New gallery will be venue for 'hopeful' art

'Signs of Life' combines art space, gallery, bookstore into one cultural center

The hope of all serious artists is that their work will compel viewers to stop, take notice, ponder its meaning.

James Schaefer hopes Signs of Life will be a place that nurtures that kind of reflection -- a sort of cultural center where art, literature and even spirituality become a cerebral engagement rather than fodder for quick consumption.

"There's no such thing as ready-made culture," says Schaefer, gallery director at Signs of Life, 722 Mass. "I think that's one good thing about real art. You're not going to get the meaning just in a snap."

In a clean, open space on the second floor of the historic downtown building, the Signs of Life gallery opened its first art show on Friday. Downstairs, a step off the Mass. Street sidewalk, the Signs of Life espresso bar served specialty coffees and pastries. In another week or two, the book shelves on the south side of the first level should be stocked and ready to go.

Though the three components of the business are designed to complement one another, each seems to stand well on its own. The gallery is no exception.

The 3,000-square-foot space is split between two rooms with newly refinished maple floors, high ceilings, areas of exposed brick and plenty of natural light streaming in through substantial front windows that overlook the downtown shopping district.

"It's kind of like an Edward Hopper painting," Schaefer says, admiring the view from his new perch.

For now, the gallery is filled with recent landscapes in a show called "Light and Shadow Never Stand Still." Paintings by Justin Augspurg, Pierre Bollier, Jeremiah Colonna-Romano, Jodi Hays Gresham, George Wingate, James Winn and photographs by Edward Robison occupy the freshly painted walls.

'A language without words'

The entire building has been renovated since the former tenant, furniture store Danish Inspirations, left. Schaefer and Signs of Life owner Clay Belcher, a former Kansas University professor of architectural engineering, wanted to create a space where artists would be proud to show their work.

The plan is to feature artists from beyond Lawrence, Douglas County and even the state, though local artists won't necessarily be excluded. (Robison works in Lawrence, Bollier in Topeka). The next show, set to open April 19, will showcase the work of Boston painter Bruce Herman.


Mike Yoder/Journal-World Photo

James Schaefer stands next to a painting that's part of the first exhibit at the Signs of Life art gallery. Schaefer is director of the new gallery, which is upstairs from a bookstore and espresso shop, also part of Signs of Life, at 722 Mass. The first art show, "Light and Shadow Never Stand Still," features seven landscape artists.

Belcher envisions Signs of Life occupying a niche in the Lawrence gallery scene that he feels has been vacant until now.

"To me, so much of literature and art is nihilistic," he says. "I'm hoping to offer a more hopeful, uplifting art. It's not Thomas Kinkade. But there's a reason for hope in the world. And yes, there is struggle and there is hardship, but there is also reason to believe that we grow through those things."

Though Signs of Life is not a Christian business in the strictest sense, about three-fourths of the books in the store will be Christian-based. The other 25 percent of the books, which will be oriented toward the front of the store, will cover art, philosophy, history and other humanities. Artists showing work in the gallery submit lists of books that include ideas or people who inspire their work. Those books will be on display in the gallery, where Schaefer hopes they will be another entry point for visitors to understand what's hanging on the walls or jutting up from pedestals.

"It's just another level of interaction with the work," he says. "I believe visual art is a language without words. A lot of people are more comfortable with the verbal language."

A place to congregate

The Signs of Life gallery opened a little more than a month after another new downtown art space, The Grimshaw Gallery, 731 N.H., and precedes the opening of another new gallery, Olive, 15 E. Eighth St., by several weeks. Schaefer and Belcher are pretty confident, though, that there's plenty of untapped art buyers to support their endeavor.

The business did a study, Schaefer says, that showed thousands of people who live within a 50-mile radius of Lawrence have both the means and the interest to purchase art. The gallery sent out 5,000 invitations to its first opening.

Though Schaefer is conscious of the business of running the gallery, he's been much more excited about the opportunities for understanding and interacting with new work. A painter himself -- he has an art degree from KU and works out of a Eudora studio -- he appreciates the chance to meet artists and learn more about what they're trying to say.

"A lot of making art is a lot of lonely hours of studio work," he says. "One of my hopes, long term, is that this will be a place that will encourage the artists to do their best work."

And to encourage people to congregate at Signs of Life, regular lectures by artists and authors are planned. An 1894 Steinway grand piano in the center of the bookstore will encourage impromptu musical sessions. Musicians also will be invited to play on a small stage at the rear of the bookstore.

In those instances, the music will trickle up the staircases to the serene gallery space above, melding the visual, aural and, Schaefer hopes, the intellectual.

"We really believe in what artists are doing in terms of interacting with the world," Schaefer says. "I want this gallery to be a place where people can come and learn about creativity."


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