Extraordinaire Photos: A Visit With Some Extraordinary People

Posted by Gregory Johnson on

There has been an upsurge in interest in art lately. Both locally and nationwide; more and more galleries are opening, there are more opportunities for shows and exhibitions, and people in general have shown more interest in art then ever before. I'm convinced that the reason for this is twofold: For one, the Covid lock down brought more people to introspective activities than previously. All that time with nowhere to go and a computer led many to explore the things which inspired them. Inner passions and interests not explored due to a lack of time and energy suddenly became possible. We tried new things. Artists were born, and art lovers as well. (I'll focus on art, of course, cuz, well you know...suffice it to say many new worlds opened up. We can view recent history as "Pre-Covid" and "Post-Covid". For better or worse, we changed fundamentally as a people. And let's not forget the enormous impact of social media on the general psyche. Like it or not, sites like Instagram have had a profound impact on human interaction and belief systems, and I'm only naming one.

Those of you who have read my previous blogs, (Zeus love ya), know that I have been on my own artistic journey since 2021. Having been an artist for over 40 years, (freelance illustrating and cartooning part-time), I decided to undertake my true passion: full-time artist. Being retired from my day job made it possible, and I pursued this aim with a passion. Art is not my hobby, by the way. It consumes me on a daily basis, just creating what the hell I want, and damn the torpedoes. This released a torrent of works, solo shows, individual exhibition entries, and several successful moments. This led me to take a closer look around, (I live in the Cleveland area), to see what this surge of interest was all about. Cleveland in particular has been a tough road for local artists. It's sort of a minor league city, say maybe AA league, a mini Chicago. The arts never has seemed to connect with people here like it does in Chicago, New York and LA. But that's changing. Which leads me to the subject of this blog: those who are making it happen.

This is part two of a blog series relating to the 78th Street Studios in Cleveland. It's a repurposed warehouse building, home to dozens of art studios and galleries. They have a "Third Friday" open house every month, and if you live in the area, or are visiting, you should go. It's a labyrinth of art, food and music. As an artist, the art available there is consistently stunning. My previous blog dealt with Hedge Gallery. As I was standing there admiring the work of Mark Howard, it occurred to me that the best way to get to know art in this city was to write about it. I asked Hilary Gent, the owner of Hedge, to give an interview, which she was gracious enough to do. You can read all about her experience as a gallery owner in my previous two blogs. Having spoken with her as well as Mark, I was greatly inspired and energized, and decided to start a series on Cleveland art, starting with 78th Street.

Hilary had an assistant curator by the name of Aireonna McCall-Dubé, who I came to find out had left Hedge to pursue her own venture in the same building called Extraordinaire Photos. She had put out a general submission invitation on Facebook for artists to display their work on her gallery wall. This led me to contact her not only to inquire about the space, but also to get to know her and her business. A perfect segue from the Hedge blog! So we arranged a time to get together with her as well as the artists currently there.

As it turns out, this was a venture that both he and her husband, Julian, had started. Just as an aside, one of the most fulfilling aspects of talking to gallery owners, or entrepreneurs in general, is the overall feeling of a palpable positive energy. It seems to me that it's a prerequisite. Both Aireonna and Julian have this. Aireonna started out at 78th Street Studios in 2019 working in Hedge Gallery as a Gallery Assistant and Event Designer under the owner, Hilary Gent. Eventually she became an administrative assistant to the owner of the building, Daniel Bush, only to later become a Manager at Hedge and the Operations Manager of 78th. Having acquired a great deal of administrative and curatorial experience, she decided, along with her husband, on this new venture. Her husband, Julian, is...well, dynamic. When he started to list all the things he's been involved in over the years, including being a DJ and being pressed into service as a photographer at one of his wedding gigs, it became obvious that he is one of those people we can define as a DOER. Multi-faceted with many interests, he seems the perfect fit with a driven, positive, and smart woman. Is it any wonder they married? Such partnerships are rare, and usually lead to success. And I never saw him NOT smiling. (I'm certain he must frown, I just never saw it). It has begun to dawn on me, in my 69th year, that everything has a heart; all you have to do is look. Ah yes, THIS is why I'm doing this!

Extraordinaire Photos is located on the ramp level of the building, at the very end of a winding hall. (I love this place). They specialize in special event photography. I knew I was in the right place, because I heard laughter right around the bend. I was greeted by Julian, Aireonna, and two artists currently exhibiting there: Ashley Huettner and Alex Meler. Ahh yes, I get to talk to artists, my favorite occupation! Julian mentioned that Extraordinaire was super busy, which really didn't surprise me. Considering the talent of these two owners, I would highly suggest checking them out for any special event photo shoot. They don't really need a plug from me, I think they're doing just fine, but just in case...

These two amazing people represent to me what I believe to be an art renaissance in Cleveland. It's kind of hard to fathom the number of artists in this region who consistently produce quality engaging and many times cutting-edge art. A willingness to support artists, a generosity of spirit and an open heart can do a lot to support this art awakening. One of the things I love almost as much as artists are those that support them. Since Aireonna had had so much interaction with artists, she and her husband were more than willing to give them available space to show their work. I took the opportunity to talk to the two artists that Extraordinaire is currently featuring.

First was Alex Meler of Reveries Glass (Pictured next to her butterfly piece) Her work features beautifully crafted glass decorative pieces. One of the things I love to ask artists is how they got into making art. It turns out it was inspired by the Covid lock down. (See above). Now, I consider everyone to be an artist, if they want to be. We all have this burning desire to create, it just comes out in different ways. You do not necessarily need to go to college or art school. Feel free to pursue art that way, of course. But school is not for everyone, and can sometimes be constraining and force the artist into a creative box, stifling creativity. Alex discovered her passion for creating during that difficult and isolating time through YouTube videos. Really the same thing as taking art lessons without the sometimes dusty critiques. I encountered an amazing life painting artist in Columbus who had done the same thing and was quickly approached by a gallery for representation. Art is as art does. At the time of our talk, she was taking down her show at Extraordinaire. She will be at the Spring Art Show at the Screw Factory in Lakewood, Ohio this Friday and Saturday May 3rd and 4th. (Another great venue for artists), as well as The Manic Pixie Dream Market at Studio 117 (an event out of LA, so the first time in Cleveland) May 25th from 11am-5pm, 11801 Detroit Ave. in Lakewood, Ohio. Looking at her work, I was deeply impressed. She's only been at this for a couple of years, but her work reflected a deep love of craft. Art is as art does. I wish her well.

The other artist at Extraordinaire is actually a permanent resident there. Her name is Ashley Huettner, owner of BirdTown Botanical Oddities. She specializes in entomology creations, crystals, and preserved flowers, beautifully presented in glass jars, bottles and dioramas.. My description really doesn't do it justice. There is a feeling of love and respect for nature in her work...a gentleness. As with Alex's work, there is a great emphasis placed on quality. She also preserves flower arrangements, something that a couple preparing for a wedding would be very interested in. In her words, with regard to the entomology, "I've been playing with bugs all my life". It's important to note that the insects she uses in her creations are already deceased! No bugs were harmed. She also includes animal bones, mushrooms, moss and crystals in some of her creations which are also obtained through natural foraging. Those which are not found through foraging are ethically sourced. I got this info from her website: www.birdtownbotanicals.com

Bottom line? Cleveland and northeast Ohio is waking up to art in a big way. With the general collapse financially of CanArt, it is essential that we band together as artists and art supporters. The arts cannot exist without an audience that encourages continuing creativity by, well, showing up. And how can they show up without places to show up to? This is where people like Aireonna and Julian come in. This is 78th Street Studios and The Screw Factory, to name two. This is where people like Alex and Ashley can express themselves. Extraordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Extraordinaire Photos website: extraordinairephotos.com email: extraordinairephotos@gmail.com Phone: 216.640.5965 Instagram: @extraordinairephotos

Alex Meler, Reveries Glass email: alexirenemeler@gmail.com Phone: 440.655.4971 Instagram: @reveriesglass

Ashley Huettner, BirdTown Botanical Oddities website: birdtownbotanicals.com Instagram: @birdtownbotanicaloddities email: birdtownapothocrary@gmail.com



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