In the four years since Forsyth County acquired the Sawnee Arts Center, local artists have struggled to find space to perform and display their work.
One woman is working to change that.
Laura Frends is quitting her day job as owner of a travel business to become founder of the Serenity Arts Center.
“I’ve never been as excited about anything in my whole life,” she said. “I’ve just always been a lover of the arts.”
During the next several months, the exterior of the abandoned Sharon Schoolhouse on Old Atlanta Road will undergo an exterior facelift.
Frends, who also founded and organizes the Days of Summer Festival in south Forsyth, said the whole center could be complete as soon as early 2010.
“Our intention for the building is to restore it to the way it was and not to change it at all,” she said. “The first couple of rooms will be gallery space and classrooms for performing arts, from acting to pottery to dance, anything you can think of.”
Frends has planned events to raise funds and awareness for the project, beginning with a nontraditional farmers market in mid-September. There will be fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as other vendors, live musicians, clowns, face painting and pony rides.
In mid-October, the Serenity Arts Center will feature a pumpkin patch and a haunted house.
“That will be the first time we ever use the building,” she said. “After the haunted house, we’ll start preparing the inside of the building.”
Frends said contractor Dave Yingling of Partners with God has agreed to donate his time to the renovations, but she must still raise funds to cover the cost of materials.
The most expensive phase of the project, she said, is restoring the building’s stage and theater. With a $500,000 price tag, the renovation project is a huge undertaking.
Results Realty Realtor Heather Rose, the building’s listing agent, said there was another interested group that “couldn’t get financing and really didn’t have the wherewithal to follow through with a project this big.”
“With Laura I’m not so much worried because it’s going to be done in phases.”
The building’s owner, Yosi Ishak, has agreed to sell the building as a nonprofit arts center, Rose said.
Ishak could make more money selling to a larger commercial sale, but Rose said “he believes that we need [the center] here in the area also.”
“We’ve worked hard on acquiring a group that was interested in the actual history of the building,” she said.
Rose is no stranger to the arts community. The actress recently finished her role in “Smoke on the Mountain” at the Cumming Playhouse.
“I live in this area, but I’m also involved in fine arts,” she said. “We would love to bring some of the fine arts down to this area, in addition to keeping and restoring a historical building and eventually getting it on the National Register [of Historic Places].”
Though they agree there is a need for an arts venue, the project was news to many local artists, including members of the Sawnee Artists Association and Forsyth County Arts Alliance.
James McCoy, who serves on the board of the alliance, said he didn't “know a thing in the world about it.”
“From a chamber perspective or the arts alliance perspective, this has not come up,” said McCoy, who also is president of the local chamber of commerce. “I’d very much like to know what they’re up to and if we can be helpful.”
Local artist Patti Russell said she’s been going outside Forsyth County to show her artwork.
“I’m real curious to learn more about it because I think there’s a great need for an art gallery in Forsyth County,” she said. “I would love to be a part of whatever is going to be there.”
Frends said she will approach local artists in the next few days, once she receives an umbrella 501(c)3 nonprofit status. The status will solidify her commitment, and will allow her to apply for grants and raise funds.
“We’ve been meeting for about eight months and we formed a board,” Frends said. “[Ishak] said this is exactly what he wanted to do with it, and we just said let’s do it.
“This is truly my passion.”