words // Wes Dunn | photo // Kevin Hurley
The entrance is inconspicuous, tucked in a corner of a Church Street façade that could easily be missed. The sign is small, and the thin, nondescript stairway leads to an upstairs hallway, where Jenke Arts suddenly bursts into sight with a warm glow that emanates from the walls. I had no idea this much space was up here, with comfortable couches along one side, cubbies stocked with yoga gear and a wide-open floor. Posts that support the ceiling are decorated as tree branches.
It certainly didn’t become this overnight, Jenke cofounder Tommy Alexander insists. It’s the result of countless hours of dedicated work, and while he has put in many of these, he’s quick to stress that none of it would have happened if it weren’t for the community that has formed around the space.
Rent here is cheap, considering its location, and the room wasn’t nearly as nice as it is today when Alexander and Jenke cofounder Matt Mantone first started working on it a few years ago. The pair bought the floorboards at great discount from the ReSTORE, and volunteers meticulously scrubbed them down. The yellow and red paint burnishing the walls is the work of the well known “didgeridoo guy,” a.k.a Michael Sampson.
Alexander has an unassuming confidence about him for which simply being relaxed may be to blame. His countenance lends him a laid-back aura, and he’s dressed in loose clothes with an obvious intent towards utility and comfort. He’s been living on a farm in Johnson this summer, and fidgets with his callused fingers while he talks.
Intending to interview Alexander about himself, I realize I’m going to have to be patient as he talks about his friends and community that has formed around Jenke Arts. People want to seem selfless, so they talk about everything but themselves until pressed otherwise. But as our conversation goes on and we start to talk more about what he calls his “journey,” I realize this might not be a traditional interview ploy. For Alexander, his friends are an integral part of who he is.
Born and raised in Santa Barbara, Calif., Alexander said he first heard about Burlington through a friend of a friend. A musician to his core, he was looking for somewhere new, to grow as a person and as an artist. He decided to give Burlington a shot, and in 2009 arrived with his guitar, song ideas and not much money. He joined the street musician culture that flourishes on Church Street, and as he tells it, things just sort of developed from there.
In a culture where we’re constantly pushed to follow some sort of prescribed path, through education and then a career, it seems strange to imagine someone just starting up somewhere new with nothing but musical talent and extraversion. But then again, Alexander isn’t really one for the traditional way of doing things.
For example, the success of Jenke Arts space doesn’t translate into a paycheck. The space hosts any artists who want to teach classes, anything from Brazilian Capoeira dancing to open mic nights. Alexander and Mantone charge ten bucks an hour. After that, whoever is running the class or event keeps all the profit. As Alexander explains, they’re only trying to get enough to cover rent and upkeep. The principal currency at Jenke arts is good karma.
It’s easy to smirk when hearing diatribes about how good karma will make everything okay, but for Alexander, it really has been a powerful force. His success with Jenke and in his own musical career, which spans more than seven albums, if you count his non-solo work, is a result of good friendships and connections. He’s adamant about how nothing he’s done has truly been solo — wherever an achievement goes, the road is paved with the help of others.
When Jenke started, Alexander got his hands on some recording equipment for a great price through a friend, and in return offered up a recording studio space on the cheap for local musicians. Nowadays, that aspect has been mostly phased out, but he points out that he fields emails almost every day from people looking to record. He sends them in the direction of friends he has in the area who are working on similar projects.
Alexander has done quite a bit of recording on his own since arriving in Burlington. He layers smoldering, contemplative lyrics over his guitar, frequently calling in on friends with other instruments. He’s also half of the duo Quiet Lion, which started in 2011 when he met Alanna Grace Flynn at a house party. He’s not proud of his earlier efforts, which he feels were “immature,” but things changed with his latest album, Basement Soul.
While Alexander has always sought to communicate emotions and moods in his music, he feels he’s finally started to get things right with this album, which he recorded over the course of the past winter in the Jenke studio. With a heavy, contemplative tone that recalls Bon Iver and vocals that were influenced by Bob Dylan, he plucks his guitar and blends it with emotive lyrics that strike a theme of wanderlust.
So while the main part of Alexander’s story seems to be about good vibes and the importance of friendship, there’s also the element of journeying. He’s content with his progress, developing both himself and Jenke Arts in his time here in Burlington. But he’s not settling. Soon, he’ll be touring across the country before settling in Portland, Ore., the next step of the journey. He’s still be involved with Jenke, he assures, and at this point the space has become a lot like how Alexander sees his music — “sustainable and expressive, honest and upfront.” ‡