Stories from intrepid reporters attending the Illinois Press Foundation Journalism Workshop at Eastern Illinois University
By Ivy Truong
For gallery-owner Carol Kessler, walking up the narrow stairs of the Flourishes Gallery and Studios to see the paintings, photographs, and altered book sculptures is easy. Finding people to go up is the hard part.
“It’s hard to get people up here,” Kessler said.
Kessler and her husband, Dave Kessler, had opened Flourishes in 2012 to only a light spatter of art observers. The business on the top floor of the Yellow Hat consignment store could not – and still cannot – draw in a large crowd.
The sparse showings are a pity, Kessler believes, as her gallery is entirely nonprofit. “All of the proceeds go 100 percent to the artist,” Kessler said. Renting out studio space to artists and help from her husband pay for the building’s bills.
Such dedication to the artist arose from Kessler’s 12 years as an art teacher. At her last school before retirement, students failed to recognize the worth of their art as they compared their pieces to more nationally-renowned work.
“There was this one young boy who didn’t think his simple contour figures were good enough,” Kessler said. “But it (the boy’s artwork) placed in the Scholastic Art Awards.”
Students like this are why a corner of the ballroom behind the gallery lies dimmed and separate from the main exhibition. On the walls around it hangs paintings, photographs, and drawings from perhaps more amateur – but just as important – artwork. Those pieces all come from high school students.
She purchases the works from the Illinois Rembrandt Society and the Shelby County Art Fair. Kessler aims to look for explicitly local art.
“Whatever I could do to help the arts (in Shelbyville), I do that,” Kessler said.
Her help extends beyond the traditionally visual artwork. Aside from the gallery, she holds “Sunday Sings” and “Third Thursday Wordsmiths” to encourage musicians and writers to step foot in the building.
“This is more than just visual (art),” Kessler explained. “I just think talent needs to be shared.”
Surrounded by those works that range from big to small, flamboyant to modest, colored pencil to oil, Kessler seemed to be drawn to arguably the most humble piece of her collection: a small abstract, acrylic painting on canvas in the farthest spot of the corner.
“The teacher came up to me and told me that this girl (who painted it) was kind of a social outcast. It (the piece) meant so much to her. It really gave her self-worth,” Kessler said.
For Kessler, encouraging young artists is a personal crusade. Her own career in art only emerged from a teacher who had recognized her.
“I had this professor – red nosed, always sounded like he had a cold, always wore a colored tie – but he could just squint and tell you what you needed (for your artwork),” Kessler remembered.
Despite the passion and motive, Kessler still finds it hard to engage pedestrians with Flourishes’s story. Without a storefront and only an “open” sign and a big bow to its name, many pass by the gallery located on the top half of a building.
“From the beginning, it was hard to get people in. It still is hard,” Kessler said.
The location had been vacant since 1958. After housing the Loyal Order of Moose and Sparks Business College in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the space was abandoned with the already built offices, bars, and restrooms left intact.
Originally, Kessler had planned to renovate 142 Main St., where she would have a storefront and a full-time job to maintain the window display. However, a chance encounter shifted plans – and helped Kessler enjoy her retirement.
“I just saw a door open nearby (of the space) that the owner wanted to divide into four apartments, and I took it,” she revealed.
Three years later, those offices are four small, cramped studios blanketed with unfinished canvases and sculptures. The bars have been removed to paint the barren walls white and prepare them for the next exhibition, a showing of photographs from Sedona, Ariz. The only reminder left of the previous century is a small ballroom. But even that room hangs some of Kessler’s many modern photographs, monoprints, drawings, paintings, and mixed media.
No matter what room one steps into, however, Kessler is always ready to greet her next guest.