[Inside the Region's Oldest, Full-Service Gallery]
Story by Tracy Nicholson
Photography by M.Schleif Photography
As a mother-daughter team, gallery owner, Barbara Wolfe and daughter, Lisa Hemm are proud of the legacy they've continued to build on since 1981. Starting with a gallery in Fergus Falls, then expanding to Fargo in 1985, today Wolfe operates the oldest, full-service art gallery in Fargo-Moorhead. Along with having one of the region’s largest collections of fine art, the Underbrush Gallery also has the framing and restoration expertise of Christa Crane. Beyond the priceless work on their walls, this gallery is a local hot spot to be treasured.
The Evolution of the Underbrush Gallery
“I was working at the radio station in Fergus Falls and my friend in the news department told me that her mother-in-law, Renola Ellig was opening a wildlife gallery and she said that I'd be the perfect person to manage it," said Wolfe. "I laughed and told her that I knew nothing about art."
The Underbrush Gallery's story began in 1981 when Renola Ellig and her son, Van, attended the wildlife art show at a Minneapolis Daytons. "She always loved art and Van was an avid hunter. By the time they got back to Fergus Falls, they had decided they were going to open up their own wildlife gallery on Main Street," said Wolfe. "A plan transpired, but she lived in Fargo and Van was an attorney in Fergus Falls, so they needed a manager. All I knew about art was that I liked it and everywhere I went I would find the museums, little art shops and galleries. So, I must have had an interest in it, but I didn't know it then or have any education in it."
"The name, 'Underbrush holds a dual meaning, as in where the animals hide and also the strokes of the brush," said Wolfe.
In 1985, the first Underbrush Gallery was opened in Fargo, adjacent to the Stop 'N Go on 25th Street. "It was such a darling gallery; it was a beautiful, small gallery with a frame shop upstairs," said Wolfe. "When they needed more space for the Stop 'N Go, we moved it all upstairs and opened another, larger location on 42nd Street in the strip mall across from Mac’s Hardware. Along with my partner at that time, Peggy Ellig, we added a third location in Moorhead; so at one time, we had three galleries in Fargo and we were running art pieces all over town and Fergus Falls. In 1996, Peg and I decided that it was just too much, so we closed the other locations and moved everything into one larger gallery with frame shop in Market Square on 25th Street South."
After the move, the biggest change for Wolfe was the addition of original and local art. "People wanted their artwork to be more unique and collectible. They collect for themselves and what they enjoy; they don't focus on just one artist. A lot of collectors want to find at least one piece from a variety of artists," said Wolfe. "Maybe they've gotten a chance to meet the artist and have that connection, so it's always fun to help them add to their collection.
Wolfe's daughter, Lisa Hemm came on board in 2003 and the gallery has continued to evolve with the times. "I remember when it first started in Fergus Falls, everything was wildlife prints, matting and glass with a lot of Terry Redlin and Les Kouba. In recent years, canvas works have gained popularity, so we don't feature a lot of glass anymore. There are just so many different options we can offer now, that we couldn't then. Art pieces with photography have also really changed; now they can take their work and put in on high-definition metal, acrylic or canvas. We can also take a photo and send it in to make it resemble a painting."
Underbrush Gallery currently offers the region’s largest collection of fine art, including paintings, artwork, ceramic and metallic sculptures and glass art. Countless regional artists adorn the gallery walls in genres ranging from Photorealism to Luminism, Abstract art, landscapes and portraiture.
"We don't worry too much about trends in art, it's mainly what speaks to the person purchasing it. Art is such a personal thing," said Wolfe. "What makes one person depressed, can make another happy. A lot of people say, 'I'll know it when I see it.' That can be really hard because you have to find out if they like contemporary, traditional, lake scenes, landscapes and so on. It has to really speak to them and sometimes you have to get into their head to know exactly what they're looking for."
“We have chosen a lot of local artist's original work, but then we go to New York, Philly, Vegas - really, all over so we can bring work from nationally-known artists back to the gallery," said Hemm. "Everything that we find is made in the United States and we carry mostly original pieces, with some prints and posters."
Commissioned & Large-scale Art
With larger, open-concept homes, Underbrush Gallery has been seeing an uptick in large-scale, commissioned pieces. "The newer homes have more windows and less wall space, so they may only want one large, signature piece," said Hemm. "We've also started seeing more pedestals and easels with a beautiful piece of art, so that's another way to place a signature piece anywhere in the home, without needing wall space."
Photography, Prints & Posters
"With modern technology, we can do so much more with paper posters and prints," said Hemm. "We can even have them transferred to canvas and texturize them to make them look like originals. Posters are also available to be printed on demand, in any size."
The Frame Shop
Prints and photography are not the only aspects that have changed dramatically. Demand for elaborate and custom framing projects has also increased. Christa Crane is a local artist and MSUM graduate who has been heading up the Underbrush custom frame shop for the past 25 years. Her extensive knowledge ranges from complete restorations of canvas and antique frames to difficult canvas stretching, custom matting and hand-finished moldings in hundreds of styles. "She's kind of like our engineer, she has to figure out a way to make each piece work. Not everyone can do what she does, it takes many years and a lot of time, patience, practice and training," said Wolfe.
When the gallery gets new art, the majority of the canvases come in unframed and unstretched. Unless the artist insists on a specific presentation, each piece will undergo a process of deciding how it should be presented in the gallery. With endless options and styles to choose from, the team has plenty of decisions to make. All framing is done on the premises and Crane's expertise is relied on for her skillful engineering to complement the piece and wall space.
Behind the (Art) Scenes
Beyond their gallery walls, Crane takes on the labor-intensive process with each piece to ensure stability and proper conservation. Gluing a frame together, Crane uses a machine called the Cassese, it's an underpinner that drives wedges up inside the corners to hold them together so that it can combine with the glue that holds the miter.
To perfect an array of detailed projects, Crane has attended training in Minneapolis and Las Vegas to hone her skills in guilding and molding.
"This is a full-service gallery, so everything is done on the premise; we don't just order things in already cut and assembled, it's a really custom process," said Crane. "I love working with all different pieces of artwork and presenting them in a different way. I've always been into the engineering part of putting things together and thinking about how it needs to go together to do unique projects. We almost always find a solution for anything people bring to us that needs to be framed."
"These are pastel portraits by international artist Terri Hallman, from Wisconson," said Wolfe."It's beautiful as is, but once it's custom framed, it becomes transformed into a statement piece. Additional moldings can also be designed to stack around the floating frame to add width and interest."
Just last summer, Crane was asked to complete a custom frame and stretch for a very fragile, 75-year-old flag. Measuring in at five feet by nine feet, the frame had to be custom built and painted outdoors.
"She can do very elaborate framing, even huge, framed mirrors with two or three frames to make the piece look much larger than it is," said Wolfe. "When you go into a museum, you'll notice that it's not just one frame, it's multiple frames coordinated together. We also have the option of using different kinds of glass; museum glass and conservation clear. Museum glass is by far the best option for avoiding the glare, but both offer 99% UV protection."
If you're considering taking your priceless art or memorabilia to a big box framing department, you might want to reconsider. Many art pieces and especially aging memorabilia, can be extremely fragile and must be handled with great skill and care. Crane has extensive knowledge of different types of artwork and knows which framing and handling techniques to use and which to avoid. "We want our customers to be happy, so we back our work 100 percent," said Crane. "We've had a lot of people come in and ask us to repair work that other frame shops have done for them. We also get referrals from other shops for more difficult framing projects. We make sure it's done in a conservation way and we educate the customer on all of their different options."
"People will bring in a shoebox full of personal items that are very important to them, but they don't know what to do with it. So, we try to design a custom shadowbox based on how big they want it, how much should go in there and what is most important to show," said Wolfe. "Sometimes that means designing multiple shadow boxes as a collection. We can do anything from baptismal gowns, sports jerseys, tools, really anything that has meaning to them; those are the best gifts to give or receive."
This framed jersey has three custom-cut mattes with a small logo decal that Crane has hand carved with an Exacto knife.
"I do wish more people understood how much goes into the whole process and how many different options they can choose from," said Crane. "There are unlimited options to personalize a piece or make it go with your decor. We have to start with a quality product and make sure it's not warped or damaged. We have very high standards, our clients are investing quite a bit into it, so we want each piece to be perfect.
A Family Affair
When we asked Lisa Hemm what it was like working with her mom for the past 16 years, her positive response was without pause. "It's always been great," said Hemm. "My mom asked me to come work with her in 2003 because her partner had left. I had already been going to art shows and traveling to find art with her, so it was something I was also very interested in. We're both pretty easy going people, so we've always gotten along really well."
"It's been so fun - I can't even tell you how wonderful it's been working every day with my daughter. The only downside is that when one of us leave, both of us leave," laughed Wolfe. "This time of year we start attending different shows. Soon we are headed to the New York Art Expo, The American Handcrafted Show in Philadelphia, Las Vegas Market or wherever art takes us. No matter where we go, we are always trying to find different, unique pieces, and we always have fun."
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