Tucked into an unassuming red brick storefront in Downtown Plano is a sanctuary for our city’s artistic spirit. Rail Station Studios, operated by Gene Dillard and hidden next to the DART rail line on tiny 15th Place, is that sanctuary. The studio serves as a workspace for several resident artists and boasts a storefront gallery for other exhibiting artists’ handicrafts. The artists engage with both the community and one another, as they participate in the collaborative friendships cultivated by the shared space.
As the owner and lead resident artist, Gene paints portraits of live subjects in the studio and teaches workshops and individual classes. He describes his portrait work as a “once-in-a-lifetime event,” a collaboration between the artist and his subject. “Unlike a photograph that merely records a subject, a skilled painter captures and expresses the character of the subject as a legacy for the ages,” his website says.
Gene is no stranger to paintbrush or pencil. “I’ve been painting and drawing all my life, but I sort of squandered my career in advertising,” he says with a smile. “I decided I wanted to do more of that and less of advertising.” This decision prompted him to become owner of the studio in 2010 following Michael Holter’s footsteps, who operated the studio 10 years before that. Michael has since become a world-renowned artist working with watercolor. The studio, brought to life by its two talented guides, has showcased more than two decades of community-originated talent in the historic arts district. According to Gene, “It’s been a fixture of Downtown Plano for quite a long time.”
The studio’s vision is this: to be a multi-purpose venue and center for art activity. It offers a space for a few select artists with a medley of talents and complementary values. Professionalism, dependability and a “strong drive to create something special,” in Gene’s words, are key. The studio houses more than canvases and paint – it breeds community. The artists of Rail Station Studios share insights, encouragement and perspective with one another. “There is a need for artists to rise and create a pathway for conversations,” says Deb McGinnis, resident artist.
Deb of Gracein Co. paints fine art that represents the story of life, with all its complexity and heartbreak. She comes from the advertising industry, where she managed several big accounts before opening her own agency. Success greeted her in the entrepreneurship world when she helped two small companies grow from nothing to $30 and $70 million in sales. But a nagging sense of restlessness grew as she moved farther from true creative work to mentorship and management. A year ago, she began painting again. “Locking arms with these amazing artists has been beyond what I could expect,” she says. “Art is often highly competitive, but we have found friendship and fellowship with each other [at Rail Station Studios].”
James Gilbreath, resident artist, is a self-dubbed “Texas artist” who employs abstraction, watercolor and realism in his paintings. His work depicts various scenes of Texas, including abstract state flags, bridges, barns and landscapes. Since being introduced to oil painting in high school, James has kept art supplies, canvases and an easel at the ready. He used to run a vacuum cleaner repair shop that hosted an art gallery in the back. Now his work is “no longer in a vacuum, but out for the world to see,” he laughs.
Michael Holter, exhibiting artist and original owner of the studio, began his career with an art degree and taught high school art. He then moved onto commercial work. “I started the studio because I had a small design firm and needed some space,” he says. His work emphasizes watercolor faces and landscapes and has earned awards and exhibit features across the country. “Being part of this creative group in the fine art world has been a real pleasure,” he adds.
For exhibiting artist Sue Killingsworth, to have her work displayed at Rail Station Studios is a dream come true. She took art lessons as a teenager before pursuing a career in editorial publishing and then at a telecom company. Six years ago, she began painting again. Sue visited different art groups across the city and wound up in Gene’s portrait painting class, which eventually led to her being invited to display her work at the studio. “I love people,” she declares. “I love to do portraits; I love to interact with visitors at the studio, and I love this group of artists.”
Linda Smith, exhibiting artist, met Gene 10 years ago at a weekly model-painting group and has been involved in the studio ever since. Having loved art when she was young, Linda put her hobby on pause to rear her children and take care of her aging parents for more than a decade, until her husband suggested she take an art class. She started with pastels, experimented with all the mediums and ended up as an oil painter. Alla prima, or wet-on-wet, portrait painting is her specialty. “Gene has been instrumental in helping me grow,” Linda says. “He really is great at encouraging growth, supporting me and helping me in areas of weakness.”
In her words, Lana Browne, exhibiting artist, has “met a lot of great friends at the studio who like to talk about nerdy art terms and different kinds of paintings.” She began selling her art on social media before adding it to the Rail Station Studio exhibition, which has been a helpful addition to her business. Lana’s work highlights floral and beach paintings in an array of colorful shades.
While the pandemic made for a tough year for small businesses, Rail Station Studios has remained active. “We want the community to visit, experience the studio’s art and support local artists,” Gene says. “Art has to be experienced to be appreciated.”
The cheeky sign on the front door lists studio hours as “by chance or by appointment,” imploring the passerby to call ahead or make an appointment if doors are not already open. Aspiring artists can also attend live painting sessions every Thursday from 6-9 p.m., called “Thursday Night Live.” Stop by the studio and experience the collaborative creations of Plano’s native artists.Rail Station Studios >