BELFAST — Åarhus Gallery in downtown Belfast, for seven years, has been the place to gather during Friday Night Art walks. Its white walls and beautiful tall windows front right onto lower Main Street. Its huge, blue-grey swing hangs from the 12-foot-ceiling to just millimeters above the funky, scarred wooden floors. The exhibits change monthly with some of the best artwork in Maine. This is the Åarhus so many have known and loved.
Though the gallery had eight artist-partners over its years, a core of four Åarhusians remains. A letter on their website recently announced unfortunate news, "The hard truth is that despite our efforts, our wine and cheese, our pristine walls, the artists' terrific work and your patronage, sales have not been energetic enough to keep us afloat. Ålas, Åarhus will be shutting its doors at the end of the year."
What planet was this Åarhus? Who are these Åarhusians?
Born in Amityville, N.Y., Mark Kelly is a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art. He makes things.
Richard Mann started in Maine, got unstuck and wandered crosswise to a degree in printmaking from University of Hawaii, and one 30-year loop later, back in Maine.
Willy Reddick was born into a family of Massachusetts artists. She moved 10 2004 to Belfast, where she continues her self-imposed life-long challenge of extracting a living from her insatiable need to make things including, but not limited to painting, white-line woodblock printmaking and cold connection metal work. She is also an avid rower.
Wes Reddick, also raised in Massachusetts, attended Mass College of Art and Copenhagen's Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art, moved to Belfast, continues professionally to make custom cabinetry, sculptures and paintings, and regularly rows a dory with his dear wife, Willy.
Al: How did Åarhus start?
Willy: It was Annadeene (Konesni) Fowler's idea. She and Mark met at a large coop gallery in Rockland, but she wanted something different, nearer home. One day she called and said, "Want to start a gallery?" I said, "No! That's way too much work."
She said, "Well, if you did want to start one, what would it look like...?" So we talked about it, and thought, well, maybe we could get some people together and do a gallery in Belfast that would also have a good crafts section to help pay the bills. Then, Annadeene just went around and started looking. Next thing I know, she calls up and says, "Hey, I found this great space that just got empty." So we each suggested people, and pretty soon there were six – us four plus Annadeene and photographer Kevin Johnson – and we all went to see the space.
Richard: So then we just decided. Well, she's asking for a one year lease; let's try it for a year!
Wes: Yeah, what the hell?
Willy: It was the space that did it.
Mark: I remember deciding each of us would go and write down a mission statement, then get back together with everyone's idea. It was pretty great, because we were all on the same page, but we didn't really know each other that well.
Willy: We wanted a partnership that would hang each show like a museum - the best each time. Also, any of us could come in with a big installation or whatever, and we'd all be open to that. Whatever came in, we'd hang it the best way possible.
Wes: It wouldn't just be about us. We'd be as open to the community as possible.
Mark: A space for work.
Richard: And not just about visual art. We wanted a space that could accommodate music and film and...
Richard: Yeah, chocolate!!... a well-rounded cultural center! It was such an effective thing because so many people bought into it ... great shows...
Willy: That first summer, we changed shows every two weeks, wine, everything. It was insane. After the first holiday show that winter, we decided to do group shows in winter and bring in lots of artists and people. Then our new partners said, "Why not have monthly shows? And that made a lot of sense. Can't believe we did that every two weeks that first summer.
Mark: The shows weren't up long enough even for us to see them.
Willy: And press releases and post cards for every one of those shows, plus expenses and designs, too. The winter shows were themed, and in summer, particular artists were invited. The gallery partners would always enjoy the challenge and do something for the themes.
Mark: We closed in January and met to propose artists or review submissions we'd gotten throughout the year. Submissions came in but not actual work.
Wes: Except for the annual Radius Show where we were tolerant with whatever came in. We really wanted to open our arms to everyone. The knitted thing made by somebody's grandmother hung next to a beautiful watercolor in a gilded frame. Those things created this incredible energy that helped open things up. Not all amateur; not all pro, but this gorgeous crazy mix that really worked somehow.
Richard: Our invited artists chose their own work, so anything could appear. We picked what was good in our eyes to fit the whole look of the show.
Wes: We'd explain, "We'll take 20 pieces but can't guarantee we'll hang them all. We respected artists' wishes as much as possible, and most were ok with that.
Richard: Sometimes there'd be a piece that just didn't fit, but we liked it. Those would go in the "quarantine area," its own little isolated venue on the walls behind the desk.
Wes: And then things started selling from there, our "very special space." One of our most expensive sales came from there, and we ourselves have all hung there.
Wes: Åarhus has its own energy and identity beyond the starting members. The entire community has created Aarhus. Everybody's concerted effort – from artists to tourists.
Willy: Remember the woman who had just started making things and was in the Radius show? Then she started selling stuff on Etsy, and now has an art career.
Mark: We're all sad to close, sure, but we accomplished what we wanted. I'm proud of what we've done here.
Willy: The dramatic readings we did here for three years were really great. Big crowds, and they were recorded, too.
Mark: We will really miss the fellow artists, the camaraderie. We've gotten to know so many people.
Willy: Yeah, it was special for us to get together monthly, hang the show, have lunch, and sometimes spend the day together, too. And the shows themselves were so inspirational - all the art and artists, all that interaction. It challenged us all the time to make new work. I started doing the miniatures from having done just a few for the Love show. I don't think I would have done them otherwise, and I liked them so much I started to do lots of similar work.
Mark: I've really loved that. We could do anything we wanted here, go 180 degrees away and still get support for that. Really helpful for me, to be able to grow and do what I wanted. That inventiveness encouraged doing things here that I might never have done.
Richard: Amazing what you might find yourself doing when the work is due tomorrow.
Wes: I wanted to rise to a higher level of quality. Whims are great, but it's got to be a good whim. I'm usually only a sculptor but started painting for the Red Show. Art is about freedom and honesty, and that's what connects naturally with the viewer.
Willy: Yeah, our work was very different, but that was a quality we all shared.
Wes: Yeah, we built off each other...
Mark: ...inspired each other...
Wes: ...inspired and challenged and kept quality high. That has been part of our mission: Traditional Quality – Contemporary Vision. Åarhus? It's a Danish city tucked up a bay at the mouth of a river much like Belfast is. In fact, Åarhus is a combination of Danish roots meaning "mouth of the river", plus my grandfather came from there!
Al: Final statements?
Richard: I'm totally proud of what we did here. It was never a chore, always an accomplishment.
Mark: I'm inspired by what we've done with Åarhus. I'll never let that go. It's given me faith about the quality of art in Maine.
Wes: Åarhus's success was in helping all of us to appreciate each others' imaginations. We all, everyone, should continue to make things whether they go in a gallery or a car; no lines between art and craft.
Richard: We hope for a series of Art Fellows and Åarhus type places. One goes down, and another comes up. Dedicated people making a personal sacrifice, doing art because they love it and the energy that it creates.
Willy: As a side note... we all will still be available. We're not evaporating.
• Union of Visual Artists (story originally published Jan. 1 in the Winter Journal)