Art And Athletics Meet At The ClubHouse

clubhouseChas Wagner (left) and Sean O'Donnell take a break from ballin' on the ClubHouse's court. Photos by Jess Benjamin.

Chas Wagner knows that artists and athletes aren’t expected to get along.

“Typically, sports is kind of over on one end of the spectrum, and the art world is kind of over here,” he says. Design, fashion, music, tech, food and drink—“you associate the creative class in those worlds,” he adds. “Sports, you just kind of see this jock, like, screaming at the TV.”

Wagner is the founder of Rally Sports, a sporting goods company that celebrates Boston’s athletics culture with limited-run, small-batch, made-in-America clothing, posters, pennants and gear. He’s done popups with his merch at the Inman Square Clover Food Labs space and at the weekend markets at the Armory. Now, he’s opening up his own storefront: The ClubHouse.

In the simplest terms, The ClubHouse is a retail space. Wagner wanted a physical shop where he could sell his artfully designed Red Sox bats and Bruins-themed hockey sticks, but he didn’t want something that felt like your run-of-the-mill retail shop. He avoided Newbury Street and set his sights on Somerville, a city he says is uniquely positioned to appreciate the intersection of athletics and the arts. Earlier this year, he signed a lease on an old garage at 471 Somerville Ave., and after months of painting and power washing the shop started hosting popup events and makers markets in April.

While there are goods for sale at The ClubHouse, that’s not necessarily the focus of this space. Wagner believes that sports can be an art form—that they’re their own kind of creative endeavor. He and ClubHouse head of operations Sean O’Donnell envision the building as a hub for sports, arts and culture—a place to merge those worlds. On the March afternoon when we meet, Wagner and O’Donnell are seated in what will become their “hangout room,” where the duo want to screen games, sports films and highlight reels. They also envision this room as a place to host classes, workshops and speakers whose work is connected to sports and the arts—someone who designs shoes for New Balance, perhaps, or works with the Celtics.

rally sports

Wagner and O’Donnell stand in front of Caleb Neelon’s mural, which adorns the ClubHouse’s front.

“Sports are a connector,” Wagner explains. “Growing up, you find out where someone’s from: ‘Oh, I’m from Kansas City.’ And you can be like, ‘Oh, how about the Royals?’ It’s a connection point, but not one that everyone has.” (Wagner himself grew up in Pittsburgh—don’t hold it against him.)
“Sports can bridge the geography gap,” adds O’Donnell. Also, “It’s a great way to bridge between decades of people. It’s a great way for a 20 year old to talk to an 80 year old.”

Wagner and O’Donnell aren’t the only ones interested in the way athletics intersect with culture at large. The Inman Square-based graffiti artist Caleb Neelon, who has worked with Fenway and collaborated with Converse, designed the mural that adorns the outer wall of The ClubHouse’s space. And a Boston-based group of “craftivists” called New Craft Artists in Action (NCAA—get it?) painted The ClubHouse’s colorful outdoor basketball court and made the net that’s affixed to their hoop.

“Generally, we do projects that address the overlap of craft and athletics—how their histories are very particular to our region,” explains NCAA founder Maria Molteni. Basketball was invented in Springfield, and Lowell, the birthplace of America’s industrial revolution, was for many years the nation’s largest textile center.

“Those histories overlap a lot, even though people don’t think of them doing so,” Molteni adds. “The first hoop was a peach basket—which is a fiber craft.”

new craft artists in action

The NCAA’s Maria Molteni, Randi Shandroski, Giancarlo Corbacho and Alicia Casilio spent a March afternoon painting The ClubHouse’s colorful court, and Somerville-based artist Cara Kuball made the basketball net.

That desire to merge the worlds of art and athletics is just one goal shared by The ClubHouse’s founders and the NCAA artists. “One of the main things with the space—with the vision and the belief—is that we’re inside way too much,” says Wagner. “We’re sitting too much, we’re inside too much, we’re at our screens way too much.” The NCAA’s Molteni concurs. “We kind of have this tagline, almost: participation over spectatorship,” she says. “We’re encouraging people to make things and play and not just sit on their butts and watch TV.”

O’Donnell explains that there are plenty of places all around town where you can sit down and catch a Bruins game over Bud Light and chicken wings. He has nothing against those bars and restaurants—after all, they’d like to screen games at The ClubHouse. But the converted garage feels more like a rec center or a YMCA, a place that encourages visitors to be active rather than passive. The basketball court is open to all, and as the weather warms, Wagner wants to welcome food trucks to set up camp in the front lot.

As for the speakers you might someday see in the space? Wagner’s shortlist includes athletes like Becca Pizzi, the Belmont woman who ran seven marathons in seven days on seven continents.

“Everyone says Boston is such a good sports town, and mainly what they’re referring to is at the pro sports level: Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins,” Wagner says. “But there is so much interesting stuff happening at the college, high school, amateur level—running, cycling, surfing. All these weird, different sports. Kids playing street ball at Conway park. I feel like there’s a void; there’s no place where that’s being celebrated.”

Unfortunately, The ClubHouse’s tenure on Somerville Avenue might be brief. Wagner has a short-term, 18-month lease on the space—there’s a good chance it will get demolished and made into condos when that time runs out. But he’s hopeful that, if people rally together and build a network, The ClubHouse might be able to have a home in the neighborhood that extends beyond 2017.

“This won’t be anything without the community that fills it and surrounds it,” says Wagner. “That’s the lifeblood of the whole operation.”

“We’re still trying to figure out what it’s supposed to be,” O’Donnell adds. “We want to see what the community wants.”

This story originally appeared in our May/June print edition, which is available for free at more than 150 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription