Take a stroll down Magnolia Avenue, an unassuming side street in historic Old Louisville lined with grand Victorian homes, and you might stumble upon the garage gallery Sheherazade. In a city that desperately needs experimental art spaces, Sheherazade offers new and established local artists the opportunity to exhibit without the constraints of traditional gallery models. Operated by artist Julie Leidner, the gallery is located in the one-car garage attached to her studio, with an industrial steel and glass garage door providing a view of the installations. It is paradoxically always visible but never open. I was curious about how Leidner makes this counterintuitive approach work, and why she chose to open an experimental art space when the outlook for financial success is rather bleak.
Eileen Yanoviak: As an artist, and with this being your studio space, what made you want to start this project?
Julie Leidner: This was a gallery a few years ago. It was called ThinkBox Contemporary and was run by Shohei Katayama. He lived in the apartment upstairs. He painted the limestone walls white, installed new track lighting, and this white tile floor. He and the landlord, who was on-board with this project, installed this steel door, which does not conform to historical district regulations, so they were fined for it. The door itself really stands out from the rest of architecture in Old Louisville.
ThinkBox closed in August 2016 when Katayama left Louisville for Pittsburgh to pursue his MFA, so I decided to move in, not knowing what I would do with the space. I decided to use one area for my studio and the garage as a window gallery that I did not have to staff. It could be viewable 24 hours a day. I have seen things like this in other cities. I have friends who have home gallery spaces in Brooklyn, so it’s not a new concept.
EY: Why does this work in Louisville?
JL: It appeals to me for various reasons. I sometimes feel like I don’t have a community around me. I do, but I think a lot of times artists stay in their separate little bubbles. I have tried reaching out to artists, and I’ve had a variety of responses. Sometimes they say, “Oh, yeah, come to my studio” and we get to know each other a little bit, but some were not open to it at all. So, I have had varied levels of success connecting with other artists. I thought that this would be, almost selfishly, a way to build my own community here. I could just feed off the energy of the artist whose work inhabits this space.
EY: Now on your second show, have you seen your work change or grow because of those interactions?
JL: I have been doing a series of drawings that I’m calling “simultaneous portraits,” where I draw on the same piece of paper at the same time as another artist, so it becomes a record of a performance of interacting with each other. I’ve been doing that since the first show. That’s something that came about really organically for me as a result of this feeling of shared space.
EY: How are you choosing artists for Sheherazade?
JL: The first artist was Norman Spencer, who lives in the neighborhood. Norman and Yoko Molotov, the second artist, have a particular way of existing in this little part of the Louisville art economy. There are a lot of places to sell cheaper, smaller, commodifiable art, like a gallery or boutique, where the piece of art sales for $40. There is nothing wrong with that. That’s the kind of work I can afford to buy. That’s the type of place where these artists were showing, but they take their work very seriously, and they have a persistent aesthetic.
EY: So you wanted to give those artists a chance to pursue a bigger vision?
JL: Yes. They have to navigate this landscape and figure out how to sell art or make money in order to keep making work. I was interested in seeing what they would do if they had the space where they could separate from the commercial aspect of their work, even just for four or five weeks.
EY: Tell me a little about your recent current show, Yoko Molotov’s “Sweet Dreams.”
JL: I see her as being a very emblematic Louisville artist in the way that she works and the way that she exists in different creative spaces. First of all, she is a musician as well as a visual artist. I think she embodies the spirit of Louisville by being so deeply attracted to experimental music. She’s an interesting person because she has multiple alter-egos that she goes by. She has a huge online following for her visual art, and every day she posts very confessional pictures and drawings on social media.
This show is a little bit different from some of her better known work. It reflects her deep interests in automatic writing and surrealism. As an artist, a musician, and an online presence, she is fundamentally a performer.
EY: How do you fund the space? What is your plan for longevity?
JL: It’s artist-funded and self-funded. I’m applying for grants. I am looking for funding, and Yoko had a Kickstarter campaign. Every penny that I make goes into this. I brought my high school students here, and I told them that I don’t have the usual things—a family and belongings—because, for me, this is my baby. This is the kind of thing that I’m trying to nurture. I’m begging, normally, and borrowing and stealing every single thing that I can get to make this happen.
EY: Is the work for sale?
JL: It is, but that’s not a primary concern. I told the artists to have a price just in case somebody wants to buy their work, but I don’t like to talk to the artist about it that much, because I don’t want them to be thinking about sales. It’s a big privilege to be able to say you don’t have to make this work with commercial intentions.
EY: Imagining that you find the resources to keep Sheherazade going, what is your vision for the future of the space?
JL: I like the guerrilla-like aspect of this particular project because it isn’t officially sanctioned by anyone. If I were to move out and actually rent a space with the particular goal of having it be a gallery, if it starts to be influenced by people who have stake in it, and it would be different. I really would like to keep this going as long as I can, until I’ve seen this particular space being utilized in as many different ways as possible. I want to see all the ways an artist could envision interacting with the neighborhood in this interesting private boundary. I think of it as this insider-versus-outsider thing.
Sheherazade’s third show, Rodolfo Salgado Jr.’s “Bubble Guts Enterprizes: The Medicine Cabinet,” opens April 27. Salgado, whose practice evokes the image of a harmless mad scientist gone awry, will present an archive of found and handmade objects that recall human body parts.
Eileen Yanoviak is the director of the Carnegie Center for Art & History in New Albany, Indiana. She holds a PhD in art history from the University of Louisville, where she also teaches. She has worked in museums in the South for more than 15 years, including the Speed Art Museum and KMAC Museum in Louisville and the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock.