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Artists Priscilla Steele, John Paul Schafer take work indoors
Climate change, pandemic prompt opening of galleries in Cedar Rapids, Marion
After years of taking their works on the road, two far-reaching local artists have moved indoors.
Global warming was the impetus for Priscilla Steele to reopen Campbell Steele Gallery at 1064 Seventh Ave., in Uptown Marion, in December. She and husband Craig Campbell live upstairs, as they had before moving to Omaha in 2017. They returned to Marion in January 2020.
The pandemic was the incentive for John Paul Schafer to open Gallery One in December in the Glenbrook Centre, at 4341 First Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids, a short walk from his studio at the home he shares with husband Brian Smith.
Both moves made good sense for the established artists, from professional and personal points of view.
“With climate change, art fairs will become a different animal, because every weather event seems to be extreme,” said Steele, now 71, citing two memorable instances.
“I've had one display fly over mine when a tornado was close by in Madison, Wisconsin,” she said. “Everybody was yelling, ‘Evacuate to the state Capitol, evacuate to the state Capitol, evacuate to the state Capitol.’
“A van drove up by my booth, and if my booth had been destroyed by the weather, our family would have been just really in bad shape. The guy hopped out of his van, ran for the state Capitol, and I said, ‘Mister, I'm putting my work in your van.’ And that's exactly what I did. I didn't lose anything — I saved it all.”
That was 1993. She had a similar experience in 2000 at the prestigious, highly competitive Cherry Creek Arts Festival in Denver, Colo.
“Every day, these huge thunderheads would back up to the Rocky Mountains and threaten — with all of their grayness — our safety.”
On the last day, “the heavens opened up and rained holy hell down,” she said. “I had five inches of water coursing under my display.”
At a glance
What: Campbell Steele Gallery, 1064 Seventh Ave., Marion. Hours by appointment and posted on facebook.com/campbellsteelegallery. Online: campbellsteele.com/
What: GALLERY ONE, 4341 First Ave. SE, Suite 123, Cedar Rapids. Hours: 2 to 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, and by appointment. Online: schaferfineart.com/
She had sold a piece that was 4 feet wide and 6 feet tall and was holding it for the customer to pick up later. So she and her assistant, Anna Fry O’Donnell, “threw plastic sheeting over it, and ran through this river in the street.” Steele’s van was right across the street, and they were able to save the work.
Steele has averaged about 15 art fairs per season, going as high as 20 in year, but as O’Donnell pointed out after the Colorado event, they work in a gallery with walls and a roof, so why try to move it all outdoors?
“I don’t want to, at this age, continue with outdoor art fairs in the cycle of climate change that we’re experiencing,” Steele said.
Schafer, 52, felt the need to have a gallery space to not only display some of the pieces he’s been taking to art fairs, but also to have a place where he can sit down with clients to discuss commission works.
The pandemic gave him the nudge he needed, along with fortuitous turns of events.
He had been showing his paintings in other people’s galleries, but with that comes price markups so the gallery owners could get a slice of the sales, as well as other caveats that had him relinquishing more control than he wished. That method of doing business also is unpredictable, since gallery shows can be infrequent, he added.
So in 2015, Schafer decided to take his works on the road, averaging 12 to 15 outdoor art fairs each season, mostly around the Midwest.
“I did that right up until everything shut down in 2020,” he said. “I just haven't really been motivated to return to the art fair scene since the pandemic.
“Art fairs have come back,” he noted. He was accepted into Denver’s Cherry Creek festival last July, “but it's a very different show now than it used to be, because of the impacts of the pandemic. So it's been really hard for me to judge whether or not I could have as much success doing art fairs.
“Having a gallery now makes sense,” he said, when factoring the travel expenses, booth rental and insurance for each art fair. "It's a considerable amount of overhead. And when you start to look at it from that perspective, you start to wonder if you shouldn't just have a brick-and-mortar place and save yourself the hassle of having to travel everywhere.
“The trade-off is that you don't have the concentration of people” in a gallery that artists have at fairs. “After being at this for 30-plus years, I do have a following — and a pretty faithful following — that I feel like I can appeal to now with a space of my own.”
Falling into place
The stars began quickly lining up for both the Campbell Steele Gallery and Galley One openings.
Campbell and Steele had bought the historic 1895 Kendall Hardware Building in 1991, creating an art gallery and performance space along Marion’s busy Seventh Avenue. They sold the building in 2017 and reclaimed it in 2020 “because the people who were buying it had decided not to proceed,” Steele said.
The couple moved in Jan. 6, about a month-and-a-half before the pandemic shutdown. Within months, they were hosting Marion Public Library staffers after the August 2020 derecho damaged and closed the nearby library.
When the library employees moved into the new library, which opened in November, Steele and Campbell were left with an empty space full of possibilities. No moss grew under their feet.
On Dec. 8, the public was invited inside to see “New Steele,” a stunning exhibition of botanical and figurative work Steele created in her Omaha and Marion studios over the past few years, as well as her ongoing hand-coloring of circus-themed engravings she created in the late 1970s.
“Fifteen minutes before we opened the door, Craig and I looked at each other because we had only had like three weeks from the time the library moved out to become the gallery again,” Steele said. “We had figured out how we were going to do it, but we hadn't done it physically.
“And within three weeks, this is my favorite presentation of the gallery ever.”
Visitors also can see her studio in the back of the first floor, where audiences once flocked for the Liars Theatre and Music in the MUD entertainment series Campbell created.
“You turn the corner, and I have an open studio. And to my deep pleasure, everybody was looking at the press, and the accouterments around the press that enlightened you as to how this is done,” she said of her opening crowd. “And then all of the etchings and engravings stretched on the drawing boards, because that's what you must do with a print that is still wet from the press.”
It’s all done by hands that have created art her entire life, in ways not touched by technology.
“People don't expect to walk into the 19th century and see somebody cutting metal with a little tiny chisel,” Campbell said. “It’s like, ‘Where am I?’ ”
“New Steele” will be on the walls through Jan. 28, and like with that show, gallery talks and demonstrations will be offered with each new exhibition. The gallery has no set hours, but Campbell does post business hours sometimes daily, sometimes weekly on Facebook.
“As a very small and very personal business, we are always available 'by appointment' when a customer needs us,” Campbell said.
Steele’s intaglio etchings also are available in the online store, campbellsteele.com/shop, “for as little as $28,” Campbell noted, adding that Steele’s larger drawings generally run from $2,500 to $8,000.
For years, Campbell and Steele pooled their talents, creating theatrical scenery across the Midwest, including many years at Theatre Cedar Rapids while their three children were growing up.
These days, Campbell, 68, and a fine-wood artist, is taking on a supporting role.
“My goal with this space is to support Wink’s work,” he said, using his wife’s nickname. He’s built items like trifold screens and room screens for her, as well as crafting his own pieces.
“But I've done enough. Honestly, I have no personal goals. I have ‘Priscilla Steele’ goals,” he said. “I've done enough, I've accomplished enough. … I like that — that's fun. We're a good team.”
Schafer met Tom and Kelly Belin in the summer of 2021. The Belins began collecting Schafer’s art, commissioning two large works for their home. In the fall, Schafer discovered two spaces were available in a building the Belins own along First Avenue SE. He asked to see the units.
“Kelly brought me in here one day, and she really had her doubts. She didn't think it was — in her words — ‘boujee’ enough for an art gallery. And I said, ‘Oh, I'll ‘boujee’ it up.’
“Anyway, the moment I stepped in the door, I could just see it. I could see it already manifest. It was the right amount of space. I liked that it faces north. I like that I'm right off First Avenue. I have these very easy landmarks. Everybody knows the A-frame next door. … I can point to Cedar Memorial as a major landmark that most everyone knows.”
It checks off so many boxes, being affordable, conveniently located and just a 90-second walk from his home studio to the gallery. He said he realizes most people just see a residential building and don’t realize it has this stretch of retail suites.
“Rather than let that be a hindrance, I'm just hoping that in time, as people learn that I'm here, then people will be able to find me much easier,” he said, noting signage has been ordered, too.
He signed the lease and was in the building Dec. 1, ambitiously opening his first show Dec. 15.
For the inaugural show, he’s exhibiting the abstract work he’s painted between 2005 and 2020, much of which he’s taken on the art fair circuit.
“I think a lot of my local audience is already familiar with the work that's up. So I thought since this was what I was already rotating, it made sense to use this for my inaugural show,” he said.
It will be on view through the end of February, and a new show will go up in March, displaying work he created in 2022. He’s planning to change out the galleries quarterly. Down the road, he may bring in other artists to show their work in one of the galleries, while keeping his own in the other space.
Because Schafer enjoys working on a large scale, the average price for his art is $10,000. Commissioned pieces are his “bread and butter,” and he was able to seed the gallery with a portion of a recent $45,000 commission for three pieces for Mercy Medical Center’s new heart center.
“This was a turnkey opportunity for me to open a gallery,” he said, “and I'm funding it all myself. I can say that's primarily true throughout my career — that I've always been able to underwrite the costs of my own projects. …
“I take pride in being able to keep myself solvent.”
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