i met karen light at the outsider art fair in nyc a few months ago. i loved her gallery's booth which featured paintings of everyday objects by self taught artist holly farrell, embroidered muslin pieces by self taught artist rebecca shapiro and drawings by gregory blackstock, an autistic savant. karen actually runs two art businesses: 1. garde rail gallery which started in seattle and now operates online. the gallery specializes in work by contemporary folk, self-taught, outsider, visionary, and developmentally disabled artists // and 2. the show on the road, a mobile gallery that brings art to the streets and people of austin, texas.
i've enjoyed getting to know karen and hearing more about her unique journey as a gallerist. what's been even more enjoyable is that she's taken an interest in what i'm doing too. i am grateful for this and we've discussed working together on a concept for art basel miami next december, which i hope can come to fruition. more about karen below:
cultureisland: tell us more about you and garde rail gallery. how did the name garde rail come about?
karen light: i grew up in georgia and worked as a flight attendant for nine years. along the way, i saw art all over the world and began collecting folk art. i quit delta in 1997 and moved to seattle. one day i was visiting artists in a homeless shelter and a stranger came in and said he had space for rent in a building that was going to be demolished several months later. it was a 1930s art deco building and he was charging $200 a month for rent. i immediately jumped at the opportunity and became an art dealer over night. ultimately we renovated the space like we would be there forever. garde rail gallery opened in june of 1998 in the belltown neighborhood of seattle. since i recently moved to austin, i now operate the gallery online. garde rail has specialized in what is known as self-taught, contemporary folk, and outsider art. the gallery represents 30 or so artists from the northwest, deep south and other regions of the united states and canada. i've traveled extensively to hand pick artists from alabama, florida, georgia, louisiana, michigan, ohio and the carolinas. many of the artists have been included in major collections, museums, and traveling exhibits. many of the artists are african american and all are self-taught. the name garde rail actually came to me in a dream. it's directly related to prolific southern folk artists obsessively creating art, filling their house, their yard, and on out to the guard rails, visible from highways.
cultureisland: how did you discover artist gregory blackstock? tell us more about him and his work.
karen light: gregory blackstock's cousin's neighbor knew me and my gallery and recommended his drawings to me. he had worked as a pot washer at the washington athletic club for twenty five and a half years where his work was featured in the company newsletter under the title "blackstock's corner" since 1986. i went to see him and he began pulling roll after roll of drawings from under his bed and in his closet. they were all stunning, catalogue-like drawings. his subjects range from state birds to state prisons, tools to wwii bombers, and mackerel to boeing jet liners. gregory's drawings are often large, on several sheets of paper pieced together with tape and glue. using pencil, crayon, ink and marker, gregory depicts insects and baskets with incredible precision, straight lines and text executed without the aid of a ruler. the detail is minute and the shading is impeccable. in gregory's world, everything around him needs to be identified, ordered and arranged. discovering his work really changed everything.
gregory is an autistic savant and has overcome many of the limitations of autism. he exhibits many of the remarkable traits of the autistic savant; he speaks many languages, is an incredible mimic, and is able to recall events with uncanny precision. it is without doubt in our minds that gregory blackstock would be an artist under any circumstance -- his autism did not make him become an artist, nor is he an artist because of it. still, autistics exhibit an inherent inability to show intimacy and intimate communication with those that are close to them and others. it is through his art and his music (he plays the accordion), that gregory has effectively been able to combat this disability and to meet the challenge, with fantastic results. discovering gregory's work changed his life and he's the happiest he's ever been. he brands all of his shirts with the word "artist" and has truly enjoyed the positive identifier of this title. circa 2007, commes des garçons contacted me about wanting to collaborate with him for their men's ready to wear. they chose several images and used them as patterns on the clothing they sent down the runways. the seattle art museum gift shop once produced a t-shirt using his drawing of "the art supplies." gregory is also in the permanent collection of the collection de l'art brut in lausanne, switzerland.
cultureisland: you recently moved from seattle to austin and started a new gallery, the show on the road. what is the concept?
karen light: in austin there is no gallery district or art space building yet. while austin is full of food trucks, i got the idea to do a visual food truck that would sell art and art "produce" such as t-shirts, cards and art books. i bought a truck on craigslist and it took a year to get it renovated and ready as a full-service art gallery. i call it road art. it's an unexpected model for a gallery as it's friendly and approachable. i launched it a year ago and i drive around different areas of austin and tweet the location. i try to be in as many places around town as possible. the art features mostly small scale original art of all disciplines, from a carefully selected roster of contemporary artists. most works are $500 and under. (watch video above)
cultureisland: tell us more about your upcoming exhibit, the visual transmission tour, at sxsw.
karen light: during south by south west, the show on the road will be stationed indoor the austin convention center for the music gear expo. the truck will feature rock-and-roll themed paintings by berlin-based eddie argos of art brut and the lost highway drawings and record etchings of sonic youth guitarist and co-founder lee ranaldo. the show will be inside the convention center from march 19th through the 21st and the work will be up in my truck until june. my vision for the sxsw show is rooted in my love of music and my interest in spotlighting another level of creativity of musicians. on tour and during their downtime, these artists can effectively escape their hectic schedules and touring demands by making art –- expressing a quieter side of their creativity. touted by rolling stone and spin magazines as one of the “greatest guitarists of all time” (along with bandmate thurston moore), lee ranaldo is an accomplished singer-songwriter, guitarist, writer and record producer. he has also been a visual artist for many years, exhibiting his work in numerous galleries and museums, as well as in several published books. his lost highway drawings were inspired by over 30 years on the road as a musician. not ironically, eddie argos’ art brut band name is also the term for ‘outsider art’ coined by french artist jean dubuffet. argos is considered one of the most charismatic lead singers in rock ‘n roll and will be in austin for sxsw with two appearances at the show on march 19th + 20th. my hope is that by revealing the visually-creative side of some of our favorite musicians, people will develop a deeper sense of connection to art and music since the two work so well together!
cultureisland: what are your favorite places to see art, shop, get coffee, eat and hang out around austin? and what are you currently listening to?
karen light: for cocktails, rio rita is my cheers. best pizza, bufallina. my favorite music venue is hotel vegas, it's very psych heavy. best shopping is blue velvet vintage. favorite lunch spot is the austin daily press. best coffee shop is cenote. and my favorite place for true austin grub and atmosphere, the texas chili parlor. i just bought a record, "lost souls volume 1, arkansas psychedelic and garage rock from the 1960's, the dodos, fat white family and bass drum of death and i still can't get over that perfect salad days by mac demarco.