I love artists. I say that a lot. There is simply no other occupation like it in the world. Peter Tompkins, a local Northeast Ohio artist, videographer and photographer, in a documentary he produced called "The Artist", put it best: where would we be without it? I mean look around. Art is everywhere. It brightens and enlivens our world. I can guarantee you that wherever you are right now, you are surrounded by art. If you were to count how many artistic items that are around you in this moment, you'd lose count. Without art this would be a dreary world indeed. Most of this work falls into the category of commercial art: illustration, decoration and production art. Think your calendar or the pattern on your drapes. Every single item you possess has been touched by an artist or artists in some way.
But there is what I would call a sub-set of the world of art that constantly and persistently presents itself: Art for its own sake. This is a very different world. It has always been there. It's where new ideas are born, where old ideas are celebrated, where artists answer the siren call of the muse. Sounds a little highfalutin, doesn't it? I can only say from my own experience that to be a creative artist doing only what you want and damn the torpedoes requires a thick skin and a taste for hazard. Why do artists do this? My best answer, having talked to many creatives, is a need. That's certainly the case for me. Now that's all well and good, but it don't pay the rent, Jim. This brings me to another phenomenon in the art world: the gallery.
In my previous blog, I wrote about one such gallery and one particular artist showing there: Hedge Gallery presenting the work of Mark Howard. It was a great show, and is still there if you want to check it out. You should. When I finished that blog, it kind of bothered me in that I thought it was too brief. A little too breathless. Then Hilary Gent, the owner and curator of Hedge, reached out to me offering additional information about Mark. That got me thinking about the relationship between artists and the general public, and the tie that binds them together. One of those ties, and in my view the most important, is the gallery. Social media not withstanding, the gallery is the place that you can see the work in person; look at it in real space and time, examine it from close and from far away, see the brushstrokes and the way the work occupies space. Digital pictures don't do it justice. In the words of Jerry Saltz, a renowned art critic, you have to almost be able to smell it. So why do galleries exist? And who is this mysterious person that creates art for those galleries? I decided to ask Hilary and Mark a few questions. For many artists starting out, it seems like an impossible world to deal with. Is it?
Well, the short answer to that is no. The first thing you have to remember is that gallery owners are human beings, and owning a gallery is a daunting and scary undertaking, fraught with roadblocks and challenges, just like any other business. But the art world has its own unique challenges, not the least of which is a fickle and inconsistent buying public with constantly shifting interests and tastes. You have to make adjustments and be completely open minded. I arranged to give Hilary a call to find out a little about her and her gallery, to get an idea of what it must be like. And also to give any potential artists that want to approach a gallery some idea of the human side of the process.
This interview was more like a chat, so there are no direct quotes. My aim was to just get the essence of who this person is; her background and motivations. To the new artists just starting out, I hope this will help you to not be intimidated in approaching galleries. Just know your work, then get to know the gallery.
First of all Hilary Gent is, (please forgive the use of this word), awesome. Being what you might call a "worder", someone that loves to read and write, I always grimace when something is described as "awesome", when not speaking of a hurricane or a volcanic eruption. However, I've come to accept it as part of the lexicon, and well, it's the first word that came to mind when I spoke with her. She gives off a really positive vibe, very smart and articulate, and never talks down to you. I love that. She is a well known artist, gallery owner and juror in the Cleveland area.
Hilary attended Kent State, (so did one of my sons...go Flashes), and graduated with a BFA concentrating on painting. She moved to Cleveland to pursue event planning, but still needed an outlet for her creative self. She was intimidated to approach galleries, (does this sound familiar?), but was able to enter her work in local shows, including the Asterisk gallery in Tremont. She "stumbled", (her word), on the 78th Street Studios in their early stages. (This is an example of when you have your antennae out, you will find things, or things will find you). She met Dan, the owner of the complex, and a germ of an idea took root. It should be noted that 78th Street Studios has blossomed into probably the epicenter for the arts in Cleveland. They have an "Art Walk" every third Friday of the month from 5-9, where you can wander the several floors of this converted warehouse building, and visit with artists of all stripes, many of whom have studios there. But I digress...Hilary "slopped together", (her words), a business plan, and began to seek out investors, to no avail. Plugging an art gallery is a tough sell. It's a risky business. Her idea was to combine an event space with an art gallery, which utilized her personal strengths. Her then-husband said to just go for it, so they took out a loan and plunged right in. Now I'm going to digress again for a moment and speak directly to the artists reading this who don't know how to approach a gallery. It's best to visit, get to know the owner, and get a feel for the place and whether or not your work fits in. As this blog will attest, gallery owners have their own story, which needs to be deeply respected. I know how difficult it can be for many artists to do this, who tend to be introverts, (I said TEND to be), but, well, you have to show up.
Ahem, as I was saying...
So they started from scratch with an empty warehouse space and transformed it into a very warm, elegant gallery, but still rustic with exposed brick walls. Over the years trying to both run events there, (it's a great space for that), and run a gallery began to be a bit much, so Hilary began emphasizing the gallery side more. Hedge still hosts events, however. Check out their website, www.hedgeartgallery.com for more information. The bottom line is that this important gallery exists and is thriving through sheer hard work, dedication and persistence, not to mention a positive energy that can only be traced to Hilary. Her original desire was to discover emerging artists, which she still strives to do. Artists turned gallery owners deeply understand the mind of the artist and the hunger to be successful and recognized.
Hedge has a roster of 20 local artists represented, including Hilary Gent herself, who does stunning representations of water surfaces. Both stylistic figurative and abstract work is featured. They're all outstanding, but I have three favorites: Douglas Max Utter, Justin Brennan, and Mark Howard. I guess the only reason these are my favorites is that I saw Justin and Mark's work in person, and was struck by Max's work, being around the same age. The work of older artists resonates with me these days. Did I mention I love artists? Since Mark's work is being featured there, and since I loved the show so much, I wanted to get to know him better. I visited him this past Friday at Hedge during the Third Friday Art Walk at 78th Street Studios. We chatted about his beginnings, what it's like being an artist in Cleveland, how it sucks in New York, and why he does what he does.
Now, a fair amount has been written about Mark here in the Cleveland area. He's a well known and respected Cleveland artist. Just Google Mark Howard Cleveland Artist if you want to know the details of his extraordinary career. But being a curious artist I was more interested in the person behind the work. So my aim was to just sit down and chat. I barged in on him trying to get a bite to eat. (My sense of timing is impeccable). But he was very gracious and was more than willing to have a conversation.
Mark entered the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1981. His choice of schools was between Philadelphia and Cleveland. It turns out he hated the Philly campus but fell in love with the University Heights area. That comes as no surprise. Cleveland continues to be the nation's best kept secret, and that's fine with me. He graduated in 1986 with a BFA. He's best known for his public works and murals. He comes across as extremely relaxed and comfortable in his own skin. We exchanged stories about Cleveland in the eighties. His first studio was a loft on Payne Avenue at $90.00 a month. Can you believe that? He still lives and works on Payne Avenue in a different space. There are several artists there, much to my surprise. Another well-kept secret. He spoke of how artists draw attention to a certain area, which attracts investors, who in turn gentrify it, raise the rent and drive artists out. This is what happened to the warehouse district between West 3rd Street and West 6th, which used to be abandoned warehouse buildings inhabited by artists, who were chased out by investors. They mostly ended up in Ohio City and Tremont, much the better for them.
Mark is originally from Newark, New Jersey, and we discussed what a crappy climate for art there is in New York. The competition is intense, the cost of living is through the roof, and pretension reigns. The climate is much better in the Cleveland/Northeast Ohio area. The cost of living is much lower, and art is encouraged and welcomed here. The only problem is how insulated art is in Cleveland. There is a missed connection somehow, which Mark agreed needs to be addressed. I believe venues like 78th Street studios are a beginning of an answer to that.
The Covid lock down had a profound effect on many people, and it did on Mark as well. Artists have the opportunity to be at their best when isolated. What to do but work? During this time he did hundreds of pieces, and began to move in a different direction. After many years of figurative work, he discovered his love for abstract. Most especially, what I call a celebration of shape. Personally I'm still after all these years swimming in different ideas, not quite able to coalesce a consistent style. (And really not wishing to, honestly). But during this lock down Mark found what would prove to be his bailiwick. I could go into a long-winded description of his work, but it's best viewed in person. Let me just say this: Color, SHAPE, composition and movement. You should go.
Mark was kind enough to show me his work more closely. He actually has a "box of shapes" which he utilizes in his work. I love that idea. His pieces are painted as well as carefully collaged, with his shapes being cut to fit the composition. He happened upon the idea of using burlap, employing gesso to not only coat the surface, but to "glue" it to the underlying board. In many cases, he simply gessos the burlap which stiffens it enough to work on. This is how creatives work. Any surface will do, as long as it's interesting. There are many smaller pieces in this show, which are the result of the lock down, a very large, stunning mural as you walk in, and many are painted on "Tondos" or circular canvases. Having worked as a color mixer at a silk screening company, he developed a deeper understanding of color and consistency, which is evident in his paintings.
Look, I admit I'd make a really lousy critic. I tend to love what artists do, no matter what. But Mark's work has a certain...joy. It celebrates. When an artist finds his true voice, there's a deep feeling of validation, not for what others may think, but for himself. In the end, for an artist there can be no greater goal.
He said the following, which made me laugh at first, and then reflect: "I don't do faces anymore. Every time I see a face in art I want to throw up". He has found his voice in the abstract celebration of shape. "I feel free". Now what more can an artist ask?
My goal for this particular blog was to attempt to highlight the "human" factor in art, to provide a better understanding of the artist and the gallery, and to bring into focus one gallery among many, something that I will continue to do, as I feel that Cleveland is on the cusp of something exciting in the arts. Meeting Hilary and Mark was a singular privilege. I wish them well. They represent the courage, commitment and love for art and the artist that fuels the creative spirit.
If you'd like to get to know Mark better, he will be having an artist talk at Hedge gallery Wednesday, October 25th at 5:30pm.
Special thanks to Hilary Gent, Aireonna McCall-Dubé, Mark Howard, and Robert Jackson
Mark Howard's show will be running through November 3rd, 2023. You should go. Did I mention that? Visit www.hedgeartgallery.com for more information or call 216.650.4201