March 15, 2020 / Spark Magazine
Bridged over a suede chair, her hands find their natural place of business settled deep in the pockets of a power suit. Her eyes close as she laughs at her own disposition, and maybe that’s the only time she sleeps. There’s no rest reserved for a woman reclaiming her time. Local artist Whitney Avra, formerly Whitney Turetzky, is Cofounder and COO of both atxgals and East Austin’s newest coworking/event space, The Cathedral. When her double dose of entrepreneurship shook hands with life, 2019 yielded massive transition and growth.“
I started as an artist accidentally. I was an elementary school teacher, and I was burnt out,” she said. “And so we moved to Austin in 2013, and I thought ‘maybe I’ll reinvent myself.’”
Avra made the jump with her husband and daughter, then enrolled in art classes at ACC with intentions to attend the Fine Arts program at UT. After applying, she received a personalized rejection email expressing that her portfolio was too succinct. “My portfolio was all these halo ladies and powerful social and political pieces,” she said “But they said, ‘We can’t help you build a voice. You already have one.’
”Fleeing from the preconceived idea that she had to have a degree to legitimize her artistry, Avra began applying for art shows and getting accepted. She became known for her pieces that featured painted haloed women on cabinet cards. The pocket-sized workspace felt safe to her at the time, like there wasn’t enough room for a foul brushstroke. This later translated on a larger scale to her most recognizable collection: Wild Women.
Each piece from the collection portrays a colorblocked portrait of an outlaw-esque woman with intricate stitching in the details. Avra was inspired by women who refused to live under the reign of a man, so they took to the Wild West to become painted ladies and put a little cash in their garters.
“For Wild Women, I wanted to focus on really rugged women that took no bullshit, that were really vocal about their power as a woman, that took matters into their own hands,” she said.
So I became obsessed with this idea that women were moving out West to be their own boss.”
Avra’s recent divorce in 2018 influenced her to create Wild Women. As an introduction to her change of course, she made an Instagram post expressing her experience to her followers. She stood to the right of one of her collection pieces in the photo — the haloed lady’s smize heralding better days. Part of the caption read as follows:
“I found myself in a book bound tightly by a storyline that I didn’t recognize anymore. Not only did I not recognize it, I realized that I was not in control of the pen being used to fill in the last lines,” the caption read. “It was like watching the tide rise and wash away a beautiful sand-castle that you worked an entire day to build, or in my case, nearly nine years.”
“In a direct way, I don’t have a critic anymore. So I feel more free to make what I really want to make,” she said. “That series was an ode to women who had it figured out. I definitely feel like I’ve had to figure it out.”
She announced she was going back to her maiden name — Avra, never to change it again. She could no longer sign her husband’s name to her artwork.
“It feels like an epic homecoming of sorts — like I’ve been on a decade-long journey of self-discovery only to return to the original soul and body I was given,” she said.
Avra and her 7-year-old daughter now live together in their quaint apartment. She’s a single mom juggling the role of COO to two blossoming businesses.
“As an entrepreneur and an independent artist, I’ve really had to think about how to allocate my time,” she said. “I can tell when things are out of alignment when parenting gets hard because that just means my daughter’s not getting enough of me.”
Avra met her current business partner, Monica Ceniceros, at an art show in 2016. In light of the election, they decided to create an all-women’s art show for Austin. They became atxgals. Their first pop-up in 2017 sold out before the doors opened. To date, they’ve hosted 13+ events serving women in the Austin creative community with similar stories to Avra and her partner.“
We’ve had incredible growth. It feels like it’s been overnight. Our goal was to help artists and accelerate their careers, and with atxgals, we’ve been able to do that,” she said. “Most artists usually sell hundreds of dollars worth of work at our events.”
Artists keep 100% of their sales from each event. In addition, atxgals donate a significant amount of their profits from each event to local organizations. This includes the Girls Empowerment Network, safe Alliance and the Young Women’s Alliance.
“The community is so engaged and involved. They love supporting women artists and giving back to future generations,” she said. “It’s a win-win in our eyes, and it’s something we’re so passionate about.”
However, Avra and Ceniceros took notice of a recurring vocalized need within their community. Artists needed an affordable place to create; so the partners sought out to find one.
Independent of atxgals, The Cathedral is a 1930s church renovated to be a creative’s hallelujah. It houses artists of every practice, small businesses, a professional art scanner and local attorneys specializing in copyright law. It was generating buzz around Austin long before the doors could even open because of the speculated opportunities for artists and its potential to be an epic event space.
“It invigorates us. We’re hoping The Cathedral is everything we’ve ever hoped and dreamed it would be, and that the magic we see in it, others can see too. That our vision becomes other people’s vision,” Avra said. “Wherever you want to be, we’ll get you there. That’s the whole point.”
The Cathedral will be included in East Austin Studio Tour this year where Avra will be showcasing past and recent works, including her latest series — Bitches: inspired by the main bitch(es) in every woman’s life.
“What I hope is translated in my work is that we are a part of this collective womanhood. There’s room for all of us at this table,” Avra said. “The experiences we’re having today, our mothers probably had, and our sisters are having, and our children will probably have on some scale. I guarantee you the feelings women have are the same feelings throughout generations.”
In the last year, Whitney Turetzsky became Whitney Avra, and Whitney Avra became a Wild Woman — forging connections for emerging women artists, creating art until dawn cracked to greet her, ripping up flooring that once lay beneath pews and championing motherhood all the while. Today, she makes moves with a spirit of graceful disobedience and regard for her fellow woman, doing as the Wild Women do.
“I’m a believer that you make your own magic. And I feel like I’ve finally found myself. But for me, that involved divorce,” Avra said. “So coming back around to my original last name, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah. This is me. This is who I’m supposed to be. This is who I was born to be.’” ■