Working out of a mobile coffee shop in Gahanna across the street from an old, vacant car wash, Matt Roberson couldn’t help but daydream about what that empty, decrepit space could house.
Maybe it could be a gallery for artists like himself — or at least a place for people to hang murals in the abandoned washing bays.
Or maybe he could start a “plant library” where people with green thumbs — like his wife — could exchange greenery from their own yards.
Since 2018, he and his wife, Kayla, who own Blank Slate Coffee, havemade those dreams a unique reality — with the blessing of the property’s owner, a local developer, Matt Roberson said.
“It was just this gray space that was going to be developed later,” he said of the structure on the corner of Mill and North streets near the northern end of Gahanna’s popular Creekside District.
“When we heard they were going to tear it down, we thought we’d have some fun – and that was almost five years ago. We’ve put in there any weird thing that we thought would be fun. If there was cool stuff here, we thought we might get more customers.”
Although Roberson is not sure if transforming the old car wash has brought his mobile coffee shop more business, he said he and his wife have been happy to create this quirky gathering space that’s led to conversations and community building – even if it’s been a lot of work.
The car wash currently is home to what they’ve dubbed the Hart Room for indoor art shows — it’s in a 350-square-foot enclosed section they renovated — and the Mural Gallery, which spans four open-air washing bays and focuses on large format art projects.
Then there’s the Plant Library in the final bay, where people can drop off extra plants and unwanted produce for others to claim online on Facebook and pick up later, working on the honor system.
“My wife is an incredible gardener – that’s her creative outlet,” said Roberson, a painter whose passion lies more with art and music. “This came out of a brainstorm of, ‘I’ve got some hostas. Who wants some?’”
This eclectic group of efforts and the whimsical, colorful environment don’t just draw the eyes of passersby; they’ve been featured on online tourist attraction lists, such as Roadside America.
Although revamping this vacant space has happened organically over the past four years with money for projects coming directly from Blank Slate or generous community members, Roberson decided to create a nonprofit to oversee the car wash endeavors.
Just before the pandemic hit, the Robersons founded Creative Assets for Central Ohio to give the grassroots efforts some legitimacy and perhaps longevity beyond the lifespan of the car wash, which could be redeveloped at any moment.
The nonprofit umbrella has helped the endeavor expand: They opened a second Plant Library (coincidentally, also in a car wash) when a Marysville attorney reached out wanting to create a similar plant exchange in her neighborhood.
Those involved with the Mural Gallery in Gahanna and related projects treasure the space, which features diverse artwork that is movable, since none of it is painted directly on the wall.
One bay boasts four black and white portraits of famous people — such as Mark Twain — created from quotes they said. Another wall is covered by Roberson’s work — a yellow and red mural of Roberson’s son and butterflies that also includes a spiral staircase-like installation connected to it.
There’s a large, three-dimensional set of eyeglasses built into the concrete in front of the Hart Room as well as an interactive mural piece that reads “Before I die I want to,” where people have written their own responses.
An acrylic painting of a forest in the shape of a triangle was done by one of Blank Slate’s baristas, Este Hupp, who traditionally does miniature watercolor paintings. Although the large piece she created was daunting for someone who usually works on a much smaller scale, Hupp, of Gahanna, said she was honored for the unique opportunity to hang something so public in the community where she lives.
“I love it,” said Hupp, who regularly has coffee shop customers ask her about what’s going on across the street. “I think it’s very grungy but also yummy. It feels very raw. We have a lot of artists in Gahanna, and I hope it draws them out into town and creates a community space.”
Ohio Dominican University art education student Reagan Mounts has walked past that car wash countless times, both before and after its transformation. Still, the now 20-year-old, who grew up in the area and works at a restaurant on Mill Street, never imagined she’d see her work up in a space she’d admired for years.
She’s thrilled that all the curious passersby will see her piece, which features a sun and moon motif.
“People know what Picasso looks like, what the Mona Lisa looks like, but this is a big public example of what art can be and how it can adapt to you,” Mounts said. “It’s encouraging art to come off the museum wall and meet people where they are.”
Rachel Gonzalez said the venue is a great place to introduce her three young children to art. The Gonzalez family visits the former car wash multiple times a week as she is a volunteer with the Plant Library.
The Gonzalez children — ages 3, 5 and 6 — like to discover new additions, such as the rain barrel that Roberson painted and decorated to look like an antlered creature.
“They’ll be like, ‘Oh, what’s new? What’s over there?’” said Gonzalez, of Blacklick. “It’s fun to see their curiosity grow.”
And she’s thankful the plant exchange has helped her expand her knowledge of gardening and share that with others.
“That old car wash sat for years,” Gonzalez said. “This gives people something else to do in Creekside that’s free and sparks conversation.”