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The Steward of Silo City

Jim Watkins makes Silo City work

Jim Watkins


Tickets for Senso di Voce on Saturday, August 25 are available online at sensodivoce.brownpapertickets.com and at the door


Good Friday fell early this year, on a raw April day. Vocalist Esin Gunduz and oboist/English horn player Megan Kyle, who together make up the duo Senso di Voce, met Jim Watkins that morning at Silo City to see what damage the winter weather had inflicted on the former grain milling site. Senso di Voce had made its debut there in 2016, making effective use of the huge reverberation in the massive concrete silo of the Marine A Elevator to develop a program that connected Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque repertoire adapted for their duo, along with modern improvisations that captivated the standing-room-only audience. Last year, Senso di Voce returned to present two well-attended programs, one in Marine A and the other in the Perot Elevator—making use of the very different acoustic properties of this much larger space—as members of the large audience were encouraged to move around during the performance.


After winter flooding ruled out a return to the Perot Elevator this year, Watkins pointed out a feature in Marine A that had been overlooked. The bottom end of one of the metal grain hoppers had rusted away, causing an opening that the petite Gunduz could duck under to create a new, ethereal sound by singing up into the soaring metal funnel. It’s one small example of why Watkins is thought to be the Steward of Silo City by many who have put on events or created art installations at what is now one of the most popular summer venues in the area.


“I’m the mechanic,”says Watkins. “I work with everyone who wants to use the site and help them to understand what is or isn’t possible to do in the space. It’s not an antiseptic room, and you have to be able to deal with the weather,”meaning that, when it rains, there is often a lot of water that comes in through the many now unglazed window openings. “New people often come to me with plans for big projects, but I encourage them to do something small first, and see if it will work,” he says.


Jim Watkins knows how to make things work. His father was an engineer at a large steel plant in Pittsburgh, and he fondly remembers sometimes accompanying him into the office if he had to work on a Saturday, and then getting to walk onto the plant floor, something unforgettable for a young boy. Watkins majored in fine arts at a college in Florida, but he started his working career at a steel plant in Ohio. He eventually moved into the manufacture of gypsum wall board, working for a large multi-national company, and traveling extensively on the East Coast as an equipment troubleshooter. As a senior process engineer, Watkins put in eighty- to ninety-hour weeks, while starting up three new plants, and then it was all over. After eighteen years, he had become too expensive, and he found himself at the top of a layoff list. When his boss protested that Watkins was the best employee, he was told that it was Watkins or him.


Having lived in Williamsville in the 1980s, Watkins moved to Buffalo, in part because he liked being close to Toronto. The owner of the Swannie House, a bar he hung out at, introduced him to Rick Smith, the industrialist who owns Rigidized Metals. Wanting to expand his factory, Smith had purchased the adjacent land that included three silo complexes. Beginning in late 2005, Watkins worked with Smith for almost three years on a plan to convert the silos into an ethanol-producing facility that finally proved unworkable. In 2011, local architecture preservationists asked Smith if they could hold a cocktail party in the silos, the beginning of the location’s use as a cultural attraction for music, theater, and dance productions, and even weddings. Watkins, or Swannie Jim, as he is also affectionately known, moved into a converted maintenance shed on the site that same year, and has since worked as the facilitator for all events at the site. He has been especially involved in art projects.


Senso di Voce


The University at Buffalo has made extensive use of the silos, as Department of Art professor Millie Chen explains: “I can’t remember how I first heard about it, but I soon became aware of what a dynamic and welcoming place Silo City is for student art projects, largely due to the amazing access and support provided by Jim Watkins and Rick Smith. I first brought my installation classes on site to make site-specific works back in the early 2000s. Over the years, Silo City gradually became more and more popular, not just for the Department of Art but also Architecture and Media Study. Jim has always been hugely generous with my students and me. He gives us time, advice, and assistance, lets us borrow equipment, and is always engaged with the art projects. He gives constructive feedback on the projects, shares stories, and creates a sense of community among artists, architects, musicians, and others. Jim has an impressive knowledge of the contemporary art world and the formal and conceptual aspects of art making. He is intelligent, inquisitive, and an excellent problem solver who generously shares his experience, resourcefulness, and insight into projects at Silo City.”


“Since we started performing in the silos, we’ve had the image of them as a post-industrial cathedral,” says Megan Kyle. “When you first walk inside the silos, the space is incomprehensible. Three years later, I haven’t comprehended it. This unknowability and the feeling of infinite space is what makes them feel holy in some way, and it’s what sparked our interest in performing religious and quasi-religious music there. The wildness of the landscape around the silos is part of the magic—these concrete structures are part of an ecosystem of riverside flora and fauna that has reenveloped them. It’s as if the silos and their landscape have merged; to me, that adds to the feeling of awe, a sense that something much bigger than myself exists there.”


“Jim Watkins is a person who has the soul and the artistic eyes to recognize the magical quality of Silo City, besides knowing every corner of it inside and out,” says Esin Gunduz. “The positive effect of his welcoming, friendly help and support for the local and international artists to realize their dreams there cannot be described in words. It is wonderful to face no barriers to work within these monuments and that Jim Watkins and Rick Smith find our project abiding and authentic.”


The Senso di Voce concert on Saturday, August 25 at 7 p.m. focuses on music from the Middle Ages and earlier. It expands upon the explorations begun last year of the musical connections between neighboring cultures surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, and includes music from Melchite, Byzantine, Maftirim, Bulgarian, and medieval French traditions. As always, the group performs early music in combination with contemporary sounds, uniting the two through timbral links and threads of spiritual rapture and meditation while utilizing the unique acoustic feedback patterns of the extraordinarily resonant spaces at Silo City. While in past years they’ve woven together early music with improvisations that involve contemporary extended techniques, this year, they are also adding composed contemporary music by Giacinto Scelsi and by vocalist Esin Gunduz, who recently was awarded her PhD in composition from UB.   


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