Opened in August of 2009, the gallery is housed in a spacious storefront on Algoma’s main drag. Sarah Hemm and her husband Brandon rehabbed the 100-year-old building themselves, and the result is a labor of love.
The Hemms moved to Algoma three years ago, when Sarah was searching for the right place to complete her degree. She found the rigorous gallery/museum practices program at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Brandon’s parents had recently moved to Algoma, after summering for years on the Door Peninsula. Sarah and Brandon both saw Algoma as “a diamond in the rough” a perfect location for their family and business.
“I was thinking…here’s the degree I want in the place I want to live!” says Sarah. When they found the storefront, which then held a barbershop and several apartments, the economy was slowing and it was a good time to buy. They also saw potential in a town that is home to such innovative galleries as The Flying Pig and Clay on Steele. “We just jumped in,” says Brandon.
With help from her father, a contractor, Sarah stripped layers of flooring, restored the gorgeous tin ceiling, and reconfigured the gallery space to create two distinct but connected rooms. All of their hard work paid off. In March, the gallery was honored with the first place (tie) award for best interior renovation from the Wisconsin Main Street Program.
Sarah’s vision for the gallery is to combine the sometimes contradictory worlds of fine art and craft and design. The gallery has two sides, equal in space. One is a traditional “white box” exhibition space and the other is funky and warm, chock full of handcrafted items all made by working artists. Sarah, who recently completed her degree in gallery and museum practices, was committed to showing contemporary art.
“I did want the traditional curated shows,” she says, “but I wanted to be distinctly different.” Inspired by the recent rise of the “craftism” movement and by her own experience as a textile artist, Sarah felt strongly that handmade craft items belong in a serious gallery.
The contemporary side of the gallery is compelling and thought-provoking, and plays with a wide array of mediums to keep visitors stimulated. Recent exhibitions have included “Ethereal Views: Environments in Contemporary Art,” “Hungry? Food and Art,” and a solo show by up-and-coming painter/sculptor/animator Andrew Linskens.
The craft items, which include pottery, found-object jewelry, textiles, and paper goods, have been a big draw for clients. “I’m hearing more and more people getting interested in the handmade thing and wanting to support a creative economy,” says Sarah. People are delighted that the items in the gallery are all handmade, and “not from China or Korea,” adds Brandon. People’s interest in all things local is also a boon to the gallery. “We have a lot of people ask us ‘What is local?’ And it’s more than half of our merchandise.”
Sarah was astonished to discover the depth of local fine art and craft talent. “We’ve found so many artists right here in Kewaunee County…usually from [them] just coming into the gallery.” One of their exhibited artists, Joe Singewald, is a trained potter who also happens to be their mailman. “People don’t always realize that the person you’re talking to on the street is the person who has made the artwork in the gallery.” But the Hemms are aiming to change that with their upcoming exhibition of all Kewaunee artists, which opens in January 2011.
Sarah also finds herself drawn to interactive art. Recently, the gallery contributed to the Dream Rocket project by Jennifer Marsh, artist/founder of the International Fiber Collaborative. Visitors were able to work together to create a panel that will be assembled with others to create a giant quilt. The quilt, billed as the world’s largest collaborative art project, will wrap the replica of the Saturn 5 rocket in Hunstville, Alabama. Sarah also made a space for children to create when they visit the gallery, and a few of her son’s own pieces are scattered throughout, complete with handmade price tags. “Our kids are here from after school until we close,” laughs Sarah.
The Hemms have wasted no time in getting involved in the community. They joined the Chamber of Commerce and hosted a “business connections” reception at the gallery. Since then, they’ve become involved in The Storefront Project, developed by Kewaunee artist Kirsten Christianson. “We’re using empty, abandoned storefronts to show art. It brings attention to the artwork but also tells people, ‘This building could house a business,’” says Brandon. Eclipse serves as the contact point for passersby who might wish to purchase the artwork displayed in the storefront windows throughout town.
Sarah is delighted with the reception they’ve received from local residents and from tourists cruising through town. “Openings have had great attendance,” she says. “And visitors have been surprised and happy to find a contemporary gallery here.”
Upcoming exhibits continue to explore the contrast of fine art and craft. A salon show in December will offer art for $100 or less. In January, the gallery will feature Kewaunee artists, and in spring of 2011, Eclipse will join forces with the Milkweed Project, a collaborative fiber installation conceived and engineered by Sturgeon Bay artist Shan Bryan-Hanson.
When asked what’s been most surprising about being a gallery owner, Sarah responds with a smile, “I thought I’d have more time.” But being busy obviously suits Sarah and Brandon. “We love what we’re doing.” When you open the door from Main Street and enter their colorful and unique gallery, their warm welcome says it all.
The Milkweed Project
The Milkweed Project is a collaborative sculpture conceived and directed by artist Shan Bryan-Hanson of Sturgeon Bay. Bryan-Hanson, a painter in her own right, was intrigued by the ethereal nature of the milkweed pod in its final stages of ripeness. She wanted to connect with the world of fiber crafters and to “create a piece that celebrated individual creativity while also emphasizing our interdependence.”
Bryan-Hanson’s goal was to use the internet to spread her idea “in a manner that mimics the way the wind spreads the seeds of the milkweed plant.” She created a website, contacted a few bloggers, and then let the idea take on a life of its own. Before long, she had received submissions from crafters and craft groups in 30 states and 10 countries: knitting, crocheting, weaving, and felted pieces. The resulting artwork, assembled by Bryan-Hanson last spring, is reminiscent of a giant milkweed pod – dreamy white, beautifully detailed, and softly inviting.
“The final product is not the sculpture I originally envisioned,” she says. “It is very visceral and much more ornate and feminine than my usual artwork. I love that and find that it captures the beauty I was hoping for but, instead of being the result of one person’s vision, it is the result of many hands and many visions.”
The Milkweed Project will be exhibited at the Eclipse Gallery in Spring 2011.
The Milkweed Project on the web: www.sticksandstitches.squarespace.com.