Summer, 2008 -- It was a fine day in Whitstable, an English seaside town sixty miles east of London. Billy Childish, Ruth Franklin, Gary Goodman, Teresa Stewart-Goodman and I all met at Billy's mum's house, where he goes every Sunday to paint and have tea. Gary introduced us to Billy, having gotten to know him at poetry readings and gigs. Ruth has known Gary and Teresa since their Brighton Art School days back in the 80s, and I met Ruth through the art dealer I started working for in 1991. I actually sold her pictures for a few years before we met in person, and the same is true for both Gary and Billy.
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”... indeed.
I’ve had a bit of a thing about England for as long as I can remember. When my grandparents went to Belgium in the 1970s and I heard they’d have a layover in London, I asked for a t-shirt from there. They brought me back one with a picture of an English Bulldog with a Union Jack on it. Years later when I was in high school, I discovered Punk, and that t-shirt got sliced and diced and safety-pinned back together again. The only class that mattered to me at that time was Graphic Arts, where I learned and loved photography and screenprinting, and the only thing digital was a calculator! I didn’t know it back then of course, but the foundation was being laid.
At 21, I delivered a box-truck full of framed art to a design showroom in Naples, Florida. That was my first day in the art business. I had gotten my real estate license a year earlier, and had come to realize that selling houses wasn’t for me. Luckily, while moonlighting as the promotions director at a karate school, I met a fellow who owned a company that imported & distributed fine & decorative art from around the world. This really appealed to me, and I was excited about the new job.
Over the next three years I learned the ropes: art handling & installation, shipping & receiving, custom framing, purchasing, accounting, marketing & sales… and before I knew it I was on the road as a rep & consultant. I called on galleries, frame shops, interior designers, architects and furniture showrooms across the Southeast and traveled for six weeks at a time. After three or four of those trips I decided to move to Atlanta. It was a major life decision. The karate school was growing and I had just made blackbelt, but the art world was enticing, and I really liked Atlanta. I had to choose between a career in martial arts or fine art. It wasn’t easy, all my friends and family were in Florida, but in April 1993 I packed all my stuff into my van and headed for ‘the ATL’.
Later that year, the company flew Ruth over from England to do some work for a show in New York. I was her top salesman and they suggested I drive down and meet her. I somehow convinced her to visit Atlanta before she went back to the UK and, even more remarkably, to return in 1994. Shortly thereafter, the company closed when the owners parted ways, and I carried on as an independent dealer. I had developed a solid client base and with Ruth as my partner, we had access to some artists that she knew from back home.
Gary Goodman was the first to send us a parcel of paintings, followed a bit later by a packet of prints from Chris Pig. We opened a gallery in an old building on the historic Decatur Square, six miles east of downtown Atlanta, in 1998. A pub called The Brick Store had just opened next door, and I was convinced that a British art gallery next to a pub was a perfect fit. I also happened to really liked pubs! To this day, I continue to curate the art there in the Belgian bar - Upstairs and to the Left.
The Vinson Gallery introduced Decatur & Atlanta to an eclectic mix of Contemporary British & American Art. We were featured on the front page (of the arts section) in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a story called Young at Art by Catherine Fox. I was invited to join the board of the Decatur Arts Alliance and helped start the Decatur ArtWalk. We were asked to join the Atlanta Gallery Association by Alan Avery, who had shown Ruth’s work in his Buckhead gallery before we opened ours. Ruth was exhibiting worldwide, from Nashville to the Netherlands, we were going to New York on a regular basis, and we were introducing international artists to Decatur. Our ten year run in a brick & mortar space had some fantastic highlights, and people still talk about our legendary openings...
Alas, all good things come to an end. After the markets crashed in 2008, we had no choice but to close our retail gallery. Thankfully, we were able to continue working by appointment, and the internet kept us connected to the rest of the world. We were fortunate in that the movie and television industry started filming a lot in Georgia, thanks to tax incentives, and we began renting artwork to set designers. Our friends at Lenz Marketing hooked me up with an opportunity to work as an art advisor for Georgia Cancer Specialists, tasked with finding artwork for all of their new doctors’ offices. I starting learning about ‘evidence-based design’, and providing art for healthcare and medical facilities has become a regular part of our business.
Another result of the financial meltdown was ‘Pop Up Shows’ in empty storefronts becoming popular in major cities. We started doing them too, although we actually did our first one during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, a block away from Centennial Park… and the bomb! Incidentally, the lack of any decent beer at a hospitality tent is what saved our asses that night. Rather than drink the overpriced swill that was on offer, my brother and I decided to head back to Decatur. As we sat at a red light a few blocks away from the park, we heard and felt the explosion. We would have been standing yards away from the blast had they not run out of Heineken! (Keep in mind that this was way before anyone even heard of 'craft beer' in Atlanta.)
Our Olympic Pop Up Show is where I met Wayne Kline, a Tamarind Master Printer who owned Rolling Stone Press. He became a dear friend of ours and really helped expand my knowledge of and interest in printmaking. Ruth made a lithograph with Wayne and they always talked about doing more, but sadly never got around to it. He was a true gentleman and his passing in 2005 was a massive loss to to the Atlanta art community.
So here we are in 2014, still in the game. Our roster of British artists has grown to the point where I thought a new website was in order to focus on them. Last year, we started representing Wreckless Eric and produced his first-ever exhibition of paintings, along with a rare solo gig at New Street Studio. Most people know him for his 1977 hit song, (I’d go the) Whole Wide World, but he started out as a painter and went to art school before he got signed to Stiff Records. Fans of his music will be happy to hear that Fire Records is re-releasing his entire back catalog.
This year we’re preparing for the US debut exhibition of art by Kosmo Vinyl at Lightroom in Decatur (it’s also the premiere art event there). He makes collages with a Pop Art influence and a Punk aesthetic, in homage to his beloved West Ham United Football Club (he’s also working on a series dedicated to the England team for the World Cup). If you’ve ever listened to The Clash Live at Shea Stadium, that’s Kosmo introducing the band. He worked with them, as well as Ian Dury & the Blockheads. Mick Jones, Topper Headon and Paul Simonon all showed up to support Kosmo at his first one-man-show in London last October.
I will keep trying to get Billy Childish over here for the AJC Decatur Book Festival. We had him scheduled for an exhibition back in 2007, along with a poetry reading and blues performance, but it got cancelled at the very last minute. We did have some fab prints made at Hatch Show Print in Nashville to celebrate the occasion - the fellow who made them was a fan and gave extra special attention to the design. There are still a few left for sale in our shop if you’re interested.
Buy British Art is inspired by, and a tribute to, my late, great father-in-law, who had a Buy British Bacon bumper sticker on his car. One of his many entrepreneurial pursuits included running a small pig farm in East Anglia, and the enemy was Danish bacon! I’ve got nothing against Danish artists (or bacon) but I liked the sound of 'Buy British Art' and was pleasantly surprised to find that the URL was actually available. I hope you’ll find the site to be interesting, interactive, educational and entertaining. As some of our artists are also accomplished musicians, we’ll also be posting music-related content. I plan to blog weekly (but don’t hold me to it) and we will have guest bloggers. This one is intended to give you a bit of history and answer anyone who may be wondering why on earth is this guy promoting British Art in the American South?.
On behalf of all of the artists, we’d love to hear what you think. Please leave comments and ask us questions. Don’t forget to ‘Like’ us and ‘Share’ on Facebook, along with the other social networks, and remember - if you want something unique to hang on your wall, that you won’t find everywhere else, Buy British Bacon, err… ART!
-- by Shawn Vinson
Life is Art.