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Carving out a gallery

Stewart Oksenhorn

Larry Lefner recalls living in Santa Fe in the early ’90s and showing his wood sculptures at Herb Smalley’s Canyon Collection, one of the numerous galleries that line Santa Fe’s Canyon Road. Lefner refers to the two gallery managers there as “gentlemen” ” a high compliment from Lefner ” who were generous and even loving. To Lefner, the Canyon Collection was in it for the art at least as much as for the money. And in perhaps the highest praise he can bestow, Lefner said the Smalley gallery had a reputation for handling its artists as though they were the unique masterpieces.

“They treated the artists as the most valuable asset they had,” said Lefner. “They went overboard in helping out their artists.”

Lefner’s view of the 15 or so other galleries that have represented him over the decades, and the scores of others that he didn’t even bother approaching, is not so rosy. There are galleries that pack their space to the point that they look like junk shops, in the hopes of selling something, anything. Other galleries pigeonhole their artists, transforming their creative energies into something resembling a factory production line. Some galleries are shady in their business dealings with their artists. And some art galleries seem barely interested in art at all.

Lefner knows just what kind of gallery he wants to operate. Like Herb Smalley’s gallery, Lefner wants his Woody Creek Art Studio to be the exception in the art world.

For virtually all of his 58 years, almost all of them spent making hardwood sculptures, Lefner didn’t give a thought to correcting the ills of gallerydom. He worked with the galleries he liked, or bypassed the gallery system by focusing on private commissioned work.

Just a few weeks ago, the bells started to ring. Mary Harris, co-owner of the Woody Creek Tavern and the adjacent space that has sat vacant since the post office moved a few yards upvalley seven years ago, mentioned to Lefner that she had had a flurry of recent inquiries about the space. But, Harris added, what she really wanted was for Lefner to take the spot. Lefner, a prominent Woody Creeker whose works can be seen on the Tavern patio, and along the facing hillside, agreed.

The Woody Creek Art Studio opens with a reception on Saturday, June 12, from 5-7 p.m. Featured in the opening exhibition are mixed-media paintings by Aspenite Susan Obermeyer, glass bowls and plates by Las Vegas’ Wolfgang Golden, and plenty of Lefner’s sculpture. Tucked into a corner is a working bench at which Lefner is carving a door panel that will cover the window of the back door. It is a small space, but Lefner intends that it not become cramped. As much as the art itself, Lefner wants the space to be aesthetically appealing.

“I love the Harley Baldwin Gallery, where you have 10 feet between pieces,” he said. “Other places are so packed, you can see they’re just hoping something sells. I want this to be a nice visual invitation to the eye.”

And he intends to treat his artists ” including locals like ceramists Pete Phibbs and Sam Harvey, marble sculptor Eddie Three Bears and painter Parker ” the way the Canyon Collection treated him. “I would like to be a role model for the dream gallery owner who artists would like to deal with,” he said. “I guess I’ve become opinionated after my years dealing with the gallery business.”

Among the opinions he holds most dear is that artists should not be limited ” not by their pasts, not by concerns over marketability, and certainly not by gallery owners. Lefner’s work in the WoodyCreek Art Studio shows a huge range. There is the humorous piece “JannaV,” a 7-foot nude with spiky hair ” including pubic hair ” wide eyes and raised eyebrows, modeled after Lefner’s girlfriend and gallery worker Janna Sceery. “Namaste” is a big-boobed blonde in a yoga position, set in a frame. There are semi-representational sculptures of animals, functional dressing screens, and a series of masks on the wall, including the faces of Mick Jagger and Woody Creeker Jimmy Ibbotson. Lefner also aims to push the artists he represents into new areas. Obermeyer, for instance, took the opportunity to show at the gallery to explore new areas of painting.

“Most galleries are looking for something with a broad acceptance, a broad appeal,” said Lefner, a Southern California native who moved to the Roaring Fork Valley nearly a decade ago. “Three-quarters of the galleries in Santa Fe want to see one person do one thing they can hang their hat on. If you do flowers, they want you to do flowers, not nudes. They’re looking for a medium range of morality in their art. They’re not taking chances.

“I’m not aiming for the broad and general taste. I’m looking for people who can decide for themselves what they like, who are looking for a piece because they like it, not because it will do well in the marketplace.”

Though his plans to open a gallery date back only one month ago, Lefner is finding himself in love with every aspect of being a gallerist: working with artists, designing the space. But perhaps best of all is being represented by a gallery owner whose tastes and ideas match his own perfectly.

“In the past, I had to appease gallery owners,” he said. “I think I have a liberty here to be not so concerned with other people’s opinions. I can be free-flying and not worry about offending people by showing pubic hair.

“And I’m ensured a place to show.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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