A photographic eye: Owner of Galena's River Bend Gallery breaks barriers

Photographer Geoffrey Mikol owns and sells his work at River Bend Gallery, which recently moved to a new location on Main Street in Galena. Mikol, who was born with Down syndrome, runs the gallery with his family. Photographed on Thursday, July 27, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Photographer Geoffrey Mikol owns and sells his work at River Bend Gallery, which recently moved to a new location on Main Street in Galena. Mikol, who was born with Down syndrome, runs the gallery with his family. Photographed on Thursday, July 27, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Geoffrey Mikol has been interested in photography since he was a teenager. Now in his early 20s, he owns his own gallery in downtown Galena, Ill.

He proudly greets customers as they come through the door of River Bend Gallery, directing their attention to scenes of light streaming through trees, to crumbling country barns and sunsets over water.

He’s like any other artist and business owner, said his father, Paul Mikol, with one exception; Geoffrey has Down syndrome.

That doesn’t slow him down. Opening the gallery was his idea, as was locating it in Galena’s picturesque downtown.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “I like talking to people. When people buy my photos, it’s great.”

He points out different pieces in the gallery, such as “Gone with the Wind,” featuring a close-up of a white-tufted dandelion.

“This is my favorite. I saw it in my mom’s yard,” he said.

He captured other scenes while strolling around Galena or farther afield while traveling with his parents, images shot on rural country roads and bridges or in state and national parks in Illinois, Iowa, Colorado and elsewhere.

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Paul said his son has an eye for the quiet moments worth capturing, the details others might overlook. He tells the story of one photo, when Geoffrey and his mother, Ann Williams, were driving over a bridge when he shouted to stop and jumped out to get the shot he wanted.

“We’ve all learned, when we’re driving around and he says, ‘Stop,’ we stop, because he’s seen something that is interesting to him,” Paul said.

Geoffrey first picked up a camera when he was about 15 and took two photography classes in high school, where a teacher recognized his talent. After attending community college in Chicago, he began selling his work at art shows. Two years ago, while walking through Galena on vacation with his mother and grandmother, he turned to his mom and said, “This is perfect for my gallery.” A short time later Paul and Geoffrey’s stepmother, Deb, were in Galena on their wedding anniversary, and they agreed with his assessment and decided to relocate to Galena from Chicago.

River Bend first opened in Galena in the spring of 2016 and moved to its current location in March.

Running the gallery is a family affair. Paul and Geoffrey man the gallery floor during the day, sharing stories with customers, while Deb runs the behind-the-scenes side of the business. Williams often takes her son out driving, looking for the next perfect shot.

Photography lets him exercise both self-expression and independence, Paul said.

“It really gives him a sense of purpose. He takes ownership and responsibility for everything in the gallery,” he said. “He’s like just another business owner on Main Street, which is all we ever wanted for him — for him to be what he wants to be.”

IF YOU GO

WHAT: River Bend Gallery

WHERE: 313 S. Main St., Galena, Ill.

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday

DETAILS: (815) 281-9199, riverbendgalleries.com

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