By Mike Jurkovic
Steve & Barbara Riddle - Pure Art
Marion Royael Gallery
I know a good many good people. Let's talk to two of 'em.
"Guess we'll start in Oregon, right?" Steve nods at Barbara, and the lady of the gallery concurs.
So we start in Oregon:
"We both worked for a company that provided job services for folks with disabilities and illness," Steve begins, dabbing at the Tin Man's shoulder, first yellow, then black, smearing for texture and shading. "Some had Downs, Aspergers, MS, but they liked to draw. So I kinda got the idea of art therapy thing. Give 'em brushes, paint, something to draw on, and they'd sit all day painting!"
"It was pure art! They weren't influenced or stimulated by art books or galleries. So we started a studio with this company, rented it three days a week, and after our first opening we actually sold something and the company board loved the idea. It was the first studio like it in Oregon."
"But that's our thing y'know. Always people first, then painting, then representing artists, then the gallery. We really don't have a business plan."
Both are bemused by that assessment. "Do we look like business people?" Barbara chides. No they don't. And so it is. Art is adventuresome, so Barbara picks up the story while Steve looks for a rag to clean his fingers. "From there we headed to Salt Lake City, can you believe it? Everything we couldn't fit into the car we mostly gave away or sold. Real businessy, right?" I swear all the sculptures in the gallery turn to listen. "Wherever we stayed, Steve's paints and canvasses got unpacked first. We'd take the prints off the hotel walls and hang his stuff so he could work on them."
As slowly astute as I am, I realized she had yet to mention her own painting - a vibrant animation of society with wide-eyed nuns riding on bicycles. "Oh I hadn't started painting yet. No not me. That came later. I was happy making sure everyone had clean brushes and had enough paint. I sort of enjoyed scouring through Good will stores and auctions looking for old paintings so we could re-use the canvas." On some invisible cue Steve rejoins us ."Then we went down to St.Pete's and opened a gallery," they say in near unison. "A bad part of town." The Tin Man still ain't right. Steve blackens the line of his shoulder. "We closed that gallery and rented a 3,000 square foot space. " "Real smart, huh?" Barbara laughs. "It was a stinky old market filled with wall to ceiling freezers. We called the landlord and told him he forgot his freezers. They're your freezers now, he said."
"But we do art!" I told him. "We don't freeze anything." "So we got some guy to help us move these freezers. We got 'em outside and the next day all the copper piping had been stripped clean."
"It was not a good neighborhood. The place was crawling. They stole our bikes." "It wasn't that horrible."
"Well right we're still alive. We still have our major limbs."
We all laugh heartily. Steve resumes: "We kept a few street people and brought other artists in to sell their work. We built a stage and brought bands in. We had an independent film maker showing short films, we ran an open mic." How were you paying for all this adventure? "Oh, we ran through our savings," she nonchantly recalls. "But we started selling some of his work." "And Barbara began restoring old paintings." "He would do restorations too, only he would, change them all - three heads, chartreuse sky." "She got real good at the restorations. Meanwhile I'm still trying to get her to paint 'n she's going no-no-no so finally I just gave up."
"I'm a weenie," she concludes. Cue laughter. "Then finally," they recall simultaneously but Barbara takes the lead, "we're at this auction and we're all the way in the back. We can't see nothing but the price on this painting keeps going down. I think we got it for $25 - which was a lot of money for us. It was too expensive to paint over so we figured we'd try to resell it." "But then we discover it's an unfinished painting of an old Life Magazine cover and I'm really burned y'know so I say - I'm gonna finish this. Then Steve spends hours and hours teaching me all this stuff." "Well it wasn't hours and hours," he tries to correct. "You had it in ya." "No no you taught me everything," she playfully insists. The two men in the room shrug. "Everything?"
"Yea right everything," she repeats.
"Anyway, this is just about when we started doing ebay and we sold that picture! But we're such ding-dongs we sent the wrong item to this one person and we were so horrified we told her she could have anything she wanted of equal value for free.
Steve cuts in. "She wanted this $800 painting and we're like, well you can't have that one, but Barbara could copy it." "I had to cover our butts right? So I copied it and that was sort of like the kick-off to doing my own stuff, but my fascination was watching Steve paint. Like we're watching him do while we're talking. He's always painting." "And then we decided to go to New York." "Woo hoo!" "We had done it a couple times to visit Barbara's friend. She was familiar coming from Long Island. I was from California. I didn't know. But we liked New York." "And we'd never been upstate." "So we said okay and our lease ran out so we moved in with another person who had a little shop with a lot of painting and one day fate came. We needed a place with acreage because we alpacas." "We went on Craig's List and rented a place in Warwick. As it turned out there were no doors in the house" (plenty of laughter) "but it was seventeen acres so that was pretty cool." "We started helping these folks with a gallery in Port Jervis. They were doing contemporary art but they were renting wall space. After three months we decided to represent artists and sell art ourselves. So we started looking for gallery space all over - Kingston, Hudson, and came to Beacon three years ago." How do you find artists or do they find you? "They call you," he assures, as Barbara guides visitors around the gallery.
He continues, turning from the Tin Man for awhile. "The first show we had here was our art. We dropped an ad on New York's Craig's List and got a couple artists from that. We look for artists we both like and think will do great stuff in the future. We look for artists who are always painting, and finally is it sellable. Are we comfortable selling it? Can we sell if for a reasonable price?" "We keep things priced between $1,000-$5,000," he continues, "but I'll hang a more expensive piece if the artist has other reasonably priced works I can exhibit."
"I don't have the auction records or the notoriety to sell things for $15,000. Neither do most artists. If they do, they'd better prove it to me. After the five thousand threshold, it gets tricky." "We don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. We have no plan, no business plan. We keep moving forward. We don't paint to sell. We paint to paint. If it sells great and we go woo hoo!" I feel our conversation easing to its natural close. "Sure we sometimes think like everyone else about being famous," he admits, turning again to his canvas. "But then we wake up and say just paint Steve, just paint Barb, just enjoy it. The reality is if you don't paint because you love it, you're never gonna be true to yourself. You'll never be an original"
The Marion Royael Gallery, 159 Main Street, Beacon, New York 12508
Hours: Monday 12:00 - 5:00 pm
Wednesday 12:00 - 5:00 pm
Thursday 12:00 - 5:00 pm
Friday 12:00 - 7 pm
Saturday 12:00 - 7:00 pm
Sunday 12:00 - 7:00 pm