When I arrived at Bare Hands Gallery downtown on a recent Saturday to talk to artistic director Wendy Jarvis, I came bearing a tape recorder, a notebook and a list of questions.
In return, Jarvis and Rachel Staggs, an artist and volunteer—in the true Bare Hands spirit of hospitality—offered me a cup of strong, black tea, quite refreshing on a cold afternoon.
And Jarvis, as we stood at what serves as a kitchen counter in the back of the gallery and sipped our tea, gave me my story—two stories, actually.
One story is “Shine 2010: Going Out with a Bang,” the annual holiday-themed group show running now at Bare Hands through December 30. “There’s ornaments out the wazoo, and it’s Christmas put through the Bare Hands filter,” Jarvis says.
And the second, sadder story? The permanent closing of the gallery on December 30, after “Shine” closes, announced in November by the Bare Hands board. Bare Hands succumbed to a dire economy, with sales and donations down, according to Jarvis. “We realized we were out of options,” she says. “We were pushing against the tide with everything we had, but we always hoped we would know when it was time to say farewell. We felt it best for the legacy of Bare Hands and for anybody who showed here or did programming here to go out on a high note.”
So Bare Hands will close for good, after nearly 15 years and 350 exhibitions, performances, lectures and community events. And that makes Bare Hands’ final “Shine” noteworthy. “Shine” was curated by Allison Bohorfoush, Marion Jones and Wendi Flowers Goodwin, using a common theme of the alternative Christmas tree. “Shine has always been the holiday group show,” Jarvis says. “It’s been almost a fundraiser, not literally, but really accessible pieces and price points.”
Featured artists include Michael “Bones” Bonadio, Merrilee Challiss and sculptor Randy Gachet. Tracie Noles-Ross has work in the loft. According to Jarvis, the show keeps up a Bare Hands tradition of showing work by both emerging and established artists. “Duquette Johnson, who everybody knows as a musician, has his first art piece in the show, that big, gorgeous sort of swamp thing sculpture,” Jarvis says, pointing to the front of the gallery at Johnson’s spooky found-wood Christmas tree, “Brushy Creek Tornado.”
Jarvis bought Bare Hands in 2000 from Jessica Helfrecht, who opened the gallery in 1996 to provide a home for local visual artists. Jarvis was a collector and friend of Helfrecht. She was also an experienced retail manager. She told Bradley George of WBHM recently that when she bought the gallery, she hoped to bring these business skills to bear on helping support the Bare Hands artists. Bare Hands also became something of a community center, regularly hosting seminars, a yoga class and musical performances.
By 2004, Jarvis and husband Michael Glaser had already put a lot of money into Bare Hands and considered closing, but instead made Bare Hands a non-profit.
Last year, according to Jarvis, Kathleen Rose-Byington and Kim Strifert volunteered to serve as executive director and development director, respectively.
Then the worst economy in decades hurt art sales and individual contributions drastically. The last few grant applications Bare Hands made were turned down, according to Jarvis. This ripped out the gallery’s safety net. Like any business, Bare Hands has to spend money to operate, and volunteers can’t do everything.
Jarvis told George that Bare Hands got some grants for specific events, from such funders as the Daniel Foundation and Alabama State Council on the Arts. However, Bare Hands didn’t get the big boost it needed, according to Jarvis, “The real capital funding, either from a funder or the public or both, we were just never able to get it,” she says.
Jarvis is proud that Bare Hands is closing in decent financial shape. “We worked for the last two years to get every bill paid and be in the black, and we maintained that this year,” she says. “Commissions are paid. Everything is caught up, so we get to close debt-free.”
And Bare Hands experienced a good 2010. Exhibits included the “Birmingham Biennial 3,” juried by internationally known curator Dan Cameron. Bare Hands established an after-school art club for kids led by Julie Watters at the downtown YWCA.
According to Jarvis, Bare Hands’ popular Day of the Dead Festival will continue as part of a reconfigured non-profit now called Day of the Dead Alabama. “It has been part of the multi-cultural outreach portion of our mission from our beginning as a non-profit,” Jarvis says. She also hopes that the YMCA art classes will continue.
But the Bare Hands closing is still a severe blow. “We only have so many galleries in Birmingham, and that was one of the best ones, and that weakens the art community,” according to Veronique Vanblaere, owner of Naked Art in Forest Park.
Matt Jones of Matt Jones Gallery in Lakeview expresses some anger at what he sees as a tendency in Birmingham to fail to embrace new, homegrown things like Bare Hands. “It’s extremely frustrating to be in a town where you are trying to do something life enriching for the community and you are rejected,” he says. “You are talking about a group of people who are not just talking. They are putting their lives behind it and their families’ lives behind it. It’s hard to not take this personally. It’s just a sad thing. A lot of times in this town I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall to get people to think what everybody else in the world is thinking except people in Birmingham.”
Jones is also less than optimistic that Birmingham will fully embrace contemporary art. “I would love to think that it’s going to change, but I don’t know if Birmingham will ever let that change," he says. "I came from Tuscaloosa, and people are more open-minded [there] than in Birmingham.”
Jarvis doesn’t seem to blame Birmingham, talking instead about the funding difficulties of non-profits, especially art-related ones. According to Jarvis, funders like to give money to groups performing some undeniable social good, such as educating kids. “You can tie the arts to that, but it’s a stretch,” she says. “With the arts, it will always be more of a struggle.”
Jarvis says that places like Bare Hands have to show their patrons that regular contributions can help sustain the galleries and other amenities that those patrons seem to enjoy visiting. “How do I connect what I’ve created, what my group has created, to individuals?” she says. “You love to come to Bare Hands. You put $5 in the tip jar. You buy what you can. But you don’t think, ‘I want to give $20 a month to Bare Hands.’ It’s a tough battle.”
Despite that, Jarvis seems content. “I’m ready to step down and focus my time on Day of the Dead,” she says. Jarvis will be glad to get some rest. “After 10 years, I was very happy and exhausted,” she says.
Jarvis believes the taste for non-traditional art in Birmingham has grown and cites an increasing number of area galleries showing contemporary work. “When Jessica started, there were a few abstracts here and there, but mostly it was really palatable abstracts and still lifes, landscapes, et cetera,” she says. “Now you go in and you see a much larger variety with a much larger bend to the contemporary. That’s exciting for any city, especially Birmingham.”
Jarvis mentions other reasons for hope in Birmingham’s visual art community, including Space One Eleven and Litebox galleries and Roam Projects, a rotating gallery initiative. “People do shows at Bottletree and Boutwell Studios, so there’s a good energy for the arts in Birmingham,” she says. “I hate to use the cliché that one door closes and another opens, but there are really seeds out there.”
Before I walk out of Bare Hands for perhaps the last time, with a cup of black tea for the road, I can't resist asking Jarvis one more question—“Why does visual art matter, or at least why does it matter so much to you?”
“Creative expression is what makes life worth living,” Jarvis tells me. “Even though I’m not an artist, one of my best friends is a songwriter, some of my best friends are visual artists, and they cannot not create. They have this drive. It may wax or wane, but they cannot go a week without writing or painting on canvas.”
According to Jarvis, she also treasures the personal connections she makes with the creators of the objects she enjoys. “I can go to Wal-Mart or wherever all day long and look at objects, but looking at something that I know came out of the brain of Possum Doss or Bob Taylor, or seeing and being around their creative expression, is life for me,” she says. “It makes it worth living.”
A beautiful art object, according to Jarvis, can even have restorative powers for our hearts and souls. “I still have a Traci Noles-Ross painting that I bought when I was living away from Birmingham for a brief period, and I was pretty bummed out, and it may sound crazy, but that little painting of her that I bought saved my sanity,” she says. “And I still have it, and I still look at it, and it still takes me back to that moment of seeing what Traci had made and how it spoke to me. And I look at it everyday and think I was meant to have it, and I’m so glad I have it. And it’s not just some object. It’s not something that I will buy, sell or trade.”
last 15 years, Jarvis and Bare Hands have given hundreds of collectors and
gallery visitors the chance to form a similar connection with both art objects
and the artists who create them, and perhaps to use those connections as a
basis for a loving and powerful community. Bare Hands will be missed.
Bare Hands is located at 109 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd South. The space is open Tuesday–Friday 11 a.m.–6 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m.–3 p.m. “Shine” runs through December 30. For more information, including a complete list of participating artists, go to www.barehandsgallery.org.
Jesse Chambers is a Birmingham Weekly contributing editor. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.