Step into the Galleria d’Arte in Palm Coast, and the unearthly purple glow emanating from the back room may convince you that you’ve stumbled into some sort of Twilight Zone-ish, extraterrestrial outpost. Or that you’ve time-tripped back to some hippie’s far-out, black-lit pad during the Summer of Love.
The reality is only slightly less jolting: It’s the artwork of Barb Forristall Scapin, an area abstract expressionist who does Rabo Karabekian, the artist-protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Bluebeard,” one better. Karabekian portrayed all living creatures, from St. Anthony to a cockroach, as “unwavering bands of light.” Scapin uses fluorescent paints set on eerie fire by the ultraviolet rays of, yes, black lights to create seemingly pulsating pentagons, octagons and other geometrics, as well as wavering, twisty bands of light – OK, UV-lit paint. Such is the modus operandi of her paintings “Dueling Dragons,” “Endless Hurricanes” and others.
Lisette Otero-Lewis, a photographer with a fine arts degree from Belhaven University, a Christian liberal arts school in Jackson, Miss., opened Galleria d’Arte in December in Palm Coast’s St. Joe Plaza, toward what is currently the west end of Palm Coast Parkway.
“My dream – there are so many things – my main dream is to bring the contemporary arts here and showcase local artists,” say Otero-Lewis, who lives with her physician husband Edmund Lewis in Flagler County near Marineland (the couple own a second home in Central Florida, where Lewis is a hospitalist at Villages Health System).
“We have a lot of local regional art, which is really wonderful,” Otero-Lewis says. By “regional” art, it’s clear that Otero-Lewis means not art created by area painters, but art that depicts the physical flora and fauna of the region – that is, Florida landscapes, beach scenes and creatures.
“But I’m a lover of contemporary art and modern art and fine art modern photography,” she says. “I know that’s not everybody’s taste but that’s OK – they have a slew of other galleries for that. There are artists here who do contemporary art.”
Galleria d’Arte’s first exhibition, which runs through February 28, features the Gargiulo Art Foundation’s 2020 Flagler County Artist of the Year nominees, which include Scapin, Bob Teller, Jan Jackson and Christine Broussard. While none of that other trio matches the Mark Rothko-ness (or the Rabo Karabekian-ness) of Scapin’s paintings, their works nonetheless align, to various degrees, with Otero-Lewis’s “contemporary” mission, whether it’s Broussard’s “Together (Purple/Pink)” or her Jackson Pollock-esque “Sailing in the Wind,” Jackson’s playful, folk art-inspired “Cowbelles in a Meadow” or Teller’s harrowing, if not horrifying, “Conflagration 9/11,” an artistic if not quite thematic heir apparent of J.M.W. Turner’s duel 1835 works, “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons.”
Otero-Lewis has established an informal partnership with the Gargiulo Art Foundation, headed by artist Tom Gargiulo and his life partner Arlene Volpe, and with artist J.J. Graham, owner of Salvo Art Project, a gallery and multiple artist studio complex housed in a vintage home in Bunnell. Works by GAF and Salvo artists will be featured at Galleria d’Arte, although the two-wing gallery in the St. Joe Plaza strip mall will feature other artists, including the currently displayed smaller works of sculptor Marilyn Leverton. Those other artists will be part of the gallery’s Art on the Plaza Spring Show May 7-20. That exhibition also will include an outdoor show on May 8. The gallery has put out a call for art for both facets of the event.
“This is not a co-op,” says Otero-Lewis, who previously owned galleries in Jackson and Canton, Miss., before she and her husband moved to Punta Gorda and then Flagler County in August 2018.
“Artists can consign a wall, but it’s going to be juried – it’s a jury of one,” she adds with a laugh. “Tom and J.J. and I will work closely together, but this gallery is mine.”
Opening a gallery, or any retail business, may seem counter-intuitive or even crazy during a pandemic with its social distancing as well as rampant unemployment, which has limited people’s disposable income. But Otero-Lewis notes several factors that influenced her decision: the closing of the Berkshire Hathaway realty office at European Village in Palm Coast, which housed a gallery space frequently used by the Gargiulo Art Foundation and other artists; and the pandemic-enforced curtailing of exhibitions at the Flagler County Art League in Palm Coast’s City Market Place, another venue frequently utilized by the GAF.
In January 2020, Otero-Lewis began talking to friends and artists about opening a gallery, “and Tom got wind of it, so we started talking about how that could work,” she says, adding that she was working part-time then, before recently taking a full-time job at an accounting firm. “Tom had these artists that he needed to exhibit their work — not just one piece but their body of work, such as the nominees for the artist of the year.”
“We badly needed a new gallery after the closing of Berkshire Hathaway,” says Gargiulo, who has long and frequently lamented the lack of ample exhibition spaces for artists in Flagler County. “Jan Jackson curates art shows at Grand Living Realty (in Palm Coast). The only other two places where artists can exhibit is the Flagler County Art league, and their goal is mainly monthly theme shows, and the new Pineapple Gallery in Flagler Beach.
“So, I just thought the time was right to open another gallery,” Gargiulo adds, noting that his foundation is paying $1,280 per month to use both wings of Galleria d’Arte. “I thought it was a good opportunity to help Lisette out and at the same time be beneficial to the foundation where we could do more solo art shows, two-person shows, and show artists’ works in-depth.”
Graham, whose Salvo Art Project, before the pandemic, had monthly exhibits featuring artists from its own studios as well as artists from throughout the area, doesn’t see Galleria d’Arte as competition.
“I’ve always had the opinion that with art, the more you have in a town, the better,” he says. “It’s kind of like people get off at the exit were all the shoe stores are. I definitely realize how rewarding and at times it can be a struggle trying to make a gallery work in this town. I hope for the best in their venture.”
Graham is still formulating how Salvo’s working relationship with Galleria d’Arte will come to fruition, but possibilities include a show featuring his own work, or one featuring multiple artists who rent studio space at Salvo.
Otero-Lewis also wants to be a mentor for young artists in the area.
“I really want to tap into the youth here,” she says. “We are losing those artists because they leave because there’s no place for them here to really showcase their art. I started a young emerging artists program at the Flagler County Art league, and they are going to continue to showcase them over there.
“But I’m going to give the opportunity for that one person or two people to actually have space to showcase here too, so they can get that experience of putting a series together, having the experience of having their art up and learning to market, teaching them those skills that they are going to need for the future. That’s one thing I know not a lot of art programs do, but the art program that I went to did that. We learned marketing, we learned how to do the business side of art – not just the art art stuff (laughs).”
And yes, Otero-Lewis – whose rapid conversation is peppered with excited but not pedantic references to such photography masters as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-Brisson and Sally Mann – will be exhibiting her own photography at her gallery, which will also house her studio in the back.
Otero-Lewis was born in Connecticut, but her family moved to South Florida when she was in the third grade. She got her first “real” camera, a Pentax 35mm film camera, when she was in the 10th grade. She is grateful her high school art teacher was not an art snob who disregarded photography.
“She was amazing,” Otero-Lewis says. “She taught art and the fine art of photography and the history of photography. Not so much the commercial side but more the fine art side, so we were learning principles of design and lighting and things like that, and studying the masters and doing darkroom work.
“Coming from the school of fine art, I think it’s definitely not the camera that’s going to make the shot. It’s going to be your eye, your instinct, your knowledge and your expertise, and of course you never really master it because you’re always learning.”
Indeed, Otero-Lewis is pursuing a master’s degree in photography online through the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
And don’t be surprised if art depicting landscapes, flora and fauna, and other traditional subjects occasionally finds its way into Galleria d’Arte.
“You can have sublime work that looks traditional,” Otero-Lewis says (which is amply demonstrated by Teller’s portrait “Vestige of Bygone Days” at the gallery). “Some of it is amazing. Look at (Palm Coast artist) Allison Richter – she does these oil paintings of wildlife, birds and stuff, on her Instagram. We can exhibit those maybe if we had a series where there’s actually a cohesive body of work and there was a meaning to it, behind it.
“But for Palm Coast being as big as it is, I don’t think we have enough variety of art.”
Galleria d’Arte is at 230-231 St. Joe Plaza Dr, Palm Coast, Florida. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, until 9 p.m. during Second Saturday Art Walk, and TBA for special receptions and events. Information: 386-0585-4191 or galleriadeart.com.