Area artists discovering a new home at Whitney Studios
By BENJAMIN RAY
Herald Special Writer
When one thinks of Michigan art galleries, places like Lansing, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids spring to mind.
Add Tecumseh to that list.
Not only has Whitney Studio been open since February, owner Susan Whitney-Johnson continues to add work from local artists and offer workshops for would-be painters. A dozen or so artists from Tecumseh, Manchester, Ann Arbor and the like are selling and exhibiting their work in the 113 W. Chicago Blvd. gallery.
This is work that encompasses Michigan. Vivid colors and serene landscapes share wall space with portraits of animals and historical scenes from the Tecumseh area. Glass-blown crafts and cute wool animals — the “warm fuzzies” — sit next to haunting acrylic paintings of people and abstract oil work conveying different emotions to different viewers.
“I was so happy that a gallery opened up in Tecumseh. The response shows there’s enough of an artist community here to support it,” said Amy Sowers, a local resident and creator of the aforementioned abstract oil paintings. “(Whitney-Johnson) is providing the outlet for some of us who would not have been able to show our stuff otherwise.”
Unlike many art galleries around the state, Whitney Studio is pretty much devoted to art, making it a destination for the more serious fan. The entire right wall is covered in a myriad of paintings, charcoal drawings, sculptures and prints.
Off to the left is Whitney-Johnson’s studio, which boasts a number of almost-finished paintings, which she will get around to soon. In the middle of the studio is an open space with a table for artists to work or congregate.
That ability is what Whitney-Johnson enjoys most about her studio since she opened it in February with a small number of paintings and a large number of hopes. Having alone time but being able to interact with fellow artists, she said, is a blessing.
“I always knew I had to try art,” she said. “If you’re not doing something creative, it’s destructive.”
After graduating from Eastern Michigan University with an art education degree, Whitney-Johnson taught at the former Boysville school and at Monroe Community College for a time. She now devotes herself to running the gallery and painting frequently — embodying the spirit of trying anything, which has fueled her since she was young.
“I don’t understand people who can say they’re bored,” she said. “People are afraid to fail, so they don’t try things ... You have to be willing to screw up.”
Kate Schwab, who makes the small animals out of wool, helps Whitney-Johnson run the gallery. A rear entrance to the shop is available, giving easier access to paintings from Dian Rentschler and Sowers.
And in the middle of the wall, on the floor, is a fired clay “raka” piece from Susan Kaminifi, who lives in Pennsylvania and has art exhibited around the world. Whitney-Johnson found it at a secondhand store and plans on getting in touch with Kaminifi to find more information on the piece, which depicts the upper half of a woman in various shades of blue and gray.
“It’s my good luck piece,” she said.
Opportunities for many
The work exhibited in the gallery is as diverse as the artists who create it: Rentschler, Whitney-Johnson, Sowers, Nell O’Leary, Patricia Green, Lorenzo Cristaudo and Diane Sweeny, along with a couple of pieces from others not in the area.
On a typical afternoon, Whitney-Johnson is working on a painting on one side of the table and O’Leary is doing the same, sitting across from her, the two discussing art, life. Jackson Browne or ‘60s music plays in the background. The occasional patron stops by to browse or buy one of the pieces.
It’s a good atmosphere in which to create, which is why O’Leary, 18, spends her days there. The Tecumseh High School graduate will attend Hillsdale College in the fall for art; she prefers to paint people, using quick-drying acrylic colors and working from photographs. On this particular afternoon, she’s working from a photo of four children curled up in various poses in a large bed.
“I don’t know what else I’d do,” she said, when asked about art as a career. “I’ve always loved drawing ... I do it because I like to do it.”
O’Leary has three pieces on the wall: a close-up of three actors from the movie “Trainspotting,” a haunting portrait of a young child from a “National Geographic” magazine and a striking image of her friend called “Shout,” which won third place at a Lenawee Council for the Visual Arts competition.
“I love the energy she brings,” Whitney-Johnson said of O’Leary. “It’s just what I needed here.”
Then there’s Diane Sweeny, a self-taught painter who had to buy a new house with her husband because they ran out of room for her work. A fan of oils and acrylics, Sweeny said her husband bought her her first paint set when they lived in Toledo; from that, and from working in an art store there, her love of creating colorful pieces grew.
“I get excitement out of it, especially when things start to form,” she said.
Sowers, 33, graduated from Siena Heights and never knew how art would fit into her life, but she always knew she needed to paint. A waitress and mother, Sowers said painting is less frequent now but no less rewarding.
As to why she paints abstract oil pieces, Sowers said she loves the richness of the colors, which expresses the deepest feelings.
“My art is more driven from feeling and emotion...and maybe what song I’m listening to at that moment,” she said. “I go from my instincts and gut and paint what I feel.”
And, of course, there’s Rentschler, who paints local landscapes and scenes but is fascinated by history. Being able to exhibit her work in Whitney-Johnson’s gallery is a great chance, she said, and the other local artists agreed with her sentiment.
“It’s great Susan is willing to provide this opportunity,” Rentschler said.
Sweeny agreed and said Tecumseh needs what Whitney-Johnson offers.
“There aren’t enough good art galleries around here (southern Michigan),” she said.
Well, there are now.