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The Quiet Dog

02 May 2019
Quiet Dog, Bite Hard: What does a Mos Def-song have to do with a small business taking a leap into the art world? Annie Pokel goes to find out.

Unexpected inspiration

If someone had told me that American rapper Mos Def was the inspiration behind a small, beautiful gallery space in Nelson, I wouldn’t have believed them. But that is exactly how Quiet Dog Gallery ended up taking over half of the old paper storage building that once belonged to the Nelson Mail. The remaining half of the space holds the successful framing business owned by Gill Starling and James Taylor. Last year, the duo took a leap and added the small dealer gallery to their repertoire when the need to relocate their business presented them with a unique opportunity that was the old paper storage space.

As I walk in, I am greeted with big windows, letting in just the right amount of light and providing ample opportunity for passers-by to gaze in and admire the ever-changing display of artworks and framing samples. It is hard to imagine how Gill and James must have felt when they first visited the space.

“There was literally nothing but a roller door, and it was huge. But still, we had a feeling this could work. It's not often that you get a blank canvas and a space that you can actually design to meet your needs, so that's what really attracted us”, recalls Gill as she describes how the simple but clean proportions of the room won them over. It’s evident that this was a true leap of faith for the love of art.

Mos Def and making noise

But back to Mos Def: ‘Bite Hard’ refers to something small still having the ability to make a big impact. As Gill describes it, even a small gallery in a small town can “make some good noise. You don’t have to be limited by your size or the size of your town.”

While there is no shortage of dealer galleries and shops selling art in Nelson, especially given its population of just under 52,000 inhabitants, the Quiet Dog Gallery has forged a unique path for themselves.

As a contemporary art space, they have attracted a range of NZ artists from outside the region, as well as offering up opportunities for local artists to try things out. Well-established Dunedin artist James Robinson, who won the Paramount Wallace Art Award in 2007 and has exhibited widely from Auckland to New York, Berlin and Canada, jumped at the opportunity to show his work at the gallery last November. ‘Subduction’ presented a moody range of mixed-media, using layers upon layers of torn, scorched, layered and stitched paper, paint, and drawing to form hypnotizing works that read like diary entries from a life well travelled.

Another James, James Kirkwood, brought a bright, playful feel into the gallery, with his vivid paintings depicting carefully constructed and yet utterly surprising landscapes. Grant Smithies fittingly described it as a sense of adventure, as familiar Nelson landscapes are gate-crashed by ornate interior scenes of bedrooms and living rooms, often plonked right into the centre of the frame”, in his review of ‘Walters Bluff: Outdoors for the Indoors’. Only one of these painting still remains at the gallery, a bright green spot on purple, captured by an equally bright yellow frame. I cannot help but smile and get closer when I rediscover it at the back of the gallery.

Collaboration from the Inside Out

A strong sense of working hand in hand is very present in Quiet Dog Gallery’s current exhibition: ‘Line by Line’  a collaborative exhibition by local artist Kathaleen Bartha and architect Richard Sellars. Richard was also the architect who helped Gill and James realise their vision for the space when they took on the lease of the building.
“It’s the space in-between, that’s where the exciting stuff happens”, says Richard of this project. Three-dimensional sculptures and drawings have been turned into digital prints on glass, fabric, aluminium and paper. Each work builds on the next using layering and line. Not only have two practitioners from different fields collaborated here, but they have also worked with the space of the gallery itself, drawing attention to the ability of art to transform a building.

This does not stop at the gallery wall: like James Robinson, the pair have also left their permanent mark on the central pole in the room, which often acts as a hero for the unique exhibition space. A bit like a treasure hunt, I haven’t found their mark just yet...

Surviving in a small town

So how does another gallery survive in a small town like Nelson? And how can they exhibit a range of works that may not traditionally appeal to a broad, general client base?

Gill explains that having the main business of the Framing Rooms gives them “a freedom that other galleries may not have because they’d have to look quite closely at the baseline {of presenting works that sell}. It gives us the freedom to be more creative.” It is also doesn’t hurt that James is an artist himself, and in charge of installing the exhibitions - again, two makes stronger than one.

Gill and James are also adamant that the size of Nelson is to their advantage. “We would never be able to pull this off in Auckland or Wellington. Buildings like this one would be unaffordable, and where do you even start approaching the artists you might like to show?” says Gill. “It is very possible to operate here, it’s a small and supportive community. It’s very “knowable” - you’re bound to know each other.” This sense of, and love for the community is evident in the set-up of the space: the workroom of the framing business shares the open space and both businesses clearly feed off each other. Gallery visitors interact with the framers working away at the big tables. Customers bringing in their works for framing often linger longer to enjoy the art on display. “We probably would get more work done if we had a closed workspace, but our team really likes it and it makes us so much more approachable.”

One must definitely not fear 'the white cube' at the Quiet Dog Gallery - nor a dog’s bite, as a matter of fact - this big noise in a small space is a rather welcoming one.

All images courtesy of Quiet Dog Gallery. The quiet dog sculpture is by local artist Lloyd Harwood.

For Art off the Beaten Track, we will be visiting galleries in the less obvious locations around Aotearoa and talking to artists and gallerists about their inspirations and aspirations.
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