Until a few weeks ago, Jack Sewell worked as a part-time nurse at Saint Joseph's Hospital in Eureka while creating his award-winning sculptures in his spare time. He was approaching retirement age and looking forward to more studio hours when his life took an abrupt, unexpected turn.
"I got a phone call from Dan Ollivier, who owns the Gross Building on the corner of Fifth and F in Eureka," said Sewell. "He said he's always wanted to see a gallery in that spot and asked if I'd be interested in opening one."
Even though Sewell never aspired to be a gallery owner, Ollivier offered a very attractive financial arrangement and an agreement was reached. Sewell quit his nursing job and rolled up his sleeves. "Opening any new business -- let alone an art gallery -- is a huge commitment, but I couldn't turn down the opportunity. This amazing space just literally fell in my lap."
It's easy to understand the appeal. The gallery is located in the heart of Eureka's art district, halfway between the Morris Graves Museum of Art and HSU's First Street Gallery. Plus, the space is one of the most beautiful retail venues in Eureka, featuring amazing natural light, soaring ceilings, original fir floors and 3,900 square feet of display space.
"The place is huge," said Sewell. "There's room to exhibit a lot of artists -- and we plan to do just that. We'll have featured work each month, but we'll represent a large group of artists on an ongoing basis as well."
Around 40 artists are lined up for the opening exhibit, including many of the biggest names in the region: Jim McVicker, Bob Benson, Leslie Price, Lou Marak, Kathy O'Leary, Bruno and Nina Groth, Duane and Micki Flatmo, Theresa Oats, Becky Evans, Stock and Rachel Schlueter, and Peggy Loudon. All will be showing their work at the Sewell, as well as dozens of other notable artists.
"My main criteria for choosing artists is that they're serious and professional," said Sewell. "Ideally, they should have a track record of sales, both here and outside the area. I have personal relationships with most of the people we'll initially be showing, but I definitely plan to bring more artists on board down the road."
Sewell has lived on the North Coast for nearly 40 years and is a well-known and well-loved figure in the art community. His sculpture has been widely exhibited, and he served on the board of the Redwood Art Association for more than 20 years. "I learned how to put exhibits together from the ground up while I was working with the RAA. I think that experience will come in very handy with the new gallery. I also met a lot of people through that association. I think my connections are my biggest asset, in fact."
In spite of those connections and his experience in the art community, Sewell realizes there are challenges inherent in opening an art gallery, particularly here on the North Coast. "We all know you can't operate a gallery in Humboldt County without something to help subsidize it. This gallery is happening because of Dan Ollivier's generosity. He loves the arts and just really wants to support artists."
Sewell is energized by the support he's received from the community, from his landlord, and from Amy Sewell, his wife of 28 years. "I couldn't do this without Amy. First of all, she's continuing to work at St. Joe's so we can keep our benefits. Plus, she's done a huge amount of work helping me get this gallery open. There are so many details to take care of, and she's right there beside me."
The Sewell Gallery is big news in the local art community. Everyone is talking about it. "I'm thrilled," said Rachel Schlueter, an expressionist oil painter. "In fact, I'm beyond thrilled. We've needed this kind of venue here forever. I feel like the art community just won the jackpot."
"I think the gallery will be a destination site, where tourists and locals can see the work of our region's top artists on an ongoing basis, without having to wait for a 'show' of an artist's work," said Kathy O'Leary.
Local artists consider Sewell's experience as a fellow artist to be an asset. "With a proprietor like Jack, artists will have someone with experience and first-hand knowledge of the art-making process to represent them," said Theresa Oats.
"It'll be a place for collectors to see new work, but it will also be a place for artists to study the work of other artists," added Rachel Schlueter. "For example, I'm really inspired by Leslie Price's work, but you hardly every see any of his paintings around town. Now I'll have the opportunity to see more of his work, to really explore it."
Sewell likes the idea of the gallery being a place where people can learn about art and artists, as well as the art-making process. "My mission is to represent and support artists. I want to create a place where art education and commerce happens. I want to create jobs and tax revenue and get money to artists and art to collectors."
The Sewell Gallery is located at 423 F Street. It's most definitely the place to be on July 2, from 6 to 9 p.m., for the Arts Alive! debut. The gallery can be reached at 269-0617 or via the website at sewellgallery.com.