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Support System

For 40 years, CAL has been pal to local artists

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Sitting on a bench by a window, Tom Snyder applies tiny mirrored tiles to an urn-shaped vessel. As he carefully rotates the pot in his hands, the mirrors sparkle in the sunlight. Outside the back loading dock, Rose Hawley is staining the platform overlooking the trolley tracks -- during the last Gallery Crawl, kids spilled on it when giving the Jackson Pollack sofa a new coat of paint. A faint glow from Jim Antley's computer screen tells us he's downloading art onto his CharlotteArtists website, while in another corner, Wil Bosbyshell quietly paints by the gooseneck lamp on his drafting table. Paul Hastings stops work on his latest still life and hops across Camden Road for a cup of java from The Queens Beans and a snack from Phat Burrito next door. Shelley Keefer sets up an easel in the main gallery, in preparation for her monthly critique of works in progress. Soon, a dozen people will be murmuring about balance and value and wow, love the way you handled that shadow!It's a typical day at the Charlotte Art League, an all-volunteer organization that, for 40 years, has promoted emerging Metrolina artists by giving them affordable studio space and professional exhibit opportunities. This desire to "not be just Sunday painters" is what led Dorothy "Dot" Davis and her friends to initiate the group in 1964. It was met at that time with warm enthusiasm -- merchants at the then-new Cotswold Mall presented art festivals, and the media, Observer reporter Harriet Doar in particular, gave them lots of coverage.

Since then, membership has stayed at a steady 200-300 people, and exhibits such as the current Spring Into Art Juried Show, with $2,000 in prizes, draw top-caliber artists from throughout the county.

Where old clippings feature a stylish Dot Davis hanging paintings in Jackie Kennedy A-lines, today's press photos show members climbing ladders in jeans and T-shirts. The clothes may have changed but the needs are the same, primary among them the invaluable peer contact that keeps morale high. Sharing ideas and information about how to be accepted into shows and how to do your own public relations is, in the end, what it's all about. In fact, ask members at random what led them to the League and they invariably credit "the wonderful people."

"I happened to meet [pastel artist] Judith Cutler at the Metrolina Farmer's Market," says Greg Barnes, who joined CAL in 2002, "and she talked me into checking it out. I saw it as a good place to display and sell my work, but didn't think of myself as sticking around very long. But after getting to know everyone and seeing the positive changes they've made in the last couple of years, I really believe in it. I'll always be a member."

Like Paul Hastings, who retired from 27 years as a manufacturer's rep, Barnes worked in computer graphics and multimedia before committing to art full time. "CAL is a great way to jumpstart a career," he asserts.

Other members have been or are teachers, students, professional photographers, insurance salesmen, dental technicians, and so forth, but CAL is where they find the creative outlet essential to their well-being. A few young mothers seek it out for the same reason.

Rose Hawley has had several careers, ranging from real estate to race cars. Now, in making her art glass, she wields a blowtorch. "I didn't think of myself as an artist until I started selling from the Gallery," she grins. "Now I know that's what I am." Hawley got interested in CAL from the Camden Square Village Artist Market, held one Saturday morning every month. The Artist Market will be moving to the South Tryon end of Camden this spring. Another popular event is the Art & Soul Street Festival, which is held in the spring or fall, in cooperation with other SouthEnd businesses.

When she's not in her studio, Hawley tries to figure out ways to maximize the building's space. Besides studios, members can also rent display walls and rooms to hold classes and demonstrations. All work is for sale, with a percentage going to the all-volunteer, non-profit League. Free studio space is offered in exchange for people staffing the gallery so it can be open to the public. Along with the revenue generated by monthly Gallery Crawls and ongoing exposure at various public venues, walk-in purchases also help defray costs. The board of directors is looking at grants and corporate generosity to fund a much-needed gallery manager position.

Having such a building in a town where affordable, accessible, in-town space is becoming almost nonexistent does not go unappreciated. The impetus to acquire it began about 10 years ago when Spirit Square, also originally developed from a grassroots movement to help local artists and craftspeople, was eviscerated. Watercolorist Peggy Weston and painter Dru Scott Warmath spearheaded the drive to find a home for those ousted by corporate maneuverings. The discovery of a former biscuit factory and photography warehouse led CAL in exciting new directions.

"It was a great big, dirty old place," says Dot Davis, turning up her nose. "But everyone pitched in to get it in shape. We'd put signs around telling what we needed and someone would provide." Volunteers built walls with donated lumber and installed lighting and a kitchen. In 2002, improved insulation from a new roof made it even more inhabitable. The transformation is a matter of great pride to those who participated in it.

Little did they know at the time that its SouthEnd location would one day be the epicenter of Charlotte's creative energy. Many of the gallery's visitors are out-of-towners who've been directed there to find local arts activities. When the phone rings, it's often people from Mint Hill or the University area wanting to know how to get to Camden Road. The trolley already makes stops at CALeidascope's door, and plans are to hire a shuttle to take patrons to Clay on Camden, Art Bar, Elder Art, Hidell Brooks, Artifacts and other popular spots on the Gallery Crawl route.

And little did the city know that the sidewalk they repaired in front of CALeidascope Gallery last winter would be the perfect 40th birthday present. It was Gallery Crawl night, the opening of the Jumbo Show. A band was playing and wine was flowing. Rose Hawley passed out pencils, plastic knives, paper clips -- whatever any of the 300 guests could use to etch their names into the wet cement.

Maybe, thanks to the new graffiti, Charlotteans strolling along Camden Road in 2044 will know that something significant once went on in that exact spot.

For information about CAL membership, call 704-376-2787. CALeidascope Gallery hours: Monday-Saturday 11am-3pm. Showing through April 30: Spring Into Art Juried Show.

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