As early as 2007, Charles “Rasputin” Burnell and his partner Careyann Weinberg, as well as many other like-minded individuals, have had a vision for the arts community in Norfolk, Va. to not only be accepted and decriminalized, but to be embraced with open arms. Since founding Alchemy NFK, they have been instrumental in helping to bridge the gap between musicians, artists, designers, and everyone in between and their environment through active involvement, volunteerism, and social interaction.

Recently, Burnell and Weinberg expanded their spirit of collaboration and have begun working with friends and owners of a similar shared space called Work Release, which is an arts venue, exhibition and events space located in the historic Texaco building in the NEON District in downtown Norfolk. Together with Work Release, as well as other independent artists, collectives, and government officials, Alchemy has been improving the public’s perceptions of what “good art” is and how wild they can make it. We had the opportunity to chat with Burnell about how Alchemy is continuing to be a positive game changer for art in the community of Norfolk, as well as its surrounding areas.

In your opinion, do you think the Norfolk Emerging Arts District Project created by Alt Daily editor Jesse Scaccia and Hannah Serrano established precedent for the creation of your organization?

I think Hannah and Jesse definitely had a great idea. It definitely had some fertile ground to take root on with the city’s involvement and our buy-in for the Arts District, but this had already existed long before there were any white papers or group meetings about [forming] an Arts District. It was just a shift in the city’s attitude from criminalizing art and young social activities to embracing it. When the attitude shifted, the Art District did become a reality in so many ways, but it was really always there. They just squashed it whenever it seemed a little too wild.

I got run out of Norfolk two or three times for doing the same things, having art studios where artists collaborated to create work and sold it, and I had a graffiti wall and [the city officials] were freaked out. That was as far back as 2007. In fact, I remember meeting Jesse [Scaccia] when he moved into town because his girlfriend at the time, actually who was Hannah Serrano, was doing an article on a partner and I for what was called “Portfolio” at the time. The newspaper [The Virginian Pilot] owned it. It was a bit like AltDaily but nowhere near it.

So I don’t know if that was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” by any means, but it was one of many dominoes that fell around the same time that signaled the shift in our city toward embracing creative culture and letting the citizens be the citizens and not be a liability.

Your brand recently celebrated its one year anniversary since your Kickstarter campaign ended to fund the opening of your first facility and home base from Alchemy NFK. What have been the most successful programs you have helped to implement that have been beneficial to establishing a location where “the community has a place to develop, learn, display, perform and market their creativity daily?”

Alchemy is very DIY in so many ways, but thanks to Careyann [Weinberg] and a few other folks who sit on our board and help guide the company, we get to have these little pockets of organization where we are able to take donations and put them in the right places. Developing the studios within Alchemy was probably the biggest thing that the Kickstarter helped to do. We had an upstairs that hadn’t had anyone in it for about 30 years, and it allowed us to renovate and use more studio spaces. We also have studios downstairs, and right now, we are in the process of building a darkroom with one of our residents, Jeff Hewitt.

We have a very low turnover rate at Alchemy, but we have lots of awesome community partners that share the space with us. The Norfolk Drawing Group does a lot of figure drawing weekly. Enabling ourselves to do pop ups also kind of changed the game in the climate or area at large because I think we are teaching people that you don’t necessarily have to have a brick and mortar to get your idea rolling, or we allow them the virtues of a brick and mortar without the vices, which is probably the biggest sacrifice that Alchemy makes to ensure that the community has this place.

10,000 square feet is an enormous space to take on. We have to be able to have people that will activate it in order for it to remain that size. Enabling ourselves to open the door to more people and allowing the artists to lock their doors for safety and security reasons really changed the game for us to be able to entertain folks and do larger retail stuff, other than Better Block when we initially had our inception.

In regard to branding, how important to you was it to give Norfolk its own identity by using the abbreviation NFK?

A friend of mine, for several years, had a graffiti crew called the Norfolk Zoo, which was kind of a play on our zoo in the area which had recently changed its name to the Virginia Zoological Park, but for years, it was colloquially referred to as the Norfolk Zoo, and then these guys being wild and outside of the law in a few ways. It was a cool joke for them, and NFK sort of fell into everyone’s everyday vocabulary and shorthand in the age of texting.

We began to use it in our artwork outside of graffiti … in the way that we would brand things, and Alchemy was essentially a one-weekend thing we were doing for the city. I was scheming on an artist cooperative outside of it, and Alchemy happened with a friend named Careyann Weinberg, who is now the president of Alchemy. We represented two different sections of what needed to be done for something like this to be successful, and we were doing a weekend-long thing called Better Block, which was essentially changing our event space into something livable for a few days. We got into this temporarily, but there was such a strong demand once people saw it in front of them what life could be like. We just knew we had to move forward at all costs.

Was this directly inspired by Richmond’s use of RVA?

I think we would have to ask my homie JADE2 that came up with it to know for sure, but I think it just had more to do with gross looking the “ORF” is and the symmetry with the other word “Zoo.” It was shorthand. I see kids not abbreviating it “NRFLK,” in other circles, and I think everyone wants a shorthand. The show that I have coming up in June at Work Release is very much about language becoming shorthand. It’s called “Nobody Writes Letters Anymore,” and it’s about artists that are better doers, thinkers, and makers because of their outsider art or history with graffiti.

I think Richmond and RVA is awesome. It’s totally something that we support, but I don’t know if it was influenced by that.

What is your involvement with the new space Work Release?

We joke around and say that I’m the shadow government. I, technically, am a contractor for Work Release. My partner Careyann is the director of the facility. She collaborates with the owners to decide on the overall programming, and I help consult with the elements of the branding and how it feels, how the experience goes for people on a day-to-day basis. I’ve [also] been lucky enough to be asked to curate the upcoming June exhibit, and in the future, I’m sure I’ll have hands in. A lot of my work in the last few years has dealt with light and projection, as well as looping repeated processes. So with my involvement here, I’ve helped a lot with A/V stuff to up the ante visually on what a show looks like.

That’s one of the things that I think we have that sets us apart from a band playing a bar or wherever. We have a production value of understanding what we want to achieve with the audience and not just having five bands that sound the same. I want to give someone that would never see this band the gift of how amazing they can be in the right context.

For more updates on ALCHEMY NFK, be sure to “like” their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter, and send them an email if you are interested in collaborating with them.

Joe Fitzpatrick

Joe Fitzpatrick

As editor-in-chief, Joe is very passionate about promoting music and culture in Virginia and DC. A resident of Falls Church, Joe enjoys going to shows, checking out local breweries, and trying new foods with friends.

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