“I want to test out my new doorbell,” said Jonathan Bean.
“Can you ring mine, too?” asked neighbor and friend Lauren Castillo. “I feel like the last couple of packages I’ve had . . .”
Welcome to the micro-illustrators’ colony above Yellow Bird Café in Midtown Harrisburg. The residents are neither homegrown nor stereotypically starving artists, but are, instead, recognized professionals who settled in Harrisburg for the affordability and ambience. In the process, they are helping to make Midtown a hub for successful artists.
In this building, the top-floor apartment is occupied by illustrator and writer Jonathan Bean, two-time winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature. The apartment below is home to Lauren Castillo, illustrator and writer whose “Nana in the City” is a 2015 Caldecott Honor book.
Bean and Castillo were friends before coming to Harrisburg, and that’s how the story starts. Both are products of the mid-Atlantic. He grew up in the Reading area and graduated from Messiah College. She’s from Bel Air, Md. They met at the School of Visual Arts in New York in an intensive, two-year master’s degree program in “illustration as visual essay.”
By graduation, Bean had sold his thesis as the book “At Night,” the charming story of a girl who can’t sleep and finds rest on the roof of her home overlooking a city vista that combines elements of Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, and Chicago—with the Rockville Bridge in the distance. Castillo found success illustrating manuscripts for other authors and then branched into writing.
Bean stayed in Brooklyn about four years before returning to Reading. After more years overcoming physical problems that limited the use of his arms, he was looking for a new home. He got a call about a Midtown apartment from Messiah College illustration professor and Harrisburg resident, Stephen Fieser. He moved there in 2012.
In the meantime, Castillo stayed in Brooklyn for 14 years before heading to California with her brother in search of new surroundings. Early this year, Bean called her about an available apartment in his building, and she moved in a few months back.
Artists “can work anywhere, for the most part,” says Bean.
He eyed Harrisburg “because it was cheap.” Plus, life near “that hub of activity” around Midtown Scholar Bookstore and the Broad Street Market would “have enough things to do to keep me entertained, but also it’s a small scale.”
“New York City has a lot to offer, but I never have time to do it all,” Bean says. “The things I have time to do are scaled to the things Harrisburg has.”
Bike or Feet
In Brooklyn, Castillo found she was paying $2,000 a month “for a tiny little box.” The constant need to work kept her “strapped to my place.”
“There are places I want to travel, but you have to keep working to pay your bills, and you don’t have the time or money to travel anywhere,” she says. “Even to take a week off to visit my parents in Maryland was a big ordeal.”
Midtown, she says, “feels to me like a Brooklyn neighborhood.” All the necessities—shopping for produce, coffee shops for human company, a train station for trips to New York City—“are accessible here by bike or feet.”
Their building is owned by Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse. Bean says Papenfuse extended an unwritten condition that he be “artist in residence.” So, a shingle hangs outside the front door: “Bean Illustration.”
On some 3rd in the Burg nights, Bean attaches a “Studio Open” sign to the shingle, inviting visitors to drop in. Along the stairway is a gallery he calls “The Steps Shown,” with examples of the meticulous process and many multiples of drafts he employs to produce the final product.
Midtown’s artist community appeals to the two illustrators.
“For such a small city, they really appreciate the arts here,” says Castillo.
Like Harrisburg’s amenities, the artistic scene is manageably scaled, adds Bean.
“It’s here if you want to look for it and have that community,” he says. “There’s a lot of talent and a lot of really energetic and hardworking artists here.”
Lots for a Little
Other successful artists agree that Harrisburg blends affordability and vibrancy.
Artists and screen printers Joelle and Justin Arawjo own a Midtown home and run their thriving business, Fennec Design, from a Millworks studio. They once lived in an increasingly ritzy Philadelphia neighborhood “where you pretty much needed to be a millionaire,” says Joelle. “We were a young married couple who wanted to own a house and have a yard.”
Justin agrees that “a growing group of artists, especially young artists” is supporting and inspiring each other and amping up Midtown’s creative vibe.
“Because the city is so affordable, it’s possible for younger people to devote themselves to their art, as opposed to the cities where you have to work another job,” she says.
Fieser, the veteran illustrator who says he “proselytizes” to bring artists to Harrisburg, says, “It’s more fun for an artist, the more of them there are around.”
“Even for those who want to move from an apartment and buy a house, you can get so much real estate for so little,” he says. “They get really tired living in New York and having all their income sucked away by rent.”
In their apartments that double as studios, Bean and Castillo have views of N. 3rd Street and the Broad Street Market. Castillo clips her character studies to wires strung on the wall. Bean used his rooftop access to spray paint a recent project and to grow a vegetable and herb garden.
Castillo is thinking about renting a Millworks studio, which “would feel like you’re in one large, shared studio space where you can go visit with your neighbor.” She looks around her studio—essentially half of the apartment’s blended living room and kitchen.
“It’s kind of tiny but decent sized,” she says. “For now, we’ll see. I’ll stick around.”
For more information on these award-winning illustrators, visit www.jonathanbean.com and www.laurencastillo.com.