By Gina King / Photos by Jeffery Lilly
“Drawing is the honesty of the art. There is no possibility of cheating. It is either good or bad.” -Salvador Dali
Cooper & Smith is not the first gallery to occupy the space at 10 Main Street in Essex; in fact, it’s the fourth. But the gallery is the first for its owners, Pamela St. Clair and Nathaniel Foote. They considered opening a gallery “in theory, only,” says Pamela, when property owners occasionally approached them with offers to put galleries in empty storefront buildings. “Eventually,” says Nathaniel, “we thought, why not?”
They find their arts backgrounds—Pamela’s in publishing and writing, and Nathaniel’s in television, music, and painting—to be advantageous. “It also helps,” says Nathaniel, “that Pamela and I have a seamless process when surveying large volumes of art. At home, we can debate forever which drawer the silverware should be in. We don’t debate about art. There we share a common vision.”
The scores of paintings at Cooper & Smith all have a story to share. As visitors stroll around the bright, 5,000-square-foot space, they encounter a curated collection, primarily oil paintings, in a variety of genres and styles, such as the plein air landscapes of Maine artist, Donald Demers or the still life paintings of Judith Pond Kudlow. Both artists work directly from observation, but Nathaniel points out how, in Kudlow’s work, “the three dimensional illusion folding paper and fabric, acts as a portal into a dual universe of traditional realism and abstraction.”
The large space provides them with the opportunity to traverse a familiar gulf in the art industry between abstract and representational art. “Visitors would burn themselves out after the first aisle if we were to show just one style,” says Pamela. “It’s easy to become saturated with 100 feet of any one art, no matter how excellent.” Nathaniel sees no conflict in such a diverse range, noting that “abstraction itself is a necessary component for artists in any genre. Every art form relies on the distillation of the observable.” Instead of a preoccupation with style, they look for evidence of drawing at any stage in the artist’s process. Drawing, as well as a masterful command of color, are at the core of the current exhibit, a 15 year retrospective of paintings by internationally acclaimed artist, Stephen Westfall. On view through mid-January, Westfall’s bold geometric abstractions fall along a continuum of Minimalism that includes Frank Stella, Agnes Martin, and Sol Lewitt.
“Looking back, it was a miracle that we pulled the place together,” explains Pamela. They weren’t facing major renovations, but it still took months and at least $10,000 just to clean and prepare the show space before they could even think about acquiring art. “We were starting from scratch,” says Nathaniel, “cold-calling, rekindling friendships, reaching out to connections from art school.” Finding not only the right art, but enough of the right art to fill approximately 6,000 feet of wall space was a compounding challenge. Pamela adds, “If we weren’t painting walls, we were traveling up and down the coast. Nathaniel was racing to New York to pick up paintings the night before we opened.”
That night was June 24, 2015. They hired a jazz duo from New York: Conrad Korsch, bassist for Rod Stewart’s band and legendary jazz guitarist, Ron Affif. In the beginning, they rotated their featured exhibits monthly. When it became apparent that the art was holding the public’s attention and deserved longer periods of exposure, they switched to a more flexible schedule. “We are hanging art that endures,” says Nathaniel, “art that people want to have around for a lifetime.” And with certain collectors regularly checking in to see new work, they’re constantly updating their catalog.
For anyone wondering what it’s like for a couple to work together, it’s a challenge, they both agree, but one they work hard at every day. One of the struggles, according to Pamela, is not talking about work all the time. But then again, they are working all the time; not only when the gallery doors are open, but behind the scenes as well, researching new artists, traveling to studios, keeping up with the paperwork, maintaining the website, advertising—doing it all themselves. “I never would have agreed to such a risky undertaking if not for my confidence in Nathaniel’s art,” says Pamela. And in keeping with the compatibility of a true partnership, where Pamela leaves off, Nathaniel continues, explaining that they adhere to “a division of labor that makes the most of each other’s strengths.”
They met in 2009, both having recently returned to Connecticut. After studying art at The Cooper Union in Manhattan, Nathaniel, an established American Realist painter, had a number of jobs before ending up in Paris, France. He was living month to month out of a tiny room he describes as a “chambre de bonne,” while painting, drawing, and traveling—and loving it all. A career opportunity brought him back to New York, where he worked as an Emmy award winning animator and art director. He was commuting between New York and Connecticut when he met Pamela, a published poet with a math degree from Smith College. Their friendship began when “Sweetboy,” the Rhodesian Ridgeback-Rottweiler-Pit Bull mix he rescued from the streets of New York City, climbed into Pamela’s lap and wouldn’t let her leave. “He knew before we did that we would be together,” says Pamela. Sweetboy shows up in Nathaniel’s artwork, gazing with gentle eyes out of a portrait and posthumously, walking down Essex Main Street.
Mid-way between Boston and New York, Essex turns out to be the ideal location for such a sizable art gallery. “If you walk outside, especially with a French easel, it’s amazing the people you meet from all over the world,” says Nathaniel. “Our clients wait tables. They run Fortune 500 companies. They are high energy, passionate people. They’re seekers, connoisseurs, amateurs, professionals, collectors, or artists themselves.” One American buyer placed a long riverscape in his cubicle in Hong Kong. A Connecticut couple wanted the perfect piece to install at the hearth of a spacious Fairfield home. “It’s the best part of the job,” says Pamela, “to be able to connect clients with art that resonates on some level as an extension or reflection of their own stories.”
Cooper & Smith, LLC, 10 Main Street,, Essex, Connecticut
(860) 581-8526 www.cooperandsmithgallery.com