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Oil and Cotton Embraces Tyler Davis Arts District

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By Mark Agnew

It is well known that Oak Cliff offers fine dining in its Bishop Arts District and historic homes around Kessler Park. But with the recently completed Margaret Hunt Hill Calatrava Bridge connecting North Oak Cliff to downtown Dallas, more traffic is surely to come.

As Dallasites begin to venture across the Trinity River and explore, there’s one up-and-coming neighborhood that should not be left uncharted say residents and business owners. The Tyler Davis Arts District, at the intersection of Tyler Street and Davis Street in North Oak Cliff, is creative, gritty and cheap.

The building façades pop like a new box of Crayons: teal, yellow, pink. Murals transform drab buildings into community art. Every shop has its own unique character and many advertise studio space for rent to artists. The area also boasts live music at WordSpace, hand made chocolates at CocoAndre, and art classes at Oil and Cotton.

“The vision I have for this area is one of a colorful and diverse place where people can live, shop and explore, all within a few blocks,” said Dallas City Councilwoman Delia Jasso, who serves District 1. “The popularity of the Bishop Arts District is spilling into other areas within Oak Cliff, such as the Tyler Davis area, and Jefferson Boulevard as well. Look forward to seeing more great things coming from this area.”

Kayli Cusick and Shannon Driscoll, owners of Oil and Cotton, embody the essence of the district, say friends and colleagues. They work there. They live there. And they spend their free time working to improve the neighborhood in the hope that someday, Tyler Davis will be as well known as Kessler Park and Bishop Arts.

Here is their story.

Bringing business back

In April 2010, Cusick and Driscoll met volunteering at the Better Block<http://betterblock.org/> project. The experimental project completely transformed Davis Street in Oak Cliff for one weekend into a bustling gathering with outdoor seating, plants on the sidewalk and pop-up businesses, all of which were not allowed by the city at the time without certain provisions.

Kayli Cusick discusses painting

Cusick and Driscoll volunteered at the pop-up art studio dubbed “Rock Paper Scissors” that allowed anyone in the community to come and make art. This shop, intended to be a two-day stint as a part of the Better Block project, was so well received by the community that Cusick and Driscoll morphed the concept into a permanent business, which now serves as an anchor for the Tyler Davis Arts District.

Their store, Oil and Cotton, opened on West Seventh Street in Sept. 2010, just five months after the Better Block weekend. Cusick had been teaching piano at her home and writing children’s art curriculum for a North Texas company. Driscoll worked as an art conservator and taught art to adults. Their unique art backgrounds allowed them to collaborate and jump-start the business.

“We could have never opened this anywhere else,” Cusick said.

The Tyler Davis Arts District offers one thing no one can compete with: rent is cheap. Businesses here have an advantage since they do not face competition from big box stores like Target said Cusick. Occupants here now inhabit a community that was boarded up less than ten years ago.

The social enterprise

Starting a small business can be expensive, but the barrier to entry was relatively low for Oil and Cotton the owners said. They had a space to teach classes and a community that supported the venture. They bought what they could afford to furnish their retail store and filled in the rest with consignment art from their teachers.

“It’s important that people like Shannon and I can come in and start a business,” said Cusick, who estimated they started with around $5,000. “Not everyone has $100,000.”

Driscoll noted their vision is a “social enterprise” business model. Their long-term goal is to have Oil and Cotton, the retail store and LLC, serve as an umbrella company to support a separate non-profit entity that offers art classes to the surrounding community.

Oil and Cotton is currently a for-profit business, yet charges a meager tuition. A student may pay $195 for a 13-week semester, which breaks down to $15 per class. The business made a commitment when it opened to donate ten percent of earnings to scholarships. Today, around 70 students per week take classes at Oil and Cotton.

“For a time, my teen students were all scholarship kids,” said instructor Emily Riggert.

Oil and Cotton is starting to work with the Oak Cliff Foundation to enable it to take donations for their scholarship program. The goal is to increase partnerships to support the scholarship fund and create formal oversight of the funds collected. At the end of the day Oil and Cotton’s mission is to provide art education for kids in the neighborhood and to open people’s eyes to the fact that art is something that motivates kids to learn, Cusick said.

Insurance for artists

The next big endeavor the partners are looking to tackle is providing health insurance for artists. Cusick explained that when she and her husband lived in New York City they qualified for public health insurance. They are exploring if there is a viable group for independent artists to join. Cusick and Driscoll want to start a discussion among academics that specialize in public policy, artists, and insurance professionals in the near future.

“It’s almost like a dirty little secret,” Cusick said. “Most people don’t have health insurance.”

Many young artists may benefit from the federal Affordable Care Act made law in 2010. If their parent’s plan covers children, they may remain on the health insurance policy until age 26. This is the case for Kyle Hobratschk, who graduated from SMU in May 2011.

Hobratschk is a printmaker and furniture designer who rents studio space at Oil and Cotton. He is currently working to create prints of homes around Oak Cliff. Before he decided on taking up shop in the Tyler Davis District, he went to New York City with a friend to conduct a sort of cost benefit analysis.

“We tried imagining ourselves in Brooklyn and just couldn’t do it,” said Hobratschk.

Hobratschk recently found a house in Oak Cliff and teaches watercolor and printmaking classes at Oil and Cotton in addition to his other projects.

A variety of courses offered at Oil and Cotton, including summer camps, may be found at www.oilandcotton.com

Mark Agnew is a senior business and journalism student at Southern Methodist University.

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