Those who attended the opening of last year’s Small Wonders exhibition at the Aspen Chapel Gallery saw the rarest of sights: pigs flying. Almost literally.
At last year’s Small Wonders, a group exhibition where the art is limited in size and price, among the big hits were Michael Bonds’ ceramic piggy banks.
“Pigs flew off the wall,” Carol Loewenstern, a co-director of the gallery for 12 years, said, without immediately seeing the turn of phrase. “Everybody bought them like crazy. I had to call Michael over and over saying, ‘Bring more pigs.’”
Pigs won’t be flying at Wednesday night’s Small Wonders opening reception. Bonds has taken a sharp turn, from piggy banks last year to this year’s stylish plates. But organizers of the exhibition still expect work to sail off the walls and into the hands of collectors. Small Wonders is a reliable frenzy of activity — scores of pieces are sold, the reception packs the gallery space, buyers arrive early for first pick of the art.
The show’s organizers learned early on to prepare for the shopping rush. When Sandy Johnson curated the first Small Wonders, in 2006, modeling it after similar shows decades ago at the Gargoyle Gallery and the Aspen Art Museum, she counted on a typical response: A few pieces would be sold, and any empty spaces on the walls could be handled by rearranging the art slightly. Instead, the scene resembled a small-scale Black Friday at a discount appliance store. “It was gangbusters,” Johnson said.
“People were standing in line, holding their things, waiting to pay,” Loewenstern said. “By the end of the evening there was nothing left on the walls.”
The biggest adjustment made to the show over the years has been making sure that the artists have back-up work on hand, ready to fill blank wall space. “At the end of the evening, we wanted the walls to still be full of art,” Loewenstern said. “No red dots” — indicating that a piece has been sold — “and no empty spaces. If somebody sells out, we ask them to bring more. Which they do.”
This year ushers in another change. Johnson has stepped aside as curator and handed the job to Ada Christensen. It is, Johnson noted, a big job; this year’s show features 29 artists, each of whom has at least four pieces on display with a stash of more work waiting in the wings.
Otherwise, Small Wonders is much as it was in the beginning. Though it was created with holiday shopping in mind, there is no theme to the work itself. (In this year’s show, the only work that even touches on Christmas are Cornelia Carpenter’s watercolors, nostalgic vignettes of wintertime in Aspen.) The art ranges from functional ceramics to Alan Roberts’ handsome journals, Kathy Honea’s encaustic work to Sheila Babbie’s humorous photo collages, which juxtapose imagery from nature and Hollywood.
The sale price is limited to $250; most pieces don’t even come close. The dimensions of the work are limited to 12-by-12 inches, which the artists seem to welcome as a change to their usual way of working.
“Everyone works bigger than this — except me,” Loewenstern, who makes abstract-geometric paintings, said.
“I don’t think people have thought it was difficult to transition to the smaller scale,” Johnson, who contributed abstract paintings to the current show, said. “It’s just a different challenge.”
There are other interesting challenges, most of them having to do with volume: Keeping up with the line of customers at the register; accommodating all the artists who want to be in the show. “People call, say they want to be in it,” Loewenstern said. “They say, ‘What do I have to do to be in the show?’ Some insist, saying they have to be in the show.”
Perhaps the ultimate challenge is keeping art on the walls — making sure that, by the end of the opening reception, the gallery looks like an art gallery, and not the deep-discount department after a Black Friday sale.
“It’s a great way to get art into a lot of people’s hands,” Johnson said.
“And you don’t have to wait,” Loewenstern said. “You can take it away that very night.”