BENTON HARBOR — Elizabeth Kozlowski and fellow artist and co-conspirator Leslie A. Sunell scan the room in the newly opened Aveline, A Gallery of Art and Fine Craft as they talk about the journey that brought them here.
“I’m happy to have met Elizabeth, because we had a vision,” Sunell says as she pauses and smiles. “Sometimes visions.”
“Maybe some night terrors, too,” Kozlowski adds. “Some panic attacks.”
Kozlowski, a Chicago transplant who now lives in Lawrence, quietly opened the gallery nearly three weeks ago at 138 Water St., in the Benton Harbor Arts District. The space, adjacent to Water Street Glassworks, once housed Water Street GelatoWorks, and more recently The Sweet Bar by Mason Jar, before former owners Jayme Cousins and her husband, Abel Martinez, opted to focus on their busy primary business, The Mason Jar Cafe, just down the street.
When Kozlowski and Sunell visited the space, they saw an opportunity to do something quite different than the previous tenants.
“Elizabeth and I had been looking for a space for quite some time,” Sunell says. “We did investigate some other possibilities, but when this opportunity was presented to us, we just knew it was the right place – the shape of it, the size of it, the architectural interests, and, most of all, the fact that it is down here in the arts district, which we really wanted to be a part of.”
They’ll make it official on Friday when Aveline hosts its opening party as part of the New Territory Arts Association Holiday Art Hop. While the event will include refreshments and music, Kozlowski and Sunell say it is really an opportunity to celebrate with their new neighbors, meet patrons and show off the work of their carefully curated local and regional artists.
“We’re an artist consigned shop, and already within three weeks we have 13 artists, and we have had people asking for applications almost every day,” Kozlowski says. “It’s been really exciting. A lot of people want to be a part of it. And people who have walked through the door just love it. They think it’s great.”
Kozlowski and Sunell met as members of Chartreuse, the artist-owned co-operative gallery in downtown St. Joseph. Because Chartreuse is a co-op, members also staff the gallery, design and build display space and help run the business.
“It’s a great model for them, and we got our starts there, but we wanted to do something a little bit different,” Sunell says.
“Some artists have other jobs and the time commitment made it impossible for them to join a place like (Chartreuse),” Kozlowski says. “So we just thought it was an opportunity to attract some artists who do some different things, and a lot of emerging artists and new people in the neighborhood as well as people outside the neighborhood.”
Kozlowski spent 17 years in Chicago, where she primarily sold Polish and Eastern European artwork, and another eight years in Valparaiso, Ind., where she was involved in the regional art scene before moving to Lawrence a little more than a year ago. While her initial foray into her own art was in fusing and flameworking beads, Kozlowski says it was her daughter, Helen, who introduced her to fiber art.
“My daughter went to Waldorf school and kind of forced me into buying some (wool) roving and needles and said, ‘OK look at this,’” Kozlowski says. “I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and that’s when I started to needle felt. I made little animals that were more cartoony. Then I started refining it over time. I always liked puppets and marionettes, so I started making these felted finger puppets.”
Felting is a process of matting, condensing and pressing fibers together, particularly wool. Needle felting, as the name implies, uses special needles that clump pieces of wool together into one textile.
“They’re not really toys. They are called soft sculpture,” Kozlowski says of her puppets. “You can teach children stories using these, and they can use them as well. I also have some clothing using wet felting technique where the fibers are pushed through and kind of shrunk together. There’s a little bit of flow in the form, but they are very warm.”
Sunell, meanwhile, moved to Stevensville about 10 years ago from Capitola, Calif., a Central Coast beach town on Monterey Bay in Santa Cruz County, where she and her husband operated a gallery that specialized in Native American art and jewelry.
As an artist, Sunell, who has worked with the Krasl Art Center and the Box Factory for the Arts, where her studio is located, is known for her encaustic paintings, also known as hot wax painting, which involves using heated beeswax with colored pigments.
“It’s an ancient painting material,” she says. “I use pure beeswax and paint it on in many layers so it is able to keep some translucency from layer to layer. Then it is fused to, in this case, board with a blow torch. Some people use a heat gun, but I use a blow torch because it’s more fun.”
Kozlowski and Sunell aren’t the only familiar names on Aveline’s growing roster of artists.
David Smykal, a self-taught artist who grew up in Stevensville, and Brian Cooley, the autistic cartoon specialist, have both joined Aveline as well. Smykal is perhaps best known locally for his colorful signs and his penchant for humor, from colorfully painted pieces of driftwood shaped as a fish to barn wood signs to metal and buckets. Cooley, who primarily works on paper, is now working in polymer clay as well.
“Brian and I both left Chartreuse,” Smykal says. “We had worked so hard there for so long we thought it was time that we worked that hard for ourselves. So far it’s been really good. I think the arts district here wanted more art, and we sort of gave it right to them. Now people here have one more place to go.”
Jeff and Theresa Heaton’s collaborative, wall-mounted weavings of found objects are the newest addition to Aveline. Jeff Heaton, who also works at the Box Factory, will take, for example, a pet food bag and cut it into strips. Theresa Heaton sews the ragged edges down and then they assemble and mount it to a base.
There’s also custom stained glass by Niles artist Marty McKiernan; upcycled wearable art sewn from reclaimed local goods by Benton Harbor’s Sharon Wilkinson; fabricated metal jewelry by St. Joseph’s Vicki Cook; functional pottery by Chicago ceramicist Chylene Kanpenga; intricate bead-stitched jewelry by South Bend’s Robijo Burzynski; nature and architectural photography by South Bend’s John Burzynski; wire-wrapped jewelry of Chesterton, Ind.’s Jayde McAloon; and the functional weaving (think travel bags, wallets) of Chesterton, Ind.’s Chris Acton.
“We want work that was made by hand that has a lot of heart in them,” Sunell says. “That’s been our focus.”
Kozlowski, who says she already feels right at home, also believes that as word spreads, the gallery’s possibilities are endless.
“Look at the space,” she says. “It just needed us. It needed love. ... Who knows? Someday we might even sell gelato.”
Contact: jbonfiglio@TheHP.com, 932-0364, Twitter: @HPBonfiglio