“Fraction 540.3” by Courtlandt Swartz, part of his “Fraction” series. Suspended paint in hand-cast acrylic, 5.25 x 2.75 x 4 inches. Swartz will be featured in the corresponding “30th Anniversary International Exhibition.” Image courtesy of Harris Stanton Gallery.

Visual arts galleries in downtown Cleveland offer visitors plenty to see and experience

Story by Ed Carroll
Photography by Michael C. Butz

Musicals and museums, concerts and comedy clubs, dining and drinking, and baseball and basketball – all are among the many reasons tourists and native Northeast Ohioans alike visit and enjoy downtown Cleveland. But so too are, say, paintings, printmaking and photography.

Visual arts standout in this crowd, and three galleries – Bonfoey Gallery, The Galleries at CSU and Harris Stanton Gallery – anchor the downtown scene. All three regularly host exhibitions, and in the process, make their own unique contribution to the city’s most vibrant neighborhood.

And while visual arts may not have as big a footprint in downtown Cleveland’s evolving entertainment landscape as some of those other areas of interest, they can’t – and shouldn’t – be overlooked. Those already in the know are rewarded with each visit to these galleries.

Gallery director Marcia Hall, left, and office manager Olga Merela inside Bonfoey Gallery during its spring exhibition, “George Mauersberger: Modern Botanicals.”

Gallery director Marcia Hall, left, and office manager Olga Merela inside Bonfoey Gallery during its spring exhibition, “George Mauersberger: Modern Botanicals.”

Longstanding presence

The Bonfoey Gallery has been around for a long time. So long, in fact, its gallery director, Marcia Hall, and office manager, Olga Merela, don’t know exactly what year the gallery was founded – but they do know it’s one of the 10 oldest still-active galleries in the country.

“We’re actually not certain when we were founded,” Hall says with a laugh. “We were incorporated in 1893, so the gallery could have been started prior to that, but we’re not certain. We know the land was donated in 1894.”

Despite having such a rich history – John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford can be counted among their one-time clients – Hall says Bonfoey has its eyes set firmly fixed on the future when it selects art to showcase.

“If you saw some of the artwork we carry, we’d definitely be thought of as one of the top galleries in the area in terms of reputation and work,” she says. “The artists we choose to represent are among the finest in their areas. When you come to the Bonfoey, you’re expecting a certain level of professionalism to be seen on the wall, the work has a level of excellence to it.”

“Cleveland Train Car Detail” by John Tellaisha (2012); archival inkjet prints, 30 x 30 inches; image courtesy of the artist. Tellaisha will be one of the artists in Bonfoey Gallery’s upcoming “Contemporaries 2017” exhibition.

“Cleveland Train Car Detail” by John Tellaisha (2012); archival inkjet prints, 30 x 30 inches; image courtesy of
the artist. Tellaisha will be one of the artists in Bonfoey Gallery’s upcoming
“Contemporaries 2017” exhibition.

Among the artists the gallery represents are Andy Curlowe, Susan Danko, George Mauersberger, Erik Neff, Dana Oldfather, Frank Oriti and Dan Tranberg. Bonfoey also offers a range of services, including custom framing, painting restoration and art consultation.

Merela says it’s common for visitors to make visiting the Bonfoey their top stop for an evening on the town.

“That’s what’s kept us in business,” Merela says. “We’re not set in the mall or an area where you’d have a lot of walk-by traffic. I think our clients are coming by specifically because they want to see us or have business with us. It’s exciting being downtown and we’re thrilled we’re still here.”

Contemporary course

Director and chief curator Robert Thurmer inside The Galleries of CSU during its spring exhibition, “The Curious Case of Color.”

Director and chief curator Robert Thurmer inside The Galleries of CSU during its spring exhibition, “The Curious Case of Color.”

Not far from Bonfoey are The Galleries at CSU, which started in 1973 as part of Cleveland State University’s art department, says Robert Thurmer, the gallery’s director and chief curator.

At the time, the department felt students needed a place to exhibit their works and be confronted with other art to emulate. Thurmer says the gallery was successful enough to become too big for the faculty to handle, so in the mid 1980s, CSU hired a full-time gallery director. The gallery moved to its current location in the Playhouse Square district in 2012.

Don’t expect to see student artwork when you visit The Galleries at CSU, though. Thurmer says the gallery has only one student artwork exhibit each year, an end-of-the-school year showcase by the art students. The rest of the year, the space houses regional and international works of art, and also produces small art publications and art books.

“We don’t have the same resources as, say, (the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland) but we have works by artists that are in that tier of quality,” Thurmer says. “Our mission is based on our teaching here at Cleveland State: to educate and identify and involve immersive programs that promote an understanding of art and its place in society.”

Thurmer acknowledges that despite the gallery’s street presence on Euclid Avenue, theater audiences generated by Playhouse Square don’t always take in the visual arts offering of The Galleries at CSU. In fact, he’s found some passersby aren’t sure how to access the gallery – an obstacle they’re working to overcome.

“We get people stopping in from Cowell & Hubbard and other restaurants down the strip, and they’ll wander in and are surprised by what they see – but we’re overlooked often,” Thurmer says. “We’re working on neon signage so people know we’re here and we’re open.”

International appeal

Gallery director Ellie Kaiser, left, and owner Meg Harris Stanton inside Harris Stanton Gallery’s downtown Cleveland location as one show is set to come down off the walls and another waits to go up.

Gallery director Ellie Kaiser, left, and owner Meg Harris Stanton inside Harris Stanton Gallery’s downtown Cleveland location as one show is set to come down off the walls and another waits to go up.

Many who travel to downtown Cleveland to visit an Akron export do so to watch LeBron James play basketball. But there’s another export that’s notable in its own right: Harris Stanton Gallery.

The Akron gallery was founded 30 years ago by a French woman named Evelyn Shaffer. The current owner, Meg Harris Stanton, speaks fluent French and Italian, explains gallery director Ellie Kaiser, which has helped Harris Stanton Gallery form longstanding relationships with international artists and dealers.

“We love bringing a global component to the Northeast Ohio arts scene. We represent artists from Germany, Spain, England, Italy, France, South Africa, Columbia and Japan, just to name a few,” says Kaiser, adding that they also represent local artists like Terry Klausman, Pat Zinsmeister Parker, Christine Ries and Mark Soppeland.

The downtown Cleveland gallery opened in 2014 in the Warehouse District, where it not only draws audiences for its exhibitions but also pulls from neighboring restaurants – before people grab dinner or perhaps after they’ve enjoyed brunch.

Likewise, to appeal to a broader base of downtown Cleveland customers, the gallery offers custom framing and carries gifts and jewelry to complement its fine art business, Kaiser says. It also hosts Thursday opening receptions.

“In Cleveland, there’s a lot of competition for Fridays, between MIX (at CMA) and Third Fridays (at 78th Street Studios) – and a lot of different galleries have Friday openings,” she says. “We just wanted to give people a different option for art.”

Harris Stanton is excited the gallery has reached a 30-year milestone – and that downtown is part of the equation.

“It’s thrilling to be here, and to show our artists in two different venues,” she says. “It kind of works both ways. We’re bringing artists to Cleveland who I don’t think have really shown here before, and vice versa. It’s been terrific.” CV

On View

Bonfoey Gallery

“Contemporaries 2017” will be on view from June 9 to Sept. 2 at Bonfoey Gallery, 1710 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. Participating in this group show will be Judy Barie, Amanda Cook, Phyllis Fannin, Kathleen Hammett, Ashley Sullivan, Robert Robinson and John Tellaisha.

The Galleries at CSU

The Merit Scholar Exhibition and 46th Student Show will be on view from May 5 to June 10 at The Galleries at CSU, 1307 Euclid Ave., Cleveland.

Harris Stanton Gallery

“30th Anniversary International Exhibition” will be on view from June 1 to July 15 at Harris Stanton Gallery’s Akron location, 2301 W. Market St. An opening reception is scheduled for 5:30 to 8 p.m. June 1.

“30th Anniversary Regional Exhibition” will be on view from June 8 to July 15 at Harris Stanton Gallery’s downtown Cleveland location,
1370 W. 9th St. An opening reception is scheduled for 5:30 to 8 p.m. June 8.

Lead image: “Fraction 540.3” by Courtlandt Swartz, part of his “Fraction” series. Suspended paint in hand-cast acrylic, 5.25 x 2.75 x 4 inches. Swartz will be featured in the corresponding “30th Anniversary International Exhibition.” Image courtesy of Harris Stanton Gallery.

Oldfather2

The cerebral musings of Dana Oldfather paint profound pictures with ‘universal’ appeal

Story and photography by Michael C. Butz

“Emerald City 03,” 2016, oil, ink, acrylic and pigment on panel, 16 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

“Emerald City 03,” 2016, oil, ink, acrylic and pigment on panel, 16 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Crouched down on the paint-splattered hardwood floor of her home studio in Newburgh Heights, Dana Oldfather pauses from pouring a diluted acrylic over a raw Belgian linen to consider what’s next.

How will the blues and golds in this painting interact? Where will they settle on an uneven canvas, the result of a janky floor in her 1920s house? What factors should she try to control? Which should she let go of?

The 37-year-old admits that sometimes she isn’t sure exactly what she’s looking for during those creative exhales, describing the process as a “weird flow thing where you’re not really in your head.”

Truth is, Oldfather actually spends a great deal of time in her head – and once you fully absorb the colors, shapes and designs that provide a sort of concrete splendor to her abstract art and graduate to contemplating what’s underneath it all, her work will spend a great deal of time in your head, too.

Rooted in Oldfather’s recent works are tenets of string theory, which, in short, explains how both large objects like planets and small objects (think subatomic particles) move and interact in the universe. It explains things for which quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of relativity can’t account.

“I am blown away by the idea that tiny particles we originally thought were points or spheres may actually be a loop of string crunched down into a sphere,” she says. “It’s a completely different shape, vibrating and moving and allowing for possibilities previously unthought of.”

Heady stuff, to be sure, and not the sort of thing many immediately associate with art. But at the theory’s core is the idea that matter and energy are comprised of strings that split and combine, emitting and absorbing one another – actions depicted by the physical elements created during those creative pauses in Oldfather’s work.

Intellectually, one then ponders possible parallels between dimensionality and the many layers of her paintings, and by extension, the layers of one’s own life journey. Skipping brush strokes in her work that suggest the passage of time amplify these thoughts.

Matters of science go beyond fascination with Oldfather. In the same way they inspire and inform her art, she hopes her art ignites something meaningful in others.

“I’d love for one of my paintings to spark something in some person – regular person, scientist, mathematician, anyone – something latent, something that sits in their brain, nothing that they could even trace back to my work but that helps them to think of something to better humanity,” she says.

Point of origin

Oldfather knew she wanted to be an artist at a young age, but not before considering an alternative career path.

“For a short while, it was either to be the first female professional baseball player or an artist – until I realized I was terrible at baseball and that was never going to happen,” she says, smiling. “Baseball is really fun, but man I sucked at it. I was really bad.”

Oldfather was born in Berea, and she recalls her first oil painting came at age 6 – which might’ve been expected considering her father, Mark Oldfather, and aunt, Gretchen Troibner, are both artists. In fact, both were award winners at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show: Oldfather in 1977, and Troibner in 1981 and 1983.

She was 7 when her father and mother, Paula Brain, an accountant, divorced, after which she and her brother, Nick, lived with her father in Mentor. The elder Oldfather often relied on the tools of his trade to entertain.

“He was like, ‘You guys are being crazy?’ or ‘You’re bored? Here, here’s some sidewalk chalk. Go outside,’” she recalls. “He’d give us this big tin of really great pastels. He’d always set us up with watercolors – you know, nice ones. Artists’ stuff – way too nice for kids to be using.”

Dana Oldfather works on “Frothing” in late September at her home studio in Newburgh Heights.

Dana Oldfather works on “Frothing” in late September at her home studio in Newburgh Heights.

Her Mentor High School art teachers were quick to pick up on her homegrown artistic talent. After two days in an accelerated class, they wanted to put her a grade ahead in art class.

“By the time I was a senior, I had my own open studio class, which was awesome,” she says. “That was a really big encouragement for me, having such a high honor in such a big school like that. I really felt like … it was some kind of validation.”

Oldfather’s mother supported her art, too, but when graduation time came, she wanted her daughter to go to college to get a “real job.”

“She always wanted me to be an engineer, but she started being supportive after I took a job as a paralegal, and it was crushing my soul,” she recalls. “The work was so hard and I was so stressed out that my mom was like, ‘Just get into the art market. Whatever you have to do. Clean the floors at the museum – anything you can do just to be around that environment. You need to meet these people.’”

Starting line

After about three years as a receptionist/paralegal, Oldfather, by then 21 years old, heeded that advice – at The Bonfoey Gallery in Cleveland.

“I remember her coming in the door and hiring her to work here,” recalls Olga Merela, gallery manager and art consultant at Bonfoey. “To see her go through the period of rudimentary drawing and struggling to see whether there was something there for her, and to see where she is now, it’s an evolution. The fact she’s come so far is a wonderful thing.”

“We usually don’t see that. By the time an artist gets to us, they already have a career – or they’re not as young,” says Marcia Hall, gallery director and art consultant at Bonfoey, adding that the gallery has handled Oldfather’s work for about 10 years now. “We’ve been able to watch her grow, which has been a great experience.”

Bonfoey provided Oldfather, a figurative realist at the time, an environment in which she could learn and focus more on her art, though working by day and painting by night proved exhausting. After a couple of years, she obtained a second job – as a bartender at Frank & Tony’s Place in downtown Willoughby – that helped relieve that exhaustion.

A relatively lucrative gig, bartending meant she could work part-time at both jobs, thus affording her full days to paint in her studio. The arrangement worked so well that in 2009, her art was on display at Bonfoey – in what she considers her first “real” exhibition.

That ascendancy isn’t to say Oldfather didn’t struggle along the way. When she did, she found it helped to turn to the printed page.

“I read a lot of memoirs when I was struggling with finding my own work, and I was struggling to find my place in the art community and place in the market. I mean, we’re always struggling with that, but I was really struggling,” she says. “It helped me to read memoirs of other artists who were successful, especially female artists. To see somebody who looks like me doing what I wanted to do gave me the drive to keep going.”

A memoir of note was that of abstract painter Joan Mitchell, who like Oldfather grew up in the Midwest and had an artist father.

“My dad was a figurative realist, and he’s a very, very good one. I really identified when reading Joan Mitchell’s biography because her dad was a realist, too. She felt like she wasn’t as good as he was, so she went into abstraction. That way, she couldn’t be compared to him,” she says. “I really identified with that, big time. It’s sort of like when I learned I couldn’t be a baseball player because I couldn’t stand up to all these other kids who are a lot better than me. Same thing. My dad is so good. That’s why some people don’t like to look at Picasso too much, because they’re, like, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this like this.’ So, you just have to find what you can do.”

Learning process

Absent from Oldfather’s career is any sort of artistic training via higher education. She’s completely self-taught, following a path suggested by her father, who went to the Kansas City Art Institute but lasted only two semesters.

“He felt the teachers were trying to make him be like them instead of him finding his own artistic voice,” she says, explaining that his advice to her was to bypass college to spend time in a studio learning from what she was painting.

“It only worked for me because it fit the way that I work. I think most people really need to go to school to get that critical feedback that’s necessary to make it to the next level as an artist,” she says. “For me, it didn’t make sense to go get an MFA, but I think those programs are really important to the arts community – and to keeping the work that’s being made at a certain level. I have to compete with people who are in that realm as well, and that’s important to me, to keep me pushing and keep me trying to get better.”

So who then provides that critical feedback to Oldfather? Friends who are fellow artists, like Amber Kempthorn, Amy Casey, Sarah Kabot and Mark Keffer.

And then there’s Carrie Moyer, a New York City-based painter whom Oldfather met during a 2011 residency at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vt. Oldfather credits the encounter – and a few “simple” words – with “blowing my practice wide open.”

“You can be so close to the images you’re making and thinking about different things that you can ignore something that everyone sees but you. She pointed something out to me that I didn’t notice. She said, ‘Yeah, this is great, and you have a lot of confidence, but where are all the big shapes?’ Like, so simple,” says Oldfather, explaining her work up to that point featured a lot of “tiny, little, itty bitty” elements.

“It was one of the ways I could make the abstractions look more real, and it was something I totally didn’t get at all,” she says. “I was using the negative space as the big shape, but it wasn’t really enough. Everything was just kind of hovering out there, so applying the big shapes really allowed me get more depth into the work – and it helped me build up my layers.”

The finished product: “Frothing,” 2016, oil, ink, acrylic, pigment and spray paint on linen, 38 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

The finished product: “Frothing,” 2016, oil, ink, acrylic, pigment and spray paint on linen, 38 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Reaching for stars

With big shapes in place, Oldfather has hit the big time.

She’s won awards, like the Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award for 2013. Her work is represented by Bonfoey and Zg Gallery in Chicago. It graces the walls of places like The Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas and is included in both the Pizzuti Collection and The Progressive Art Collection. In 2013, she had a solo show at The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, which Bonfoey’s Hall and Merela agree was a big deal.

“Given Dana’s relative youth, the show at the Butler was amazing in that she’s someone who’s a self-taught artist and risen by the merits of her work,” Merela says. “The exhibition was a vote of confidence in the work she’ll be producing and has already produced.”

In 2016, she’s had two solo shows: “Sweet, Sweet, Sweet” at Zg Gallery and “Sugar” at Red Arrow Gallery in Nashville. This year’s saccharine themes are inspired in part by her own sweet tooth – she describes moving wet paint around with her brush like “spreading cake icing” – but also that of her and husband Randall Darling Jr.’s 3-year-old son, Arlo.

Oldfather admits she didn’t feel prepared for motherhood.

“I read a lot of books, and I talked to as many young moms as I could, but … people don’t want to scare a pregnant lady, you know? So, people don’t say stuff like how hard it is and how alienating it is,” she explains. “And not even alienating like no one wants anything to do with you, it’s just like the way you have to be to keep an infant alive. Just to get through, you have to do and become all of these things that are not natural.”

Attempts to reconcile these feelings pushed Oldfather into her studio. “I was in such a depressed, drastic, desperate state that it really let me get weird and messy with the work. It pushed it to a new level,” she says. “I can’t tell if it was from the kid or just because of the time, you know, like it was time for that to happen, but I can’t help but feeling the desperation I felt was the emotive push I really needed.

“I’m kind of riding the wave of what I learned when my son was an infant, and it’s turning into something else already. My work changes so fast, I’m pulling apart ideas all the time.”

Her mind perpetually creating, mining human experiences while exploring the intersection of psychology and cosmology, she’s an artist continually hoping to inspire through her creative pursuits.

“My grandest hope is that (my) invented, multidimensional images could play a small, unnoticed part in sparking a scientific idea or concept pertaining to dimensions, our existence or the theory of everything,” she says. “I don’t know how they will or could do this. I don’t know enough about the theories or the math to nail that down. As my friend Amy Casey likes to say, ‘I’m just a painter.’ But … I’m reaching for the stars. Quite literally, I suppose.” CV

On View

Dana Oldfather

• “Thump … Dump, Clump, Lump … Bump!” is on view through Nov. 19 at Bonfoey Gallery in Cleveland. Oldfather curated the exhibition, which features art from Andy Curlowe, Amber Kempthorn, Amy Kligman and Erik Neff.

• Oldfather’s work will be part of “Colors|Lines|Layers,” a group exhibition opening in April 2017 at CASS Contemporary Art Space in Tampa, Fla.

• “The Replicant & The Rotisseur,” a two-person exhibition featuring Oldfather and Mark Keffer, will be on view from Oct. 27, 2017 through Dec. 9, 2017 at The Galleries at CSU in Cleveland.