A town's creative soul is on display at Real Eyes Gallery
ADAMS — With their renowned museums, North Adams and Williamstown draw the most art-world eyeballs in northern Berkshire County. But Adams' Real Eyes Gallery is helping demonstrate that the town isn't confined to the periphery of the region's creative scene.
In June, artists Bill and Francie Riley opened the Park Street store and exhibition space that currently houses works by Adams residents Bruce MacDonald, Alvin Ouellett and Ann M. Scott, among others. The mix of pieces by longtime residents and newcomers, as well as a steady stream of visitors during the gallery's weekend hours, indicates that Route 8 can link the Adams artistic community with the one in North Adams, according to the Rileys.
"It's the attempt to create the extension to the cultural corridor," Bill said of the gallery on Monday.
Real Eyes consists of two art rooms. The entrance area is currently configured as a shop, with regional artists' work on the walls and assorted items available for purchase in the center of the space. The adjoining room is a gallery that has recently displayed Bill's Berkshires-inspired paintings and other pieces. Rick Harlow's "The Landscape of Energy" is up next; an opening reception is set for 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29.
The Rileys are well-acquainted with the building where they now work and live. Bill's family owned and operated the Simmons Furniture store in the space from 1973-2013. When Bill bought the property from his mother, Phyllis, in 2011, he envisioned turning it into a contemporary art gallery.
"I was always in love with this building. I was always in love with the antiquity and the look of the street — the Victorian architecture," Bill said.
Born in New York City, Bill lived in Lanesborough during his teens. He eventually returned to New York City as a scenic artist, working in theater and film. Those experiences helped shape his concept for a gallery.
"I wanted a venue to show my own artwork, but I also wanted to show the other artists that I knew, and have known, because when you work in the show business, you're part of teams of artists," Bill said. "And most of those artists create work of their own in addition to the jobs that [they're] on. I always thought it was exciting to show the relationship of other people's artwork, how they interrelated."
He met Francie at a West Village scene painting class. Her background had been in costume and set design, but she had grown tired of sewing, she recalled, prompting her foray into painting. When the couple moved to Adams full-time (Bill still works in New York about 10 days per month), she sought connections with other artists. She helped found the Adams Arts Advisory Board, which was painter and printer Alvin Ouellet's introduction to the Rileys. A longtime faculty member and studio manager of the printmaking department at Boston's Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Ouellet moved to Adams about a year-and-a-half ago.
"I started looking around to see what [artist] groups were there," said Ouellet, who has multiple silk-screen prints hanging at Real Eyes.
Ouellet also began attending Bill and Francie's monthly potluck dinners for area artists. That's where Harlow met the couple.
"Those are great," said painter Ann M. Scott, whose watercolor works are among the first pieces visitors encounter upon entering Real Eyes.
Scott ventured to Adams from Boston about five years ago.
"I moved here specifically for the arts," she said.
She has been impressed by how many artists have arrived in the town and surrounding area during her short time in the Berkshires.
"It's been pretty extraordinary," she said.
"There are a lot of artists actually in Adams that people don't know about because they're quietly renovating and living in their spaces and working it out," she said. "They're not making a big splash yet, but we're getting to know them. They're here, and they're coming."
But networking isn't enough for an artist to survive on; a place to exhibit pieces is essential. In that sense, Real Eyes has already filled a need in Adams. Ouellet called it a "benchmark" for the town.
"Being able to connect with people and have them show their work and then get appreciative responses is so important," Francie said of artists' mindsets. "A lot of people make their work in silence and in their room, and they're afraid. They don't want rejection."
Though she is a co-owner, Francie leaves "every single decision to Bill because it's his dream." He isn't one to doubt himself, according to Francie.
"He does believe in the, 'If you build it, they will come,'" she said.
The gallery's name stems from a family trip to Italy. The Rileys rented a house in the countryside, where the Italian woman who greeted them pronounced their last name as "real-eye."
"Our children thought it was great that we were the 'real-eyes' family," Francie said. "It was always this little family joke, but it sort of works with, real eyes are needed to see your art. Use your real eyes. They're not always the ones in your head; they're the ones in your brain."
Bill chooses art for the gallery that evokes moments when people's eyes are shut.
"The works themselves have a somewhat whimsical, dreamlike quality to them," he said.
For example, longtime Adams artist Bruce MacDonald's "Plato's Cave" features people wearing TV sets on their heads.
"For me, art is the expression of your dreams," Bill said. "That's the place where I was always the most excited to try to express about my life."
Gallerygoers have been pleasantly surprised to find familiar names below the works, according to Francie.
"You get to see someone's creative soul coming out, and you just knew them as that really nice guy who helped shovel someone's driveway. It's fun to find that extra aspect to someone," she said.
Visitors have often been bikers from the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail or dog walkers who let their four-legged friends enjoy the water bowl outside. Out-of-towners have also stopped in.
"Part of what we're doing is to help make Adams a destination," Bill said.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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