ROOTS Up Gallery is celebrating its fifth anniversary this Wednesday, though you’d be forgiven for thinking it had been around much longer.
“It’s been a long road to get here with a lot of ups and downs. This might as well be twenty years,” laughs owner Leslie Lovell.
In 2014, Lovell began Roots Up Gallery with her husband Francis Allen to showcase outsider art, a shared passion.
Then, in the span of just a year, Allen’s health began to decline and hurricane damage wreaked havoc on the property at 6 E. Liberty St.
After Allen passed away, Lovell and gallery partner Russell Kueker moved into their new space on Whitaker St., marking a new generation for Roots Up Gallery.
“This is honoring him,” says Allen, gesturing to a Panhandle Slim painting of Allen perched atop a display case, looking over the space.
To celebrate the anniversary, Lovell brought in painter Helen Durant, whose story struck a chord.
“Her work is very soulful, and that’s in line with the folk art we have,” says Lovell. “Her show fits this [gallery] so perfectly—raw emotion and growth and all that is so wrapped up in everything that’s happening on this anniversary.”
Durant is a relative newcomer to Savannah, moving here just two years ago. She also shows in Atlanta and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Durant has known she wanted to be an artist for most of her life.
“I think it was in the first grade I drew a snowman and it was published in the school newspaper. From then on, I knew I had my calling,” remembers Durant. “I didn’t like school, but I liked to draw.”
Durant took a painting class at the Atlanta College of Art and realized she wanted to be an artist.
“I said, ‘I think I’ll go to art school,’” she says. “Of course, in that day and time, I wasn’t allowed to go to New York to the art schools because young ladies didn’t just go to New York and live by themselves.”
“We’re all walking on her back that we’re able to do that now,” adds Lovell.
As a result, Durant traveled to Europe and took classes here and there, drawing all the while.
“I got married and had lots of children, and instead of having a camera, I drew them all the time,” she shares. “I’ve got stacks to this day of drawings I’ve done of my kids. From there, it was no turning back. I had to do it.”
Durant’s body of work for this exhibition began before the holidays last year, when she hit an artistic wall.
“I was just over drawing animals and doing what people wanted,” says Durant. “So I decided to go inside and just see what was inside. It’s not exactly automatic drawing, but just letting the charcoal out and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to feel what’s inside, take this charcoal, and the charcoal will follow what my heart says.’ I did a drawing every day. Miraculously, most every one of them worked as a drawing—that never happens. But because they were so raw and honest, there was no right or wrong. I was authentic as I could be.”
Durant’s honesty in her art wins buyers over, especially in the Savannah market.
“I think our guests have responded well to her pieces,” says Kueker. “People actually stop and be like, ‘Oh my God, where did this come from?’ and they have to have a piece.”
“That’s what I love about this gallery and Leslie and Russell—it has so much soul and it’s eclectic and you buy something here because you love it, not because it matches the sofa,” says Durant. “You find a place for art when you love it. It finds its own place in your heart.”
Durant notes that this body of work is all pretty similar, which is a bit unusual for her.
“I am the most inconsistent creator,” says Durant.
“Probably why we get along,” laughs Lovell.
“So the fact that we have ten framed pieces all the same size and you can tell from the same body of work, I was excited that there it was,” continues Durant. “It’s nice to have a consistent body of work. I think people like that, but I don’t really care if people like that so much. When it works and people can look at that and I feel the feedback from it, I get a satisfaction.”
For the anniversary celebration Wednesday, Missionary Blues will perform and Ramsey Khalidi will DJ.
“So many people want to be a part of it, Lord knows who else is going to be involved,” laughs Lovell.
“You know what else I love about this gallery that doesn’t happen in a lot of them?” joins Durant. “Humor! You can go in galleries and they are stone-faced. Everything is so serious. But Roots Up is the best, and your enthusiasm is totally contagious.”
“That’s why we couldn’t do white walls here,” laughs Kueker.