Driving by a stately Tudor on W. Market Street, one may think it’s just a well preserved home. But a hint of what lies inside can be found on the grounds outside.
At any time, whimsical metal sculptures out front juxtapose with the grand, old building, which dates back to 1916. The sculptures that have taken shape include a giant dog resting on its haunches, keeping watch over busy Route 18, and mammoth colorful flowers springing upward to face the sun.
And, of course, there’s always the sign which reads Akrona Galleries, which, in addition to housing contemporary art, also offers custom framing, children’s art classes and events throughout the year.
Darlene Ver Sluys, who owns the gallery, has some celebratory milestones in 2015. She’s been in the art world for 25 years, having opened her first gallery in 1990 next to what was then the Liberty Brewing Company in the Merriman Valley. She opened Akrona 10 years ago, after she bought the building, formerly the Ayres Branch Library, from the Akron-Summit County Public Library.
Ver Sluys kept Akrona, the name given to the home by its builder/owner, Dr. Fred Ayres, who willed most of his estate to the Akron-Summit County Public Library in 1953.
“I have a lot of two-dimensional…prints, lithographs, serigraphs,” Ver Sluys offers.
There are sculptures, oils, wood carvings, photographs, blown glass and other media that fills an impressive exhibit space.
An addition to the back of the home in 1965 by the Akron-Summit County Public Library nearly doubled the space.
“The entire building is 9,000 square feet, with 5,000 square feet on the main floor,” Ver Sluys says. “When I bought it, I did a three-year renovation, but the gallery remained opened.”
Plumbing and public restrooms were added to the first floor, and an elevator shaft, which is not yet operational.
The remaining 4,000 square feet comprises the second and third floors, for which Ver Sluys has plans.
“On the second floor I want to create studio space for artists to work out of and sell their art,” Ver Sluys says. “And on the third floor I’d like to have an artist-in-residence who can use the lower gallery space to show their work.”
Akrona represents some notable artists, both nationally and locally, one of whom was the Grand Prize winner of the 2013 Akron Art Prize, Chris Kovacevich.
“He did a self-portrait wearing lipstick and kissed the canvas more than 6,000 times,” says Ver Sluys of Kovacevich’s winning entry.
Another local artist, Alice Jamison, whom Ver Sluys describes as a “phenomenal woman,” took up palate knife paining three years ago at age 83.
Akrona’s art ranges from about $100 and up. On the high end, the gallery has a one-of-a-kind, signed Gibson SG guitar painted by Todd White. It’s listed at $55,000. White became part of the lead design and animation team for the popular cartoon “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Unlike some galleries, where customers pay for pieces and are on their way, Ver Sluys provides a tad more.
“I tell you about the artist, educate you about that particular piece,” she says. “You’re buying a lot more than just a piece of art, you’re buying a piece of an artist, their process, their soul.”
In one of the galleries, there is a rack with postcard biographies of artists Akrona represents. A “portfolio is best” for artists interested in selling at Akrona,Ver Sluys shares.
As most know, buying art is a subjective purchase, when things such as instinct, emotion, intuition and individuality come into play. And Ver Sluys is well aware of that. So if a client is unsure about what to purchase, she offers some advice.
“Interior designers, that’s what their job is. I can’t tell you what you should buy for behind the couch,” Ver Sluys says. “Art is a personal feeling. If you take the time, you’ll find it because we have a lot.”
Indeed. And sometimes that inventory goes back 18 years.
During 2014, Ver Sluys says she had a customer who bought a piece from 1996.
Ver Sluys runs the gallery solely, and inhabiting the art world is not a nine-to-five job, with attending and staging receptions, openings, installations and more. And she has a daughter, Hannah, a seventh-grader at Miller South School.
“But every day is an exciting day,” she says with a laugh.
Cultivating future artists
Ver Sluys grew up in Aurora and obtained her higher education in Michigan, but she’s quite civic-minded when it comes to furthering the arts in Akron, particularly with its younger crowd.
Designed for children ages 5 to 15, Akrona offers art classes for just $15 on Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., and Wednesdays from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. An advanced sign-up is recommended.
“I think it’s important to nurture these children and let them know that having a career in art is an option for them,” says Ver Sluys. “They don’t necessarily have to go into the fine arts. But having that creative process from taking art classes makes your mind work in different ways, and there’s lots of opportunities out there with art as your base.”
Though not an artist herself, Ver Sluys brings to the art world an interesting educational background.
She has a degree in social work with a minor in art history.
“It [art history] has nothing to do with what I sell, because I sell contemporary artists, artists who are living,” she says with a laugh. “But I use social work every day! And this really applies to my custom framing business.”
With the staggering amount of frames and mats available today, and Akrona is no different, framing customers can waffle.
“Well, it has to compliment the art of course, but also has to fit in the home, too,” Ver Sluys acknowledges.
Just about anything can be framed by Ver Sluys, who’s framed the usual photographs, diplomas and memorabilia, as well as maps, charts, birth announcements, office documents, collages, quilts, jerseys, and more.
Framed in the back gallery is beautifully handmade, white christening outfit, complete with a hat and about three- to four-feet of gown.
“Things that are important to you, a collectible, a signature…you can frame that and bring back those memories constantly,” encourages Ver Sluys.
Last October, Akrona hosted its first Artists Who Teach, an event that showcased the work of art educators.
“It was fabulous for kids to come see what their teachers actually do other than teach them how to do art,” Ver Sluys recalls.
On March 26, Firestone High School will stage its student art show at the gallery. Miller South will have its first-ever fundraiser at Akrona May 1, followed by its students’ art show beginning May 2.
“Kids love it, I mean that’s why we do it!” Ver Sluys says.
And the artypartyakron art show and auction at Akrona will take place May 28 to benefit CASA/GAL (Court Appointed Special Advocate/guardian ad litem).
A juried art show, artypartyakron auctions artwork submitted by preschool through college students, with proceeds going to CASA/GAL.
Obviously, Ver Sluys enjoys her work, having done so for 25 years, and sees herself as a liaison between artists and buyers.
“I want to wake up feeling happy,” she says. “Artists get joy from producing their art and more of that when their piece sells, so that confirms what they’re doing is good. And with me being in the middle, I make both parties happy — artists and customers. This is exciting for me.”
For more information about Akrona, visit the web site.