Abandoned church becomes a hub for creativity in D.C.

When many people think of Washington, D.C. the first thing that comes to mind is politics. While “arts and culture” are likely further down on the list, the nation’s capital actually has a vibrant artistic community, including in some unlikely places around the city.

One such place sits in what was once an old church, abandoned when its congregation moved. It’s now a staple in the city’s southwest community, within view of congressional buildings and the U.S. Capitol. Tucked inside a small neighborhood right off a major highway and out of the way of the typical tourist attractions, the “Blind Whino,” which gets its name from a slang word for a speakeasy, opened in 2013. It is fast becoming a hub for creativity, showcasing local culture and community artists and allowing many city artists in residency to gain exposure and give back to the community.

One of the oldest surviving buildings in the area, the former Friendship Baptist Church was built in 1886 by former slaves. In the 1950s, developers bulldozed nearly the entire area around the church to make way for a new highway and new housing, but the church was spared when its then-pastor argued that it was a “bedrock neighborhood institution.” 

In the early 2000s, the church moved and a real estate developer purchased the building with a mixed-use intention of condos and office space, but the city’s Historic Preservation Board stepped in. Legally prevented from tearing down the historic church, the developer commissioned Atlanta-based painter Alex Brewer, better known as HENSE, to enliven the facade with an artistic intervention. HENSE’s colorful mural wrapped around the entire building, and is now its signature. It is the only painted mural wraparound in the city.

Six years ago, artists Shane Pomajambo and Ian Callendar opened Blind Whino, a non-profit art and performance venue there for artists and community members from around the city. Each month, in more than 15,000 square feet of space, it features new and exciting community-based art exhibits, many times avant-garde and alternative exhibits that would have a hard time finding a home in more traditional settings.

Their most recent installation, “80s Baby,” is a solo show by local artist Shawn Mitchell Perkins, also known as “Sp the Plug.” He has worked in the hip hop culture and created works for artists including the late Nipsey Hussle.

“Being born in ‘87, I grew up influenced by the sports, music, and TV in the early ‘90s area,” Sp said in an interview. “A lot of my work is in some way inspired by a favorite movie, song lyric or athlete I admired. Some work is derived from current events or social issues, while others are more nostalgic or serene. This group of work spans from the 2016-present day, during my transition to becoming a full-time artist.”

To expand what the Blind Whino founders say is a desire to bring more and more local culture to their venue, it will soon change its name to the “Culture House.” With youth arts education and giving back to the community still a priority, the Culture House will introduce new events, host residencies for local businesses, showcase international art collections with ties to the city, and continue to be a go-to destination for those looking for local cultural expressions.

The gallery is free and open to the public at 700 Delaware Ave. Southwest in Washington.

Alexis Woodyard is a reporter in the Caplin News’s Washington, D.C., Bureau.