South County visitors may be forgiven for thinking the Charlestown Gallery – neighbor to a rustic diner, an ice-cream shop and a duck pond – to be more of a coastal gift shop than a showcase for fine American contemporary artists. “I love the shock value when people walk through the door,” says gallery co-owner Dave “Gilly” Gilstein. “They’re not just surprised, but impressed.”
Yes, you’ll find plenty of typical shoreline themes among the works exhibited here, but the subject matter varies widely (including Gilly’s own abstract art) along with the media – sculpture, photography, jewelry and oil and watercolor paintings, to name a few. “It’s not just seagulls and daffodils,” says Gilly.
For example, the main gallery is currently exhibiting the works of RISD and Yale graduate Amy Goodwin, whose mixed-media work uses floral images to explore deeper themes of blossoming and withering, informed by the artist’s experience raising teenage girls and acting as a caregiver for elderly parents. Mark Freedman’s oversize paintings – one hangs prominently behind the gallery’s cash register – examine not the South County beachscape, but rather the gritty urban landscape of Providence.
The Charlestown Gallery was founded in 1996 in an old farmhouse on Charlestown Beach Road by Mickey and Ran Ranalli, who operated it as a summer business for more than a decade before selling it to Renee O’Gara and Gilstein, their friends and fellow art lovers. About four years ago, the business was moved to its current location near the intersection of Route 2 and Route 1. The rural shopping center is perhaps best known as home to the Hungry Haven diner, but O’Gara and Gilstein couldn’t resist the opportunity to move into 3,000 square feet of ground-floor space – big enough for three galleries plus plenty of storage.
Today, the couple represents and exhibits 35 artists – Gilly sometimes laughingly refers to them as his “patients” – selling original works ranging in price from a few hundred dollars to $20,000 for a work by abstract artist Willy Heeks. Unlike many other small galleries, the Charlestown Gallery is open year-round, and isn’t a co-op; the artists are carefully chosen from applications that pour in at the rate of about one per day.
“We draw from a great pool of Rhode Island and area artists and present them to visitors from New York and Connecticut,” explains Gilly. “They’re not collectable yet, but all of them are working artists, so there’s hope there. They’re more of an heirloom than an investment – the stuff you would grab if your house was on fire.”
Connecticut-born Antonia Tyz Peeples, whose photorealistic oil paintings often focus on waves and the sea, is the Charletown Gallery’s biggest success story: she sells 25 paintings a year at the gallery, which also publishes a book detailing her work. Other popular artists include Diane Harrison, whose paintings focus on local landmarks like St. George’s School, Narragansett Beach and Galilee; and H. Gray Park IV, whose landscapes of the Barn Island marshes in Stonington sometimes include wayward members of the area’s ubiquitous biting-insect population, forever sealed in the paint.
Gilly displays some of his own works in a pair of humble locations – the gallery’s bathroom and kitchen – but ask for a backroom tour and you’ll also come across prized works such as Dean Richardson’s painting of Dodgers pitching legend Sandy Koufax. About two-thirds of gallery visitors are regulars, while others discover the collection during exhibit opening parties, or even while waiting for a table at the Hungry Haven on a busy weekend morning.
Visitors are welcomed in but not pressured; there’s nothing snooty about this gallery or its owners, and the accommodating attitude extends through the sales process. Potential buyers are welcome to bring home paintings for the night and hang them on their mantle before committing to purchase.
“My greatest pleasure is calling up an artist to say, ‘We sold your painting and we have a check for you,’” says Gilly. “One of the fun things about owning a gallery is that half of the artists have become our best friends. We love living and working with great art all the time. It’s something we love and believe in.”