TERRE HAUTE — Since the establishment of the Arts Corridor along Seventh and Wabash, downtown Terre Haute has slowly but surely been becoming a Cinderella city of the Midwestern arts scene on “First Friday” nights.
For the occasion, artists from around the Wabash Valley, and in fact from around the world, open exhibits of their work for a month or more in the neighborhood’s four galleries, an artists’ emporium, and in the Swope Art Museum. Several hundred guests are now regularly turning out to see the new art on these remarkable nights.
The exhibits can be brilliant, wildly exuberant artistic displays of exciting figurative and abstract art, often richly colorful but occasionally black and white. Art is displayed in oil paintings on canvas, pastels-on-paper, charcoal drawings, sculptures, lithographs, photography, and more. Guests to the openings are treated to music and wine, beverages and hors d’oeuvres, the conversation of old friends, the opportunity to make new ones, and perhaps the inspiration to get more creative in their own right.
“First Fridays are better than a party,” said Denise Sobieski to her friend, Barbara Weber, while they were dining near the Arts Corridor with the big supper crowd Bella Rossa Market has during its extended hours for these special nights. “You don’t have to make invitations, cook, or clean up afterwards, and everybody always comes.”
The First Friday phenomenon did not begin in Terre Haute. For years, cities with art gallery neighborhoods have offered them to the public (some major metro areas with gallery districts attract thousands of First Friday visitors every month).
In the past, the Swope Art Museum sponsored First Friday activities, but they lapsed. Then four years ago when the Halcyon Gallery moved to Seventh and Ohio, it began having First Fridays as openings for its artists; at around the same time, the Swope resumed its Friday cultural offerings. Soon, Arts Illiana at 30 N. Sixth joined the First Friday scene, which was further enriched two years ago by the opening of the Gopalan Gallery near the Swope. The redevelopment of downtown Terre Haute and the addition to its skyline of the Hilton Garden Inn and Candlewood Suites has also drawn First Friday visitors into the Arts Corridor.
Part of the appeal of First Fridays is the venues tend to offer exhibits that can attract people with different tastes. Visitors are now coming from Brazil, Paris, Marshall, and beyond.
Enter the Gopalan Gallery in the Arts Corridor on South Seventh, where during First Friday gatherings a classical guitarist, Brent McPike, has been seen sitting in a picture window shell strumming tunes while the galleries guests mix and chat, sample wine and hors d’oeuvres, and take in the new monthly exhibits of art.
The gallery is known for featuring the work of international artists or area artists who have drawn inspiration from abroad. Proprietress Sujata Gopalan, who came to Terre Haute from India when she was a girl, says that she count among the fortunate influences of her life having had for her first major art teacher John Laska. (During his career at Terre Haute’s former State High School, Laska was regarded as one of the finest high school art instructors in the United States.) “To strive for perfection was what he trained all of us students to do,” recalled Gopalan.
In September, the Gopalan Gallery has been featuring the work of Susan Goldman, an internationally noted printmaker from Washington. D.C., whose body of work for the show was prints made from 13 woodcuts and monotypes. Gopalan has also featured selected pieces of her own artwork.
Goldman’s art for the show was inspired by a trip she made to Morocco, where she became fascinated by the colors, patterns of art, and the land’s rich antiquity. One of Goldman’s monotype woodcuts, “Amphora Confession 1,” expresses Goldman’s feeling that the ancient two-handled amphora vessel is a superb metaphor for the human body. “Amphora Confession 1” gives its viewers a sense that they are gazing out of the vessel through latticework offering a glimpse through time into a bright collage of many levels of Moroccan culture from Spanish to Berber and Arabic.
By being able to talk with artists like Goldman in an informal First Friday gallery setting, a listener can get a good feel for the person and the history of the artwork on exhibit. Goldman has walked through the arch-covered streets of Tangier’s Casbahs with turbaned men and veiled women, smelled burning incense in their passageways, and heard high-pitched Arabesque music streaming into bazaars’ walkways from adjacent shops and cafes. Her amphora vessels project the spiraling quality of North Africa’s minarets and mosque domes, even a vague feeling of a dancing dervish whirling through the air. Many vessels were brightly colored reds and blues, but others were dark and mysterious, like veiled women standing in the shadows of a dark alley.
After Goldman saw Tangiers, she traveled on to the international artists’ colony of Asilah, a city on Morocco’s Atlantic coast first populated by the Phoenicians in 1,500 B.C. and now flourishing with Mediterranean architecture and white-washed houses trimmed in blue. There, she drank in more of the spirit of Morocco’s antiquity, which she ably breathed into her amphora vessels.
In the Gopalan’s north gallery room, was Sujata’s own impressive diaristic work. One splendid piece, “Mahabalipurum” is a series of four interconnected pastels-on-paper forming a contemporary harmonious scene using as the basis of its imagery the ancient historic landscape of equatorial South India, transformed through the pictures into an idyll of serene rice paddies and palm trees unified by a river flowing through pictures gracefully as a blue silk belt.
Halcyon Gallery is a block south of the Gopalan. Visitors to the establishment are greeted by the eerily mythological-looking glass woman on the corner of Seventh and Ohio.
Step into the main gallery room and be greeted by an artist such as the voluble, charismatic Whitney Engeran, who walks about in a black beret. Engeran was a professor of art theory and criticism at ISU from 1971-2002 — and he is a proud Acadian (Cajun) who often colors his artwork with the vivid hues he saw in his youth while growing up in Louisiana.
Engeran’s September exhibit at the Halcyon, “Bayou Baroque,” has been a richly delicious, partially representational color gumbo of florid multi-hued imagery, a swirling cosmic collage richly filled with images of fish, crawfish, brown pelicans, and often orchids.
“We now know from finding orchid pollen in bees preserved in amber that orchids have been on earth for 45 million years — twice as long as previously thought,” said Engeran, who titled one of his works “Ancient Orchids Rising.”
Engeran said that his paintbrush is his way of bringing order to the flaming imagery of the cosmos as it impacts upon his eye, that he loves using his painted images to depict the vastness of the ground of our being in a mystic way.
“Be bold, let the cosmic power be your guide!” Engeran exclaimed.
He recounted how one of his best art lessons was taught to him by his teacher, Andre Girard, who took him to the Bronx Zoo in New York and encouraged him to observe with the eyes of child the wild color and exotic forms of the creatures in the animal kingdom. One time Girard stopped Engeran to point out a Toucan, an ungainly looking Central American bird with a glowing yellow beak with a coal black tip as well as other brilliant coloring: “Look at that bird, Whitney. Its proportions are not correct. No artist would design it with those dimensions, yet nature works—it creates marvelous creatures.”
Engeran can get passionate about his love for color: “A turtle’s shell has 200 shades of brown! Look at an apple—it has hundreds of shades of red, green, brown, and yellow. … People miss too much of the world’s wonderful color because they’ve never been taught to look. If we train our eyes, even a city street in Terre Haute can become filled with countless shades of gray and brown, as much color as the Sistine Chapel. Look—just look: see the thousands of shades of color right before our eyes.”
One visitor to the Halcyon, Morgan Clinton, while observing Engeran’s work “Mardi Gras Floats, King and Queen,” said of it, “I think it’s great how he uses symbols. It’s aesthetically pleasing even if I’m not exactly sure what it means. …”
Petra Nyendick, the proprietress of the Halcyon, anticipates that this will be the best-ever First Friday season for sales as the recessed local economy begins to rebound.
According to Lisa Petrulis, curator of exhibits and collections at the Swope Art Museum, First Fridays are an opportunity for the museum to offer interesting monthly cultural presentations as well as to share with guests fine art, hors d’oeuvres, and the opportunity to mix with other art lovers.
The Swope gives regular monthly presentations and usually has more than one session each Friday night. These include discussions of books and talks, such as one in September by Tony Lanman on the subject of synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon in which people’s sense of sight and sound can get interchanged in such a way that a person might hear colors.
Arts Illiana, located a block from the Arts Corridor at 23 N. Sixth, exhibits the work of its Wabash Valley members, who must win juried contests to have their art displayed. Often Arts Illiana presents live music on First Fridays, and its hors d’oeuvres and wine selections are second to none among the downtown art venues. The gallery’s major events, like the opening of new shows and the giving of grants and awards by community organizations, always coincide with First Fridays.
“We had a lot of fun at our September show, said project coordinator, Trevor Bridgewater; we had the musical group Yearbook Committee ’73. On First Friday, the group filmed ‘Folked up in Terre Haute’ for You Tube.”
First Friday fellowship at all the downtown galleries tends to reach its peak at around eight. Visitors who have made the scene often find themselves engaged in wide-ranging conversations of books, films, travel—travel all about the world from Alaska to Kenya, India to Siberia. Or they may be sharing everyday gossip or discussions of home remodeling. Of course, ideas are discussed, political philosophies of all sorts and spiritual attitudes from Christian to New Age.
Delightful serendipity is always a First Friday possibility; for example, sometimes people making the scene step off the beaten path of the main galleries and explore the studios in the Hane Building, an artists’ emporium on the east side of Seventh Street across from the Indiana Theater where a dozen or so artists maintain small studios to do their work.
One tenant in the Hane Building is Karl Barnebey, a retired ISU English professor who has since been working on his masters of fine arts at ISU. He does charcoal drawings and lithographic prints in charcoal. The walls of his cozy Bamboo Gallery feature charcoal and lithographic depictions of the human figure and some of Terre Haute’s trees, including “Mulberry on Oak Street,” the story of which Barnebey enjoys sharing with patrons: “The tree is actually the second biggest mulberry in Indiana and is 18 feet in circumference,” he said. “It is in my neighborhood behind a backyard fence, so few people are aware how big and beautiful it is.”
After gaining permission to study the tree, Barnebey was able to spend enough hours sketching it that he managed to create a dreamlike image with wildly juxtaposed primordial limbs, a splendidly archetypal tree giving the impression of having sprouted roots at the beginning of time.
As the galleries close on a First Friday, if someone has been sufficiently stirred by the art, wine, and conversation to think outside of his or her normal mental box, after walking once more back down the Arts Corridor from Ohio Street to Wabash Avenue, maybe, just maybe, when the person reaches Wabash Avenue, its many shades of gray and brown will seem luminous as the Sistine Chapel, and the road itself a magical thoroughfare upon which a dreamer might amble into the stars.
if you go — this first friday
• For the Oct. 2 First Friday, galleries in the vicinity of the Terre Haute Arts Corridor will offer many new exhibits and attractions.
• In October, Swope Art Museum will feature two new exhibits: “Heartland Graffiti: Writers from the Midwest” as well as “Radicals, Patriots & Artists of Conscience.” At 7 and 8 p.m. Friday there will be talks at the Swope about the exhibits.
• The Halcyon Gallery’s artists for October will be Philip Dees, whose exhibit, “A Warehouse of Forms,” features large steel sculptures, and Ezra Birt, an ISU student who will be exhibiting a new media installation, “Decode This,” based on technology. Halcyon’s First Friday exhibit will take place from 7 to 9 p.m.
• The Gopalan Gallery’s First Friday exhibit for October will be a special display of collected works from artists who have previously exhibited at the Gopalan. The gallery will be open on October 2 from 7 to 9 p.m.
• Arts Illiana’s next special First Friday event will be its Holiday Arts Walk, scheduled for Friday, December 4, from 6 to 9 p.m.
• The Raven Gallery at 817 Ohio Street is open on First Fridays until 9 p.m.