to his collection (likely thousands) but he says he has enough to create a rotating display to show new pieces every three to four months for the next couple of years.
“You have the potential to transform Everett”, gushed Leland Dart, with My Everett News, at a summer-time paint- off event, when 150 graffiti artists descended on the city – an event organized by Everett’s Hyper and his crew Graffaholeks, (graffiti artists often go by their tag name only).
Hyper has created annual paint-off events in town, bringing urban art to city streets and alleyways for the last few years. Where a bonafide street artist has painted, another graffiti artist will not tag or paint over it, helping reduce illegal graffiti, Hyper said. Carswell said the murals are part of the larger transformation of Everett into a place of significance for graffiti art and artists.
His collection has captured the works of artists from the genre’s genesis in New York. He purposely set out to have the Original Generation “OG” artists recreate pieces that he had only seen in books.
“I go after them. I try to find them. I have them do a historic piece-because it’s gone now. Get it recorded on the canvas for history’s sake,” Carswell said.
He is still tracking down artists whose lives are too often cut short, and their paintings removed by city crews up and down the West Coast. He figures he has another 50 artists to track down. The time for collecting is winding down, and the time to share it has arrived.
Carswell has dubbed one room of the 30,000 square foot hall as the Gatsby room. It’s resplendent with 22-foot high ceilings, a balcony, a stunning chandelier and a small stage lined with floor-to- ceiling purple velvet curtains and larger-than-life bronze sculptures -a robed woman holding a cast candelabra. This jaw-dropping space will hold “Freight Train”
Some graffiti artists, Carswell said, will only paint on freight trains. The rail companies said Brent Garner, admiring the pieces in an early viewing, are missing out on the greatest opportunity to curate fine art when they paint over the artists’ pieces.
“Ichabod and King 157 are two of the most famous freight train painters in the nation,” Carswell said. He has works from both, each of whom included the corrugated metal lines of a rail car as part of their works’ re-creation.
With its roots in 1960s civil unrest fomenting in underground New York, the art genre has been slow to earn the respect it deserves, while hip hop, break dancing, and DJ’d music integral to the sub-culture have earned their due.
Besides the Freight Train Collection, the other rotating displays will include artists from the West Coast, the East Coast, and the historic collection of OG New York. The OG works will display in the ground floor, once host to Club Broadway, fittingly lined with a custom painting of the nighttime New York landscape.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw it,” Carswell said.
The same floor is where Carswell and bar manager Amanda Adamik discovered that the Knights of Columbus hadn’t actually destroyed the pool raved about in news reports of the 1920s. The kitchen floor began caving into the deep end of the pool during restoration. Carswell isn’t sure what he’s going to do with it. It’s one more discovery, one more opportunity, in a building with so many possibilities.
“I have always been intrigued by England in the roaring 20s. All these opulent buildings and bars became punk clubs;’ he said. The Apex bar is “El Sid;’ with a mid’70s punk theme. “It’s a crazy combination of eras. That’s what intrigues me.”
The opulence of the historic hall next to the edgy, gritty urban art is what Carswell “is really excited about.”
Indeed, the juxtaposition of the over-the-top grandeur of the rooms to the humbler aesthetics of the urban art form it houses is attention grabbing. Time is layered here – from the national patriotism of World War I veterans who built the hall, to a national depression, the civil unrest of the ’60s, the tumultuous ’70s, all the way to today’s exhausting pandemic.
The culture of a time is reflected in the collected works of art, bounced off a building whose own bones have told the story of society’s changes. Time and space are compacted into the Knights of Columbus hall for a glorious recognition of fine art’s God-given right to exist in a human’s soul, finding its expression in architecture, on gallery canvas or city alleyway.
The works show the transition of the art form from “circusy bubble letters to, 52 years later, the works of Black Light King, whose painting is almost technically impossible,” Carswell said.
Carswell’s daughter, Gloryanne “Baby G” Carswell, grew up with graffiti artists from all over the nation at her dinner table. Johnny Carswell has been amassing his collection for years, bringing the artists and their families into his own. Baby G., who runs the Rosella Gallery in Snohomish with Carswell’s Dogtown Collection, is also running the museum side of things, her father said.
“She will take this to a new level. I have no doubt. She has always been drawn to the people. The inner city some of them come from is not an easy place to live. Baby G. has been a beacon, staying really close with a lot of these guys.”
Learn more about Apex Art Center at apexartcenter.com.