Gallery View: Mixing it up in East Aurora
I’m sitting in a former appliance store that has been marvelously renovated and is now a popular bakery and café in the village of East Aurora. It’s one of those brilliant sun-drenched days where the air is remarkably crisp and clear, and everything reeks of quaintness like a Currier and Ives postcard. One of the rewards for making the thirty-minute drive from Buffalo to East Aurora is, well, the drive, which even by highway can be picturesque. I’m here to meet two leaders of East Aurora’s notably energetic art community, Grace Meibohm and Alixandra (Alix) Martin. Over a delicious cup of steaming herbal tea, they fill me in on this small town’s disproportionately large art scene.
“There are so many functioning artists in this area,” Martin begins with a spitfire cadence that conveys infectious enthusiasm. “When I first came here, it blew me away!” Martin’s road to small town art life began in her hometown of Sarasota, Florida, and wound its way through Buffalo’s Elmwood Village before ending in East Aurora, where, ten years ago, she founded redFISH Art Studios, a small rental space for artists.
A painter herself, Martin needed a studio outside the house and figured there were others in the same position. “I felt like there were more functioning artists out here, whether they had studios in their barns, or at the Roycroft, or La La [Ooo La La Boutique], or they’re exhibiting here in town,” she says. “And there are all the designers and artists at Fisher-Price; there just always seems to be a plethora.” redFISH was something of an experiment, but the waiting list quickly grew so long that Martin relocated to a larger space, a former industrial creamery that accommodates up to twelve artists, along with other businesses.
“There has always been a history of East Aurora being an artist community from the turn of the century on,” Meibohm states in a measured tenor that serves as the yin to Martin’s yang, “It’s been an educated, artist-supporting community for more than a century.”
A lifelong Western New Yorker, Meibohm is the proprietor of Meibohm Fine Arts, which was founded by her grandfather in Buffalo in 1901 as an art sales and framing business. The family business moved to its Main Street, East Aurora location in 1957, and, in 1965, began regular gallery exhibitions. It’s likely that Meibohm Fine Arts is the longest continuously running commercial gallery in the greater Buffalo Niagara region.
Being raised around art has equipped Meibohm with an informed perspective on local artistic lineage. “Artists in this area go back to [Elbert] Hubbard [founder of the Roycroft arts and craft community in 1985], the Paint and Varnish Club, and the East Aurora Art Society who are into their sixtieth year, so art has been a part of the fabric of the community for a long time.” Meibohm says. “Unique people looking for more than the cookie-cutter community move to East Aurora. They want something a little more unusual and bit more creative [than other suburban communities].”
Indeed, much of the town appears to value art. Meibohm points to the paintings around the café, the work of a noted regional landscape artist (landscapes might just be the official genre of East Aurora). “Every restaurant, every shop, gives artists their wall space,” Martin notes. “The Art Society has a really nice dedicated space at the nursing home, and they have something on exhibit all the time. The co-op opened here and brought in artists to do murals. Fisher-Price rented redFISH and brought in all their designers for a think-tank seminar. Everything’s connected.”
The Fisher-Price toy company is just down the road, and the Roycroft Campus is four blocks away, which illustrates another East Aurora fact: It’s a walking community. Being pedestrian rich and art-dedicated, the East Aurora Art Walk naturally followed (see sidebar). Our café conversation turns up a variety of other topics somehow related to East Aurora’s deep-rooted art community: architecture that, like Buffalo, includes many aesthetically beautiful old buildings; supportive residents who buy art; corporations who import well-traveled employees from Europe and New York City; the accessibility of the art community.
“People aren’t intimidated to come here,” says Meibohm, and Martin adds that, “We’ve had artists from Dublin, London, New York. People love that you are bringing these artists into their backyard.” The women estimate that about half their audience is from Buffalo, and that total attendance would make any gallery proud. “We had an opening last Friday night and there were up to 400 people—a little local show!” Martin announces in amazement.
In addition, the art community has a reputation for charitable activism. The Crossroads Springs Institute, an East Aurora-based organization that raises money for AIDS orphanages in Africa held an event at redFISH that pulled in $15,000 in a single evening. As part of this year’s Art Walk, Meibohm Fine Arts will host the Mill Road Scenic Overlook Benefit Exhibition, a fundraiser to keep a nearby natural scenic site open to the public.
After a final gulp of tea, we set out to visit the twin anchors of the East Aurora art scene. Meibohm Fine Arts occupies a tastefully converted house; a rear building serves as a framing shop and added gallery space. The whole place brims with regional art history that favors the traditional, as does East Aurora in general. Historical artists represented include Robert Blair, Charles Burchfield, Arts and Crafts painter and printmaker Annie Crawford, Harold Doge, cubist landscape artist James Vullo, and Raphael Beck, who designed the Pan-American Exposition logo. There are also works by Eleanor Douglas, David Pratt, Amos Sangster, and my personal favorite, the delightfully expressionistic and whimsical Agnes Robertson.
Meibohm also exhibits a stable of familiar working artists as with a recent exhibit, WNY Members of the National Collage Society. Future exhibitions include landscape painter Nancy Craig with collage artist Jane Ferraro, and the mystical forest scenes of Fran Noonan. “A while back, the staff asked how many times I’ve gone through [mounting exhibitions],” says Meibohm. “I added up all the catalogues and that night happened to be the fiftieth opening we worked on.”
Around the corner on Elm Street, redFISH is a three-level industrial space stylishly renovated into studios and a seventy-square-foot gallery. “I’m a big fan of never doing the expected.” says Martin. “We try to mix it up as much as possible, take over studios, do installations; we’ve had projection art, live people in the art. The real avant garde stuff is saved for invitation only artist gatherings, which creates a ‘what’s going on there?’ air of mystery.”
Occasionally, redFISH opens to the public, and sales are booming. In fact, many artists struggling in Buffalo sell work successfully in East Aurora to, ironically, Buffalo buyers. redFISH also offers occasional opportunities for outside artists: “There are the ladies who paint on their lunch break, and the designers from Fisher-Price,” notes Martin. Figure drawing, visits from neophyte art students, and other activities fill out the busy calendar. The building’s first floor houses Urban Design, where highly creative decorative household items are made from repurposed materials. Owner/designer Lisa Decarlo divided the facility into a store and workshop where visitors can watch the work in progress. It’s a one-stop example of the diversity of East Aurora. “It’s something different, a whole different feel,” Martin says. And so it is.
Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, writer, former president of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, skeptic, gardener, former magician, husband, and father.