In Newport: New gallery features art reflecting social concerns
by Joseph Gresser
NEWPORT — A new addition to Newport’s art scene opened Sunday, offering an exhibit with a title — “Politically Incorrect” — that pointed out the path the gallery means to follow.
According to Diane Peel, its founder, the 99 Gallery is an outgrowth of NEK 99 %, an organization inspired by the Occupy protests of 2011 and made up of local activists. The gallery is tucked into a lovely old carriage house on School Street, just off Main Street.
On Sunday the space was filled with artists — some of high school age — and visitors. On the walls, a variety of works was displayed, most of them reflecting social concerns.
Abigail Meredith’s acrylic “Shockwave” shows a woman with her hair blowing back in a blast of intense white light. The North Country Union High School junior said the painting was meant to remind viewers that the peril of nuclear weapons remains.
She said she came up with the image when she heard that the energy of an atomic bomb can burn the silhouette of a figure into a nearby wall.
In Ms. Meredith’s image, though, the figure is not the result of a catastrophe.
“I put it in the middle of the explosion rather than the aftermath,” she said. “Movement is very interesting to me.”
Ms. Meredith, along with North Country freshman Ryland Brown, whose intricate pen and ink drawing of a skull and guitar also graced the new art space, is studying at the school’s Arts and Communications Academy.
One of their teachers, Natalie Guillette, also contributed a painting to the show, an eerie image of a face shrouded in a mask. According to her artist’s statement, Ms. Guillette was moved to create a series of similar paintings by a visit to a World War II museum where gas masks were on exhibit.
Other artists from the community also brought their works for the initial show. Jack Rogers showed a trio of pencil drawings, which included an image of a hand blocking the lens of a camera and Rodney King being menaced by the baton of a police officer.
In a very different vein, Sam Thurston of Lowell offered a drawing of a street life under a New York elevated train and a watercolor illustration of a verse by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
The 99 Gallery, while it offers a home to artists living in and around Newport, was created in large part to display the work of a painter and sculptor who spent very little of his life in the area.
Ms. Peel’s father, Donald William Peel, was an active artist for most of his 89 years. He started making paintings in the magic realist style in the 1950s, moved on to abstract sculpture, and finally back to surrealist paintings in his final years.
Mr. Peel achieved recognition, especially on the West Coast, where he lived most of his life. His work is represented in museums and university collections in the Pacific Northwest.
Ms. Peel said that after her mother, a fashion designer, died in 2001 she wanted her father to move to Vermont and build a home and a studio that could handle the big painting he was making. Sadly, Mr. Peel died in 2010.
Left with a large collection of her father’s works, Ms. Peel said she had to make a choice. She could store the big surrealist paintings, but then they wouldn’t be seen and, without climate control, would suffer permanent damage. She decided on the alternative of creating a space in which her father’s work can be shown and, she hopes, purchased by collectors.
Her plans call for interspersing shows by living artists with displays of her father’s paintings.
Ms. Peel said she wants the new gallery to serve as a home for work that might not fit in at the MAC Center. Her gallery is not intended to compete with the more established art space, Ms. Peel said, but is meant to broaden the options available to artists and art lovers in Newport.
She said she hopes to offer “edgier” art than might be possible for a space that relies on sales to keep its doors open. The 99 Gallery, Ms. Peel said, is paid for out of her earnings as a nurse and can keep going whether or not any paintings are sold.
The gallery, like the NEK 99 % organization is nonpolitical, Ms. Peel said.
“We’re not involved with the political process,” Ms. Peel declared. “We’re involved with the people process.”
Pointing to Mr. Rogers’ drawing of the blocked camera, she said the image depicts the “surveillance state.” Government intrusion into the private affairs of citizens is not a political issue, but a people issue, Ms. Peel said.
She recalled criticisms of the original Occupy protests, which questioned the movement’s lack of leadership and formal structure. Those objections, she said, were based on a misunderstanding of the movement’s intentions.
“Occupy was trying to organize a horizontal system at the grassroots level,” she said. The 99 Gallery, Ms. Peel will embody the same principles.
Those who want to see how these principles look on the walls of a gallery can see “Politically Incorrect” through the end of July.
contact Joseph Gresser at [email protected]