New Kids on the Block: SWAG Bolsters Women Artists in Argenta


“Women supporting women – that’s what SWAG is about,” says BJ Arnold, from the gallery on 606 North Olive Street. The space, a stone’s throw from Argenta’s bustling Main Street, recently opened mid-June.

SWAG, or Southern Women Artisans Guild, was born out of an idea to provide both a gallery and collaborative studio for female artists.

An artist in her own rite, Arnold (pictured above) is a photographer and also creates jewelry from recycled metals she picks up at local salvage yards. Her recycled creations include bracelets with customizable etchings, as well as extremely detailed sword pendants. Her style is ever evolving.

Working with copper and other metals has caused Arnold to use some serious heavy machinery in her garage – a tight, makeshift studio space. This, along with a conversation she had with a few of her artist friends, led her to eventually open SWAG.

Namely, she found that she wasn’t alone in her studio dilemma.

“One of my friends was working out of her very drafty barn, another one in a 24 foot RV. … Another has three small children who climbed all over her while she was trying to paint,” she explains.

Arnold loves all things medieval, and thought that a guild would be the perfect term as she says, “A guild gathers people of like mind together.”

All she needed was a perfect location – and as Argenta is one of Little Rock’s happening art scenes ­– she started there. After checking out Main Street, Arnold ended up with the space on Olive, just a step away. The building once played host to an auto shop, but is now divided into distinct areas – a gallery space in the front and a communal working area in the back.

She says, “I wanted to create a space for women artists who could come and collaborate with other women in a nice, peaceful area. Several of the artists have already started collaborating … I just wanted that creative feminine energy.”
This comes from years of attending craft shows and makers fairs. Often vendors are sealed off from each other, each in their own tent. BJ wanted to keep the community feel a fair offers, without the walls.

Interested female artists can choose from one of nine studio spaces, of which measure either 7 x 8 or 6 x 8. The monthly rent is affordable, as Arnold wants to create a space for a myriad of female artists from all walks of life.

Along this vein, the gallery commission for the display artists is more affordable than most, as she wanted to find a golden line between both artist and patron.

“Normal people – the average public – can not afford nice art. I wanted affordable, so we have things ranging from $20 to $900,” she says.

Arnold hopes to see the space become an Argenta destination – “a buffer zone between going home from work on a Friday afternoon.”

While the gallery is open during the week, the space will also act as more of a venue during Argenta’s Art Walks and at various times throughout the month. Think live music and libations, and potentially food trucks. During larger events the studio space will be open and artists will be able to mingle and talk with patrons.

Arnold also hopes to host classes once or twice a month, to really get people involved, as she says, “I want the public to really get involved with the artists work.”

Meet the Artists

Heather Caldwell, a local painter who specializes in portraits, has known Arnold for quite some time, and was involved with the idea from the beginning. She shares studio space with Arnold, and hopes to see the project grow.

“As an artist, nobody really tells you how to market yourself,” she says, “and we decided it was a good idea to brainstorm with friends and work on it together.”

Caldwell believes that more than that, SWAG is working toward building a positive community. She explains, “It’s a place, first of all, where people can work together. Women are taught by society to tear each other down, but we want this space to be about building each other up.”

As Caldwell continues her journey towards learning how to market herself as an artist, she also wants to see others do well. She says, “The commission isn’t so high, so it’s a great place for new or young artists to be.”

Morgan Coven Herndon, a display artist at the gallery, says, “What drew me to SWAG was the vision of the organization. I like that it offers a place to embrace and encourage our creative ambitions of women in particular.”

Herndon creates special drip-style paintings that focus on movement, and is well known in the artist community.

She continues, “The unique demands to wear so many hats in our lives sometimes pushes out “the optional”. SWAG helps make creativity a priority instead something that gets pushed to the back burner in today’s society. Which in turn helps us to be better versions of the women we were meant to be!”

For more information on supporting the guild or renting a studio space, call (501) 398-1165 or visit Facebook.

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