Show Gallery Lowertown Transforms Community with Art

Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.
Edward de Bono

When Winna Bernard walked into the new Show Gallery Lowertown in St. Paul last week, she couldn’t believe the transformation. What had been a shop packed with everything from furniture to art to clothing to home decor was now an open, airy gallery with paintings, photographs, drawings and sculptures hanging on walls, from the ceiling and placed on platforms.

“I teared up, actually,” said Bernard at the gallery located in the Jax building on Wednesday. “I mean, I’m tearing up right now.”

A social worker by day, Bernard is also a member of the St. Paul Art Collective and the founder of the Show Art Gallery, a nonprofit art organization dedicated to exhibiting works by artists with disabilities. The organization previously had occupied a small room in the back of the shop, the Three Sisters Eclectic Arts.

“I see a lot of great art by a lot of great artists — folks who are in some cases considered severely disabled,” she said. “So for them to actually create a piece of work, it takes time and effort, and these pieces of art are just stored or the social workers and parents are the only ones to see them. That really ticked me off, and I said, ‘I’m going to do something about that.’”

When she found out Three Sisters was relocating to Grand Avenue, Bernard reached out to the St. Paul Art Collective and Midwest Special Services, a nonprofit providing programs and support to adults with disabilities. The three organizations quickly came up with a plan for a gallery and neighborhood welcome center. In less than two weeks — from the time Three Sisters departed to the Show Gallery Lowertown’s opening last week — organizers transformed the 3,200 square-foot area into a community space filled with more than 40 works of art from a diverse roster of artists.

“It’s about promoting artists who normally don’t get seen and mixing them in with the artists who do,” Bernard said.

Also included in the gallery are classrooms, a small gift shop and, right by the front entrance, the Lowertown Welcome Center, where folks can find information about what’s happening in the neighborhood.

Midwest Special Services’ Michelle Dickerson said the best part, for her, has been seeing work from established artists hanging alongside work created by artists with disabilities.

“It’s like this is legit,” Dickerson said. “The beauty of it is they don’t have to identify as an artist with a disability unless they want to. Otherwise, you’re just your name — whoever you are.”

THE GALLERY

Sandy Strudthoff-McKee, one of the gallery’s three curators, was visibly excited as she walked through the Show Gallery Lowertown on Wednesday, pointing out various works of art ranging from a clay baseball-inspired sculpture to a piece made up of more than a dozen used paper cups with faces drawn on them.

“It’s inclusive so they’re intermixed,” she said. “There are works from artists with disabilities, but I’m not going to point them out because I think it’s important that their art stands out, not who they are. A lot of this art is from the Lowertown community. It was so fun to hang all the art. Everybody that brought in a piece, we hung it.”

“What’s so cool about all of this is the art is so different, there are different styles, different mediums,” Strudthoff-McKee said. Prices run from under $100 for some works to pieces that are thousands of dollars.

The Show Gallery Lowertown’s inaugural exhibition will be up through August and features work by recognizable St. Paul artists including Ta-coumba Aiken and Catherine L. Johnson alongside names many people have never heard of.

Bernard says the name “The Show” was inspired by the neighborhood that is home to a vibrant arts community and the new St. Paul Saints baseball park, CHS Field.

“Baseball players and artists both have one thing in common; they both want to make it to the show,” she said.

Saints president and co-owner Mike Veeck is on the Show Art Gallery’s board of directors. He said he was thrilled when Bernard, an old friend, asked him to be part of the group. He said Bernard is the kind of person who “attracts good things.”

“I have a blind daughter,” Veeck said. “And I know how important art is to her and to her friends and people like her. The need to self-express manifests itself in so many different ways.”

Last year, the St. Paul Art Collective — along with Artspace — conducted a feasibility study asking the community what was needed in Lowertown. From that, the collective found respondents wanted more information about what was happening in the neighborhood that was arts-related: from dance to music to other events.

“We decided we wanted to create a Lowertown Welcome Center that’s going to have all this information so when people come to town, they can connect to the artists in the area,” said Tom Dunn, SPAC president.

Maps, artists’ information and pamphlets are displayed in the Lowertown Welcome Center area near the gallery’s entrance. There are even one-of-a-kind maps of St. Paul on the wall created by Lowertown residents and artists Ken and Roberta Avidor. Dunn noted the St. Paul Art Collective has applied for grants to fund an online database of Lowertown artists.

“The Welcome Center is a big piece of the gallery,” Bernard said. “Right now if you go to Lowertown, you don’t know where to go if you’ve never been there. With the Welcome Center, people will be able to walk into the space and go, ‘Where can I see a play? Where can I find this artist? Where can I get a taco?’”

THE FUTURE

Dickerson said the collaboration with “two other nonprofits all with a similar mission” came about organically.

“Hopefully, it will give our folks an opportunity to have authentic relationships with people in the Lowertown community,” Dickerson continued. “Hopefully, it’ll give them opportunities to participate in classes that will allow them to expand their skills beyond what we’ve been able to provide — really just to give them opportunities to build relationships.”

As the gallery tour winds down, Bernard takes in the art and reflects on all the hard work the three groups have put into getting the Show Gallery Lowertown up and running.

“The idea was to integrate all artists from all walks of life, and we did,” Bernard said.

Amy Carlson Gustafson can be reached at 651-228-5561.

Follow her at twitter.com/ amygustafson.

IF YOU GO

What: The Show Gallery Lowertown and Lowertown Welcome Center

Where: 253 Fourth St. E., St. Paul

When: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. Open until 9 p.m. for Lowertown First Fridays (the first Friday of the month).

Lowertown Show Gallery