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Putting The Art In Arlington

A massive arts event is invading and transforming a vacated building in Crystal City.

Bare walls, exposed ceilings, eerie lighting — it was 90,000 square feet of pure nothing. But that was last week.

Since then hundreds of artists have descended upon the Crystal City building vacated by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for the 2007 version of Artomatic, a semi-annual arts extravaganza that is making its first appearance in the Old Dominion.

The five-week long event begins on April 13 and artists from throughout the Washington area are busy at work transforming the nondescript office environment into a living, breathing exhibition.

Artists representing almost every conceivable genre — from paintings to sculpture to electronic arts to performance arts to old fashioned rock bands — are coming to Arlington for this year’s event.

Lou Stovall, a visual artist from Washington, is one of the many participants in this year’s Artomatic, named after the abandoned laundromat in which the event was first held in 1999. He emphasized that, unlike a typical art exhibition, Artomatic is meant to be fun, irreverent and engaging.

"If you have one artist you have excitement," Stovall said. "If you have two artists you have a party getting started."

THIS YEAR’S EVENT will mark the fifth time a group of artists have banded together to put on a show under the Artomatic name. The four other Artomatics — in 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2004 respectively — have all been held in the District in vacated or abandoned buildings that are set for demolition.

Artomatic has grown exponentially since its initial incarnation eight years ago. What started out as a group of artists and their close friends putting on a show in the historic Manhattan Laundry buildings on Florida Avenue, N.W. in Washington became a massive gathering that, in 2004, drew over 1,000 participants.

While Artomatic has previously taken place in the District, the organizers of this year’s event said that they came to Arlington because of the lack of a large, empty space in the District.

"Washington never had a true industrial base so there aren’t that many [large] buildings to take over," said Artomatic chairman George Koch.

He also said that the group was enticed by the newly formed Crystal City Business Improvement District, a collection of Crystal City businesses dedicated to turning the area into a vibrant, urban destination.

Angie Fox, executive director of the group, said that it wants to "transform the way people see and experience Crystal City."

The Business Improvement District scored a major coup in attracting Artomatic to come across the Potomac into Crystal City. When asked what convinced Artomatic to come to Arlington, Koch simply replied, "Angie Fox."

PREVIOUSLY, ARTOMATIC HAS BEEN the launching pad for the careers of Washington-area artists. Perhaps the most successful Artomatic alum is Germantown, Md.-resident Frank Warren, creator of the PostSecret franchise who first gained notoriety after showing at 2004’s gathering.

In 2004, Warren began asking strangers at book shops and Metro stations to anonymously send him decorated post cards that detailed a secret that had never been shared with another person.

Submissions came pouring in, ranging from the devastatingly powerful — "He’s been in prison for two years because of what I did. 9 more to go." to the bizarrely silly — "I love to pee when I’m swimming."

Since his initial showing at Artomatic, Warren has started a wildly popular blog and published three collections of his postcards, the most recent of which became a New York Times Bestseller.

"Artomatic changed my life," he said. "None of this would have been possible if not for Artomatic."

Warren, who will be displaying his wares again at this year’s Artomatic, said that what makes the event so great is its populist, inclusive nature.

"[Artomatic] gives anyone a chance to play with being an artist," he said.

Thomas Edwards said that what he likes about Artomatic is the sense of community it instills in the local art scene.

He is the founder of the D.C. chapter of Dorkbot, an international collective of artists that integrate technology and electronics into their work. ("I didn’t come up with the name," Edwards sheepishly noted.)

Edwards participated in the 2004 Artomatic and was overwhelmed by the connections he made.

"It was an incredible experience to meet [other artists]," he said. "All this community wouldn’t have been possible if not for… Artomatic."