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@Work: Mixed Media Gallery

Jan. 13, 2008 — With some imagination, you can get an idea of what New York's spiraling Guggenheim Museum looks like inside by strolling through Red Hook to Mixed Media Gallery.
Michael Kolb took over the 2,000 square foot space of a former laundry a few months ago, and turned it into his idea of what a gallery should be. That means, like the Guggenheim, the art winds around and up the space, which has 16-foot ceilings.
The gallery, painted totally white, breathes energy and light. It is very much like a New York gallery, says Caroll Sirhakis, one of the artists on display and an old pal of Kolb's.
Kolb was offered the space, formerly a laundry, a few months ago. "I took one look at it, and knew what I would do," he says.
It's a first time venture for Kolb, who runs the gallery with his wife, Eileen Victor. And, for the first time, Kolb has the opportunity to create what he thinks a gallery should be. "It should show respect for the artist — it should not be crowded," says Kolb, an artist himself, as well as a furniture designer, carpenter, and, you name it, he's probably done it.
Upon entering, the space almost stops you in your tracks. It's the light, the dimensions, the upper loft and the smooth circular bamboo ramp leading upstairs. And, of course, the art. The ceiling is white canvas panels. "Manferd, the sailmaker did that," Kolb says.
Dressed in jeans with a carpenter's workbelt hanging on his lanky frame, Kolb leads the way upstairs, fondly running his hand along the banister, where finishing touches are ongoing.
"You can view all the art from one spot," he says, gazing down from four enormous African canvas works on one wall, to the art directly before us. "I'm going to have paintings, pottery, wood carving, even some clothing," he says.
"Basically, it will provide two venues: it has massive space to display large pieces, and intimate areas for smaller items," he says. "It's utterly eclectic. Everything will be signature, one-off pieces. The work has to have drama."
Kolb continues, "If I find something super neat, I'll pick it up. I'm constantly surprising people with things I find. If you see something, don't think it will be here six months from now. I'm going to produce signature stuff that occurs at a particular moment. I'm always getting more than I could possibly show. I'm going to cherry pick."
He laughs, "I'm like a kid in a candy store."
It wasn't always a piece of cake. Kolb has lived in the islands on and off since the early 70's. "When I first moved here, I did sign painting downtown," he says. "You might remember Rosie O'Grady's, Chaps, bars on Back Street. That's when I first knew Caroll (Sirhakis), when she had Down Island Traders, I did her carpentry."
He pauses, "And here we are 30 years later: I have a gallery of my own, and Caroll is displaying her work in it."
Sirhakis, longtime gallery owner and promoter of Haitian art, changed the course of her career last year, abandoning commercial art and turning out fanciful pieces of found art of her own. (See "On Island Profile: Caroll Sirhakis.")We are standing in front of vibrantly colored three-dimensional works by the artist who goes by the name Seitu, which line the upstairs walls. "I've known him for 30 years," Kolb says, "he lives on St. John. I have no idea what his last name is. These are wooden friezes; look at the colors."
Gazing down the ramp, the wall is lined with enormous African canvases, resembling tapestries, by Tanzanian artist Ziya Neema, now living on St. John. One of the three pieces is actually a sail from an Arabian dhow, Kolb says. He points to an attached fender dangling from one side.
Three symmetrical works by Henry Gonzales are grouped downstairs. "He uses a heavy impasto technique," Kolb says. "He adds little bits of things, a tiny Santa, a sandal or," he points out, "little bits of gold."
Wood carvings by Hermon Smith hang near the entrance. "He carves these out of the local lignum vitae tree," Kolb says. "It's supposed to be the hardest wood in the world."
A workshop under the upstairs loft is filled with Kolb's unique furniture, works in progress, benches, display tables he is making. He says he suffered a spinal injury last year that has slowed him down some, but not so you'd know it.
"This is for jewelry display," he says, up righting an interesting looking table. He places a glass enclosure on the top. "The jewelry will go in here, over a bed of sand," he says. The table stands on unusual looking two-sided legs. How would you describe them? "Oh, just call them asymmetrical," he says, with a wave of the hand.
Kolb has built things for as long as he can remember "I was a farm kid," he says. "Any kid who's raised on a farm knows how to build, how to plumb, all that stuff."
The gallery will officially open Feb. 1 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. with a show by New York actress and artist Denny Dillon, featuring original drawings and "Art in the Box," along with the local artists now showing.'
Kolb, who lives with his wife on St. John, says a portion of the evening's proceeds will be donated to Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park.
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