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Topaz Arts, a green gallery

NEW YORK, USA - Imagine a run-down warehouse space converted into an ecologically-sound multidisciplinary art gallery in the heart of Queens, New York.

This is exactly the story of Topaz Arts, a non-profit art space founded by a creative couple – American visual artist-composer Todd Richmond and Filipino-American choreographer-visual artist Paz Tanjuaquio.

Built in 2000 after the tandem searched for a space that could approximate the artistic spaces they saw in their residencies in Japan, Korea and across the US, Topaz Arts was a do-it-yourself dream that was conceptualized and crafted by the hands of the couple — literally.

Todd and Paz have been collaborating in creating visually-rich dance works since 1993, choreographed by Paz and set to the music, film or visual backdrop by Todd.

Paz relates how they began constructing Topaz Arts:

“Everything was on credit since we did not even have money then to hire carpenters. [We were] lucky enough that Todd has some hands-on training in building things given his visual arts background.”

The idea of having a heated floor came from their residency in Korea, where traditional houses have heated floors for winter. Todd researched on how they can make their own using 7 layers of materials that would help generate heat in the cold months.

The 2,500-sq-ft facility currently houses a dance studio with a sprung floor, an audio room and a gallery exhibition space. They have incorporated radiant heat for the dance floor, installed energy-efficient products, and mostly reused and recycled materials from friends' donations and from Materials Company.

Interestingly, they have also maintained an edible rooftop garden that grows kale, basil, berries, broccoli and, recently, after the couple's trip to the Mountain Province, Philippines, a rice paddy. 

“Building this space was really an extension of what Todd and I have already been doing. Art is something shared with the community and can be found in one space so that they can interact with one another,” shares Paz, who was born in Manila and migrated with her family to San Diego, California when she was 5 years old.

Paz was trained as a visual artist, graduating with a degree in Visual Arts at the University of California in San Diego. She later moved to New York and decided to make dance her artistic expression and career, taking up her MFA in Dance at New York University. Todd, meanwhile, is a graduate of City College of New York in Music and Film.

Paz describes her and Todd's works as a result of an organic process that usually evolves from their travels. Their travel and residency to Cambodia, for one, resulted in the dance piece “Dancing to Cambodia.” Paz's first travel to the Philippines in 1997 led her to choreograph her first evening-length work “Strange Fruit and Other Secrets” (1999), where she collaborated with Fil-Am poet Luis Francia and theater actor Nicky Paraiso, among others. 

Their trip to the Philippines in 2011 not only exposed them to the precise beauty of the rice terraces, but also allowed them to meet Manuel Ocampo who — together with 20 other artists from Manila — will run an exhibit called “Bastards of Misrepresentation” this fall in Topaz Arts and 4 other venues: New York University, Crossing Art, Tyler Rollins Fine Art and Queens Museum of Art.

Topaz Arts has also hosted book readings by Fil-Am poet Luis Francia, Armenian-American writer Nancy Agabian and, earlier this month, this writer's book reading on Philippine women in contemporary dance.

In December, they will host a “Brunch Event” with independent artist AA Bronson who has dealt with themes of HIV/AIDS, trauma, loss and healing.

Besides this, the space also hosts choreographers' residencies. This began in 2003 through a project called Dance in Queens, made possible by their membership with the New York State Dance Force. Dance in Queens receives funding from the NY State Council on the Arts Dance Program and in part from the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs.

Through state funding, they are also able to provide affordable rent space for dance rehearsals and showings.

Art critic Suzi Gablik once evocatively described the art world as a "suburb of hell' where artists are defined by “the goals of money, prestige, and power... disconnected from ordinary life and action... defined entirely in individualistic terms.” 

Amidst the competitive environment of the New York City art world, it is refreshing to find non-commercial artists who work with a sense of responsibility for their living environment, who engage actively with the community they are in and who open our eyes to the fact that the most creative of arts is never disengaged from everyday life. - Rappler.com