“It’s between Burger King and AutoZone.”
Those are the instructions that Kristina Zallinger, 66, gives for the location of her home at Highwood Square. Situated at 953 Dixwell Ave., the affordable-housing complex in Hamden appears to be an unlikely place to find inspiration. Around it are empty storefronts and dilapidated office buildings, old casualties perhaps from the fire that ravaged the street a decade ago. It is the kind of place that compels a taxi driver to wonder why on earth you might be going there, and to ask whether you know that “this area’s not so great.”
What the taxi driver does not know is that, while the area has been in decline for the last 25 years, the town has recently taken action to revive it. It is trying to reinvigorate the 54,000 square feet of land destroyed in the fire, starting with Highwood Square.
Since it finished construction last June, Highwood Square has been home to a cooperative of artists like Zallinger, who is a painter. Filmmakers, musicians and poets have come together in the apartment complex as neighbors who share a deep appreciation for each other’s art.
Zallinger is a broad-shouldered, stout woman with yellow-rimmed glasses and kind eyes. She comes from a long line of artists: her parents and siblings are all artists. Her father, Rudolph Zallinger, is famed for his mural “The Age of Reptiles,” which is featured on the exterior of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. But Kristina Zallinger insists that her art is different from that of the rest of her family members, who are mainly realist painters. Meanwhile, Zallinger paints abstract expressionist art, using acrylic paints and mixed media to create colorful, textured canvases.
After a year of not painting, Zallinger said that she moved into the building last May in the hope of establishing herself in the art world. The building is managed by NeighborWorks New Horizons, a local organization that provides affordable housing to those in the low income bracket. The idea of a living community for artists was conceived by Executive Director Seila Mosquera.
“This project has been 12 years in the making,” said a NeighborWorks representative over the phone.
While not everybody who lives in the building is an artist, artists who wanted to qualify for the subsidized housing had to undergo an extensive application process. Over 400 people submitted applications, and the building’s management chose tenants based on their artist’s statements, their work samples and the impressions that they left during the interview, said Shaunda Holloway, a print and textile maker.
For Zallinger, moving into the building is an act of devotion to her art. “What I’m trying to do is to make it in the art world,” she said. “I’ve finally decided to make that commitment. Now is timely for me, because I have goals and this studio space that’s the first studio I’ve ever had.” In addition to apartments, Highwood Square also rents out studio space to the artists at a subsidized cost.
For Holloway, the appeal of the building is a combination of its comfortable living environment and the opportunity it affords her to interact on a frequent basis with other artists. She said that she hopes to collaborate with neighbor and filmmaker Nikki Chavoya.
“We’re constantly trying to figure out how to make things happen,” Holloway said. “[Chavoya’s] just across the hall from me, so it’s not that difficult for us to brainstorm.”
While it is located north of the city, Highwood Square has strong ties to New Haven. The design for the building, which features bright pastel colors and a geometric exterior reminiscent of Tetris, was conceived by New Haven-based architect Ben Ledbetter. Part of the structure reused the framework of the former Johnson Wholesale Perfume warehouse, converting the brick building into artistic studios and commercial office space. Adjacent to this building are 27 units of housing, a dozen of which house artists who are part of the cooperative. Fitted with bamboo floors and other “green” design elements, the work won first place in the Connecticut Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors Excellence in Construction Awards in 2011.
Many of the artists interviewed also travel into the Elm City often to work or display their art. Holloway, who sells textiles and prints, exhibited her pieces at the “New Haven Spontaneous Artist Collective” in 2010. She has also worked with the Creative Arts Workshop on Audubon Street, and her latest work is featured in the city’s “Project Storefront” initiative.
For Holloway, moving into Highwood Square has brought her back to her roots, as she attended Hamden High. “It’s coming full circle because this is my old neighborhood,” she said.
Zallinger also grew up nearby, having attended college at Hartford Art School. She said that she owns a Yale hoodie because she feels strong ties to the University, as her parents both attended the Art School and her brother, Peter Zallinger ’65, is a graduate of the College.
With rent adjusted for each artist’s individual income, Highwood Square affords its residents a space to practice their art, an opportunity that few of them have been offered before. In addition to residential housing and commercial office space, the complex also offers studio space for rent. In the apartment beside Zallinger’s lives Tony Ramirez, an instructor of Zumba, a type of dance that combines Latin and international music with fitness training. Ramirez remarked that the painter is just one of the “good people” that he has met in the complex. While he currently teaches four days a week at the All-Star Studio in Meriden, Ramirez hopes to rent out one of the complex’s spaces in the future.
Adorned with her paintings and decorated with strange, eclectic artifacts that she has collected in her travels, Zallinger’s apartment is like a studio in its own right. Her tables are littered with figurines in the form of Egyptian icons, prehistoric animals, Native American totems and one plastic rendering of a moose riding a bicycle. Zallinger is an avid collector because she is drawn to certain things that she finds on her travels, she said. While studying for her master’s degree in painting at the University of Montana, she visited seven different Indian reservations and became “enamored by Native Americans.”
According to Zallinger, she is never lacking in inspiration. “How do I get inspired?” she mused. “Well, I just am. All the time.”
During her art education, Zallinger said, she practiced traditional art forms such as figure drawing, head painting and still life. It was not until 10 years ago, when Zallinger was treated for manic depression, that she began pursuing abstract expressionist painting. Since then, art has been an outlet to express her emotions and to capture the beauty of life’s otherwise mundane moments.
“I look at the cars that go by, and sometimes there are five cars in a row that are the same color,” Zallinger said. “I find that very interesting.”
Ultimately, she hopes to exhibit her artwork in New York City. For now, though, she is thinking about collaborating with her neighbors — perhaps on a short film with Chavoya or a book of poems with Holloway. The Big Apple may be a long way away, but Zallinger knows that she can always come home to Highwood Square.