A version of this column appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
JRB Art at the Elms celebrates 10th anniversary
Joy Reed Belt is marking a decade of preserving the legacy of Oklahoma City art pioneer Nan Sheets with Friday’s release of “Project X,” a limited edition portfolio box featuring prints from 10 of her gallery’s regular artists.
When she looks around her gallery, Joy Reed Belt still occasionally gets flashbacks of Pepto-Bismol pink walls and decaying floorboards.
After mounting more than 100 exhibitions in the past decade, though, she now has many more exquisite and less garish memories, from showcasing internationally renowned painters and photographers to championing emerging artists.
On Friday (today), Belt is celebrating the 10th anniversary of JRB Art at the Elms, the gallery she opened in the one-time home of Oklahoma art pioneer Nan Sheets.
“I think it’s important to have something of that size, scale and historical significance. Because we can say there’s been a gallery down here for (almost) 100 years, through thick and thin, through the recession, through the hippies, through everything. Oil boom and bust. It was only really a few years that it was not that gallery,” Belt said. “There’s a legacy to all that.”
When Nan Sheets moved to Oklahoma City in 1914, she found a growing city with a fledgling cultural scene but no art museum or gallery. The painter longed for a place where she could exhibit her art and the works of others who shared her passion. With the encouragement of her husband, Dr. Fred Sheets, the Illinois native opened her home and studio to the public in 1920.
She called it The Elms, and from the 1920s to the 1950s, it was a popular gathering place for art lovers. Sheets also wrote taught art lessons, penned an art column for The Oklahoman, served as state supervisor of the Works Progress Administration Art Program and helped found the Oklahoma Art Center, which became the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
“There’s still occasionally somebody will come in the gallery (and say) that their mother or somebody took lessons here,” Belt said, flipping through newspaper clippings, magazine photos and exhibit brochures in Sheets’ personal scrapbook, which a friend bought her at an estate sale a few years ago.
“I feel I’ve done everything to make it like she would’ve done it. And people have told me that remember her that she was tall, opinionated and she loved art. And I said, ‘I can channel all those things.’”
Belt’s husband, attorney John Belt, spent three decades transforming Spanish Village, a shabby commercial corridor, into the Paseo Arts District. In the late 1990s, he spent several years trying to buy Sheets’ former home, which had been converted into a rundown daycare center.
“He had made overtures, and the woman (who owned it) had told him it wasn’t worth enough for him to pay her so that she could quit work. She needed to have the daycare center and keep on working,” Belt recalled. “Apparently, for some birthday, her children had sent her on a cruise, and John gets a call from a ship. She had met a multimillionaire from the East Coast, and he said, ‘I’ve just married her and she won’t be coming back to the daycare center.’ … So, that’s how John got it. I mean, what are the chances of that happening?”
Once he renovated the main space, Belt mentioned to his wife that he was looking for someone new to take over the gallery. Although she already owned her human resources consulting firm, she offered to take on the project.
“He just spit out his coffee and said, ‘Absolutely not. You already have a business. I gave you art lessons to relax and you started another little business on the Paseo and we’re not growing it,’” she said.
He changed his mind when she developed a neatly bound pitch, complete with a new logo for JRB Art at the Elms.
“He said, ‘You know, a good lawyer and a good husband knows when to settle.’ And then he said, ‘Do you want to come and get the key or do you want me to bring it to you?’” she recalled with a laugh. “And then he was very supportive.”
Since her husband’s death in March, Belt has come to view her gallery as a preservation of his efforts as well as Sheets’ legacy.
“When John came in one night and said, ‘There’s something I want to do for you and I want to pay for it,’ I thought he was going to send me to Canyon Ranch to eat right and lose weight. I was thrilled because I had been saying ‘I need to go away.’ But he said, ‘I want to give you art lessons with Kay Orr before she dies,’ and I said, ‘I don’t paint,’” she recalled. “I could’ve just kept saying ‘that’s silly’ and not done it and maybe I would be on another path. I don’t know. But I would have certainly missed this path.”
Joy Reed Belt opened her historic gallery in time for the 2002 Paseo Arts Festival and celebrated its grand opening about a year later. Like Sheets, she has featured the work of several European and American artists of “recognized prominence,” including many with Oklahoma ties, like Oscar Jacobson, Joe Andoe and Alexandra Alaupovic.
For the gallery’s 10th anniversary, Belt chose 10 artists from her gallery’s regular stable to contribute prints for her “Project X,” a limited edition portfolio box. She will exhibit the prints featured in the portfolio box, which resembles a giant coffee table book, in the gallery in September, with an opening Friday night during the monthly Paseo Gallery Walk.
“I never do prints, but Joy has a special place in my heart because she gave me one of my first big shots … when she put me in as one of ‘Oklahoma’s Collectible Young New Artists,’” said Dallas painter Michele Mikesell, a University of Oklahoma alumna. “I don’t think Joy does anything badly. I mean, if she’s going to do something, it’s going to be done well.”
For Norman printmaker Ginna Dowling, a relative newcomer to the gallery, the chance to have her woodcut “The Apprentice of Hope” included in the portfolio box is a special honor. Dowling comes from a long line of Oklahoma woman artists; her grandmother, Ruth Horton, was the first woman to own a fully staff commercial art studio in Oklahoma City.
“The history that John and Joy have always promoted means a lot to me,” Dowling said. “Joy is amazing. She had a real vision of what she wanted JRB to be, and she’s just amazing in her ability to continue with that.”
JRB Art at the Elms “Project X” 10th anniversary exhibition
What: Framed prints from a limited edition portfolio box featuring the works of Greg Gummersall, Michele Mikesell, Ginna Dowling, Barbara Broadwell, Mary Ann Strandell, B.J. White, Denise Duong, John Seward, Carol Beesley and Thomas Batista.
Opening reception: 6 to 10 p.m. Friday during the monthly Paseo Gallery Walk.
Where: JRB Art at the Elms, 2810 N Walker.