Casey Maura — or as she likes to be called, Miss Casey — definitely did not ditch everything for her art studio in the height of the pandemic. 

She has been an artist since she can remember, but she tries not to dwell on her past. Her journey through college was one where the only consistency was the frequent highs and lows, and her free-spirited nature has a thorny undertone, one of resentment and fear that she’s hammered out over time into veiled vulnerability. 

She worked with the government to help refugees and asylum seekers, as well as spent time in Thailand and Vietnam working with human trafficking survivors. She recently turned 30, but she’s lived lives far beyond that, and has stories that splatter out and sob in her work. 

“It’s fucked up out there,” Maura says, gesturing to the blank walls that surround her, but her fingertips stretch out, attempting to break free of the studio’s confines. “When you’re young, you think you can handle everything, but you can’t. I had to learn that it could break me, and even though I loved the work, I couldn’t do it anymore.”

The industries that gave Rochester its notoriety as a major metropolitan area — Kodachrome film from Eastman Kodak and print/digital products from Xerox — are the same ones that gave way for its slip into obscurity. 

Eastman Kodak fled to New Jersey, Xerox shifted to Connecticut, and Bausch and Lomb crossed the border to Ontario. A city ripe for diamonds seemed as if it was destined to cough out only coal for the rest of its fleeting days. However, for artists like Maura, these abandoned buildings have become hubs of creativity.

After leaving her job, Maura freelanced through various directionless jobs until finally deciding to rent from ARTISANWorks, a nonprofit art hub made of a block of warehouses. The space, founded by Louis Perticone, is drenched in art of all shapes and sizes, but its studios — especially those on the smaller end — are not meant to be lived in. 

Despite this, Maura attempts to make her upgraded studio — Muck Duck Studio, which opened to the public in Jan. 2022 and now hosts five artists — feel like something akin to home for all who visit. 

Her fish, of whom have names that are more amalgamations of sounds than actual words, lazily fin around in their tank; there is a sheet larger than the full wingspan of their creator thrice over covered in deep, pigmented strokes on the back wall of the common area; there is tea, coffee, and water available at the front desk for two dollars. “Gotta keep the business going somehow, right?” said Maura, thumbing through a box of tea bags.

Muck Duck’s name came from a wet day of moving boxes, where Maura and friend-slash-fellow-studio-member-slash-co-creator Ambar Santiago splashed around in sweat and sleet. “You look like a muck duck or something,” Santiago said, referring to Maura’s muddied boots. The rest was history. 

Santiago and Maura bonded over their love of creative endeavors — Maura the painter, Santiago the yogi — and pledged to focus on healing the wounds life had scarred them with together. Their current studio events reflect this: Mental health open mics, meditation and healing sessions with energy therapists, studio parties with music, art, and pretzel chips, and AIR (Artists In Recovery) open 12-step recovery meetings for artists and musicians. Their motto with Muck Duck — “come for the quack, stay for the quirk” — rings incredibly true as they rhapsodize on any given idea.

Their proudest endeavor, however, is their creative mixers, which they hold on Tuesday evenings. These mixers seek to enhance community building and empower those who attend.

“Normally, people would host things on Friday and Saturdays, but we found that our artist friends are usually performing then,” Santiago says, fiddling with the strings of her hoodie. “So, we started trying out Tuesdays and Thursdays, and they got a lot more traction.” 

Santiago, an RIT graduate who uses all pronouns, studied imaging science but settled into Muck Duck with a focus in vocal yoga. They’ve taken ayahuasca in the mountains, gone on a month-long road trip from New York to Tennessee to California, and learned breath yoga from specialized practitioners in India. Yet something about Rochester keeps them coming back for more.

“Here in Rochester, I came for college and then never left,” said Santiago. “There’s such a big community of artists on the up-and-up, and it really feels as if there’s the ability to make lasting change and difference here.”

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