As we made our plans for creating Behn Gallery, an eye-opening experience for me was a visit to a ceramics gallery and workshop in central Peru.
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Last year, I spent a few days hiking and photographing in Peru. I had already been to Machu Picchu and many of the major Inca ruins on a previous trip, so I was looking for more remote parts of the Sacred Valley. Each morning, my guide and I would leave Cusco and spend the day hiking. We would make sure we were in scenic spots at sunrise and sunset, and otherwise spent our days on trails, checking out ruins, and wandering into small towns.
While in these small towns, pretty much like every tourist, I found myself looking around for something to buy as a momento of this trip. If you have been to Peru, you know that there were many people selling trinkets, but most of it was just mass-produced junk. I didn’t want that. I wanted something local, hand-made, and different. I thought perhaps in some of the little, out of the way villages I was visiting, I might find something like that.
I didn’t. It was all the same. I kept looking though. At some point, as I was looking at a couple of small ceramic cups that looked nice, my guide saw me and said “I didn’t know you were interested in such things. Do not buy anything here. I will take you to see Pablo.”
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We completed our day of hiking, and that night my guide took me to Urubamba, which is a larger town in the Sacred Valley. That is where a ceramics artist named Pablo Seminario maintains a gallery and workshop. I was wary, as there was some possibility that my guide was being paid to take me there. Regardless, I could not have been more impressed with what we found there.
It began the moment I arrived. The gallery is a square building and the center was open with various of Pablo’s pieces. Of course, it was great work, but you would expect that. (He’s an artist of some renown, with work in Chicago’s Field Museum and the Smithsonian!) Pablo’s wife – Marilu Behar - greeted us at the door. She explained what they were doing. After that, another woman showed me around the workshop. I saw how the pottery and ceramics were made and how they were painted.
Once I had walked all the way around the workshop, I was taken up to a loft where Pablo was working. He was creating a few pieces, and was adding metal parts to them. He stopped what he was doing and explained it to me. He didn’t put on airs, in fact he talked about how he was struggling through incorporating metal into these pieces.
I only talked to him a few minutes because I didn’t want to intrude any more than I already had. It was late and I was the only person in the place. They took me downstairs and turned me loose to check out all his work and the pieces in a little shop. I got out my credit card and left with an extra bag to check on the flight home.
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By this time, Roben and I had been engaged in an ongoing conversation about what we wanted our gallery to look like. I was already in the habit of walking into galleries and making a list of what I liked and wanted to incorporate into ours. To be honest, this was usually a very short list, but as I looked around Pablo’s gallery and workshop, I got very excited and saw some key things that I wanted to make sure we incorporated. There were three main things I thought I’d share here.
1. A Warm Welcome
It began with the welcome. It was late when I arrived at their shop and I was the only person in the place. They could have been put out. They should have been disinterested. But Pablo’s wife greeted me warmly and seemed glad I was there. They made me feel welcome and seemed glad to show me around. They also gave me space to look around without any pressure to buy anything (that is really unusual in Peru).
This is exactly what I wanted in a photography gallery. Many galleries I have been in make me feel uncomfortable. They often purposefully create a pretentious, “above the public” vibe. It is as if I’m lucky to be allowed in. Beyond that, there is often implied or actual pressure to buy. The whole thing is uninviting and uncomfortable. In Pablo’s shop, I saw that the opposite could work. We already knew we wanted this vibe for our gallery, but it was great to actually see it working somewhere else.
2. An Open Book
The next thing was that Pablo’s whole creative process was an open book. I got to see exactly how they made everything. I saw what he personally made, and what he tasked to others to handle for him. He didn’t act like he had some secret process.
I was impressed by this because many artists foster the notion of the public that what they do is the result of some magic formula. By seeing the work get made, and in my brief conversation with Pablo, he made it clear that it was the result of hard work. He didn’t try to hide that he struggled with his work even after doing it for so many years. That was exactly what I wanted to do with photography. Rather than hide behind a curtain, I wanted to have the confidence to show people exactly how it was done.
3. A Personal Connection
Finally, I was impressed with the personal connection with the artist. I only talked to him a few minutes, but it was very nice to actually meet the person that created everything. In this era where many artists seem to put up an unapproachable façade and play the part of the “international man of mystery” the approachable, unpretentious approach of Pablo was refreshing. I got the feeling I could have stayed and talked as long as I wanted.
This was already high on our list of attributes for our gallery. We knew we wanted Roben front and center in the gallery, welcoming people, telling them about our work, and answering questions (I hope to be there too, but as I live out of town it will necessarily be more limited). If you have met Roben, you already know that his natural tendency is to be friendly and helpful. We put the gallery next to his studio so you could actually see him at work and see how the pieces get made. Seeing Pablo’s approach added some confirmation for me that this process could work for us.
I knew I wanted to incorporate these concepts into our photography gallery, and was excited to talk to Roben about it. Fortunately, we already had plans to meet up in Austin the day I got back from Peru. (Roben still laughs at the fact that I showed up with a Pablo Seminario brochure in my hand.) Since these were concepts we already had in our minds, none of this came as a great shock to anyone. It was more of a reinforcement that what we wanted to do could work. It is being done elsewhere. We hope to add these concepts to our gallery as we prepare to open.