So tomorrow’s “Heavy HeARTs” show will be the last gasp from the Gallery at Black Rock. But it’s not the end of its owner, Eileen Walsh. She’s moving on up, to the East Side, to a deluxe gallery on the river.
“Time to move on,”Eileen told me this morning. “I’ve learned so much here that I’m going to apply to Knowlton.”
That’s 305 Knowlton Street, the 19th-century factory building that’s filling up with artists, designers and one big gallery — Eileen’s.
But before we refocus our attention on that side of the river, let’s take a moment to remember all the good times at the Black Rock gallery, and what this means for Black Rock.
Two years ago, Eileen opened her gallery in a sublet off of an insurance office, cleaned up from the remains of a plasma television outlet. That’s where I met her and slowly got sucked in involved in the local gallery scene. I had worked with her father, columnist Charles Walsh, whose backlog of whimsical sketches she was selling. And they were selling like mad. The crowd was so overwhelming, I was forced to the sidewalk a couple of times.
I bought a few drawings, exclaiming how nicely she transformed the storefront, and that’s where our friendship began.
Eileen was filling a cultural void left by the failed Art Center across the street. Another art gallery down the street had folded, and other one farther down offered framing — a typical gallery money-maker that Eileen wasn’t interested in pursuing. (In fact, that’s where she sent me when I needed frames for the art I purchased. And I spent a lot more money at the other gallery.)
She poured a lot into that little sublet, a big risk considering she had no lease and a tough space to work with — two square rooms and no back office or storage area. Because carpeting isn’t what you’d expect in a gallery, hardwood laminate flooring came in. Because it’s tough to get good signage in a sublet, a cloth banner was designed and installed after some wrestling with Zoning. Track lighting went up. The walls were painted over and over.
Opening after opening was held, receptions that attracted scores of people. Eileen always kind of overdid it with the buffet, I thought, but that’s her generous nature — if people are going to come out to see you, you have to feed them. Again, the rooms overflowed with people, but that’s what kind of made it fun. Regulars started to appear, and we got to know each other. A community formed. I wouldn’t have half the Facebook friends I have without this community.
It was this gallery that sparked my interest in blogging. I had started blogging when I took over another blog for a volunteer organization I belong to. I had maintained leesteele.com for years, never knowing quite what to do with it, but certain that if I didn’t keep that domain, some other Lee Steele would grab it. Probably a porn star or an anchor man or something. I couldn’t have that. So for years it was a feeble little page that promoted my freelance print design work.
Learning to blog, and then connecting with local artists, finally provided me with an outlet for leesteele.com. I used the website to promote the gallery, then other galleries, then designers, and then the culture in general. Now I’m shocked to find my own blog come up when I’m Googling something.
But back to the Gallery at Black Rock. It was a risky venture to begin with, but Eileen was counting on the resilience of the neighborhood to attract visitors. There were some positive signs in 2008, and Black Rock seemed to be on the upswing.
Then the restaurant next door, a business that might have provided some energy and synergy, folded unexpectedly. But then a brick oven pizza place opened. The new age gift shop shuttered. Then the silk screen shop signed up for the old furniture store space. Then Dish scaled back its dinner schedule. That’s a lot of ups and downs for such a small stretch of Fairfield Avenue.
Meanwhile, on Crescent Avenue, a loft space not too far from Knowlton, Eileen proved several times that she could fill large spaces with shows. Some curators would have been overwhelmed with the high ceilings and vast floor space, but Eileen embraced it and made good use of it. It was clear, to me at least, that Eileen deserved and required a gallery site that could handle large-scale pieces, installations, classes, performance and whatever else she could dream of. And this city, which made its mark in the industrial area, has plenty of spots like that.
So now Eileen has found fresh fields, as have the other new occupants of 305 Knowlton.