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Harlem Art Gallery Looks to Cultivate Local Arts Scene

By Jeff Mays | February 24, 2012 4:46pm
Charles Knox LaSister decided to turn his four-unit condominium project into an art gallery to display his mother's works.
Charles Knox LaSister decided to turn his four-unit condominium project into an art gallery to display his mother's works.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — After finishing renovations on a four-unit condominium on West 129th Street in December, Charles Knox LaSister made a decision that had unknowingly been decades in the making.

Rather than let the building sit empty while waiting for state approval to bring in tenants, LaSister, who had collected the paintings of his mother that had never been professionally shown, decided to temporarily turn the space into an art gallery.

That's how Knox Gallery was born.

"Part of what I wanted to do with the gallery was an effort to encourage her. I want to keep her energized," LaSister said about his 81-year-old mother Myra LaSister, who began painting in the 1960s.

"I also wanted to bring something back to the neighborhood and link into all the energy here in the context of art," added the real estate investor and attorney, who was born in Harlem.

Knox Gallery is hosting a closing reception Friday night for only its second show, "Women of Colours." Curated by Harlem artist Misha McGlown, the show features several female artists who work in everything from collage to mixed-media using glass mosaic techniques learned in India.

"Women artists are more expressive, because we are more in touch with our emotions and spiritual centers," McGlown said. "We have the ability to create life, and I feel like it reflects in the art."

Featured in the show are artists such as Gigi Boldon, whose work with nude collages recalls the collages of Romare Bearden and the style of Pablo Picasso. Some of artist Lisa Ingram's colorful works focus on her husband's hearing loss because of a progressive disease. And Harlem artist Grace Y. Williams works with glass and mirrors, and found objects to create pieces with historical elements, such as her depiction of Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes and James Brown.

McGlown said there is a disconnect between art collectors and the growing number of artists who are calling Harlem home.

"We have a lot of artists, and we need collectors," McGlown said. "There are a lot of people in Harlem who can afford to buy art, but they aren't attuned to it."

Al Johnson, an artist and creative director for Knox Gallery, agreed.

"Harlem is a mecca for creativity," he said. "What we are trying to do is introduce the community to the best of our culture."

The casual, homey atmosphere of places like Knox Gallery may be able to help change that, McGlown explained.

"As a new collector, going to the art galleries in Chelsea can be intimidating," she said. "That's why spaces like this are important for Harlem."

Johnson said he's made small changes, such as painting the walls an off-white tone, as opposed to the normal stark white walls of most galleries.

"I didn't want the space to be stuffy. It should feel like a more home-like environment," Johnson said.

Myra LaSister, meanwhile, said seeing her work displayed after so many decades has given her great satisfaction. She has been very prolific over the years, and saw some of her works she had forgotten about displayed on the gallery's walls that.

Charles Knox LaSister remembered his mother painting as a way to escape from the stress of being a wife and mother. For years, she painted on discarded items, including a broken card table.

The first painting of his mother's he recalled seeing was one that portrayed his father as both an ogre and a wonderful man. It wasn't until the 1980s that she started using canvas, and it became "more than something to do to get away from the kids," he said.

"I just did it because I enjoyed doing it," said Myra LaSister, who used to paint the scenes for her kids' school plays but never received any formal training.

"I just wanted to dabble, and that's what I did. And then he started stealing all of my paintings," Myra LaSister said, pointing at her son.

Charles Knox LaSister said he doesn't regret borrowing his mother's work to display in his offices over the years, or housing her paintings in the Knox Gallery.

Having the gallery has sparked an idea for another real estate venture that would include artist live-work lofts in Harlem.

But as the paperwork for the condominium's office plan moves closer to completion, he said he knows he has a decision to make.

"Maybe we'll keep the gallery here or sell the units and move the gallery into a more traditional space," said Charles Knox LaSister. "Either way we are trying to do something special."

The closing reception for 'Women of Colours" will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Fri., Feb. 24, at Knox Gallery, 129 W. 129th St.