LEE -- Phil Pryjma of Great Barrington had never owned an art gallery until he started one in South Lee last summer.
In August 2012 he opened the St. Francis Gallery on Route 102 by converting a former Catholic church -- St. Francis Chapel -- into a visual arts venue.
Pryjma's goal was, in part, to help promote dozens of fledgling local artists. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the paintings, drawings and sculptures also goes toward purchasing educational and medical supplies for people in Kenya and Ethiopia.
"It's hard for artists starting out to sell their work," he said. "I also found the public's response to the art showed I don't need a ‘name' artist to draw people in."
His business approach has attracted hundreds of residents, he said, along with tourists from local lodgings or passing through.
Brooklyn native Stew Fleisig and his wife were among the recent visitors drawn to the multi-colored gallery's local flavor.
"We like bringing back memories of where we were, work unique to the countryside," Fleisig said.
The apparent early success of St. Francis Gallery, along with the growing popularity of two established galleries on Main Street, has Lee on the path of becoming a destination spot in the Berkshire visual arts scene.
The Good Purpose Gallery and the J. Peter Scolforo Gallery within Lee Library have been part of the downtown revitalization that began after the mass exodus of nearly 200 paper manufacturing jobs more than five years ago.
The Good Purpose Gallery opened in July 2011 as part of local businessman Michael McManmon's $3.7 million rehabilitation of the Baird & Benton block, once home to the H.A. Johansson Five & Dime store.
McManmon created the first floor exhibit space to connect art with education, said gallery coordinator Eileen Mahoney.
"We bring awareness of artists with learning differences," she said. "The premise is not only to sell art, but to serve people with autism and beyond."
The current exhibit, CIP Showcase, gathers artwork from students enrolled in McManmon's College Internship Program. CIP, a Lee-based business, helps young adults with high-functioning autism to prepare for college or the workforce by fostering their creative talents.
Since Good Purpose Gallery opened, Mahoney said the quality of art work, usually a combination of paintings and sculptures, has complimented the restaurants and shops on Main Street. The Starving Artist Café & Creperie and the gallery seemingly operate as one, she said.
While the Good Purpose and St. Francis galleries aim to elevate Lee's status in the Berkshire visual arts scene, the Lee Library started an effort to promote local artists 13 years ago. In 2001, the Lee Library Association board of directors initiated the annual "Creative Lee," an exhibit held every October in the library's J.Peter Scolforo Gallery, named for a board member who has served the library for 42 years.
"Creative Lee allows other to display their work who do art for fun," said board president, Mary Philpott. "At first, I had to beg people to submit work; now I have to limit two pieces per artist."
In recent years, the gallery has also held photo exhibits of Lee's past, which prompted library director Dan Paquette to suggest townspeople of all ages submit current photos of the town.
"Picture Lee 2013: Preserving the Present for the Future" opened earlier this month and will run through Oct. 1. The 55 photos hanging on the gallery walls focus on the town's people, landmarks and events for future generations to remember.
Karen Molino was among the several amateur photographers who jumped at the chance to publicly show off their talents for the first time.
"I thought it was a great opportunity to get the town involved in the gallery," she said.
The three galleries also provide a backdrop to support other cultural activities in town and the county.
St. Francis Gallery recently hosted a fundraiser for Berkshire Carousel, the private, nonprofit organization creating a traditional hand-crafted carousel. One of the 33 wooden horses carved by hundreds of volunteers stands at the center of the current exhibit.
Good Purpose Gallery regularly hosts "Writer's Read" events, local authors and poets reading from their works, usually before a packed house. Quilt shows, art classes and readings also enhance the gallery experience at Lee Library, according to Philpott, sometimes attracting people who otherwise wouldn't visit art exhibits.
Visual arts have become an integral part of town-wide events, such as the annual Founder's Day Weekend this Friday through Sunday. The three-day celebration draws thousands of visitors who help the town honor its heritage through food, music and an hour-long parade.
The weekend also includes "Art in the Alley", an artists' market in the refurbished walkway next to Lee Memorial Town Hall.
Given Lee's strategic location off Exit 2 of the Massachusetts Turnpike, Mahoney expects the town will continue to contribute to the county's visual arts success.
"I think Lee is poised to take advantage of being a gateway community and its vibrancy that's always been there," she said.
Lee Arts Scene ...
St. Francis Gallery
Route 102, South Lee
When: Open Thursday to Monday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Local artists through September.
Information: (413) 717-5199, www.saintfrancisgallery.com
Good Purpose Gallery
40 Main St., Lee
When: Monday to Friday, 9 a.m.
to 5 p.m., Sunday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
CIP Showcase through Oct. 20
Special event: 'Art in the Alley' Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
J. Peter Scolforo Gallery
Lee Library, 100 Main St., Lee
When: During regular library hours
Local photographers' exhibit through Sept. 30
Special event: Reception for exhibit, Friday from 3 to 5 p.m.
Information: (413) 243-0385, www.leelibrary.org