The Fairbanks art scene has flowed into coffee shops and local breweries over recent years, but for nearly 20 years, Well Street Art Company has kept its central focus on operating as a commercial art gallery.
Owner David Mollett said the business will work with a range or artists, from landscapes, to abstract or conceptual but he tends to stay away from reproduction art.
“We only show what we call original art, which is something that’s hand made by the artist,” Mollett said, “not a photograph that’s been made into like a fancy poster.”
This can include computer artwork and a variety of other media, so long as it’s original. He added that the gallery shows and sells art that is made as personal expression.
Mollett bought the space, a building on Well Street just past the railroad tracks running parallel to Phillips Field Road, in the late 1990s. He previously owned another gallery from 1993-98. He said that, initially, he considered the gallery on Well Street to be an extension of the original one.
Site 250, the first gallery, was located on Cushman Street. Mollett said his then-business partner wanted to get out of the gallery business and the people who owned the space wanted to sell it, but Mollett didn’t want to buy it.
In the end, he said, buying the building that would become Well Street Art Company gave him 10 times more space.
“It just seemed kind of obvious that I should do something: kind of restructure the gallery,” he said. “So that’s what happened, so the gallery got restructured and we moved over here.”
Well Street Art Company officially opened in 2000, after some remodeling. The building used to be a plumbing and heating supply warehouse and store. The inside was completely redone, according to Mollett, and the gallery opened before some of the other rooms were finished.
With what Mollett describes as an “old West flat front” to the building, from the outside the gallery appears misleadingly small. Once inside, the building branches off into a dozen rooms. The gallery proper spans two of the largest rooms in the building, left of the entrance.
Currently Mollett and the gallery assistants are preparing the gallery space for an upcoming First Friday show featuring Elizabeth Eero Irving. The show was on display in Anchorage previously and has two distinct sections: drawings and paintings. In Anchorage, it was titled “Songs of the River.”
“Each exhibit really should be given its own title, especially as it moves from gallery to gallery, so the title for this show, for both exhibits, is ‘Visions of Home,’” Irving said. “They really pertain to where we belong in the landscape, where we find out identity in the landscape and how we travel through it.”
While Irving said she works primarily in oils, this exhibit features oils, some acrylics and ink drawings. Her paintings, one of which takes up an entire wall of the gallery, are richly gold in color; they were hung on Tuesday by gallery assistants.
Irving’s upcoming show shares an additional connection to Well Street: It was painted in a studio space Mollett rents out.
There are a handful of rooms, some just across from the gallery proper, others around the corner and down a hall. Mollett has a studio behind the gallery space, where he works on paintings and is presently putting together prints for a show in Anchorage.
“The studios tend to be full almost all the time,” Mollett said, “but some of them will move out and usually somebody else will move in right away.”
He added that there has occasionally been a six-month stretch where a studio might not be occupied, but most of the artists who have a space at Well Street currently have been there a long time, some since the gallery opened.
“I really enjoy the camaraderie of the artists in the building,” Irving said. “We inform each other about materials, methods, artists careers issues, so I have a lot of good friends in this building as well.”
One of the two gallery assistants who helped hang Irving’s show has also been working out of Well Street for some time. Devante Owens has worked at the gallery part-time since graduating from the University of Alaska Fairbanks with a Bachelor of Fine Art two years ago.
“I think that we’re different because a lot of the places you see art at, at least in Fairbanks now, are kind of like coffee places or they’re more like multifunction,” Owens said. “Where we’re, like, ‘We’re an art gallery; that’s our thing.’”
At the gallery, he’s helped with estate sales, gallery shows and various paperwork. He also took a class with Mollett at the university, a story that isn’t uncommon at Well Street.
“So I worked with David at the university while I was getting my master’s. He teaches the printmaking classes there,” said Max Bartsch, another gallery assistant who helped hang Irving’s show.
Bartsch has only been working at Well Street Art Company for a few weeks, but he’s volunteered at other galleries in the past.
“I’ve worked with galleries or I’ve worked at galleries pretty consistently,” he said, adding that, in his home town, he began by helping his mother hang shows.
Well Street Art Company also houses a frame shop, where Bartsch has been doing some work lately. The shop is visible right upon walking through the front door. In the shop, Katlian Stark said they’ll frame just about anything that gets brought in to them.
“The general idea is someone will bring a piece of artwork in. A lot of time it’s unframed and we’ll talk through these examples here,” she said, gesturing to a wall of framed art. “Like what kind of mat they want with it or what kind of frame.”
Stark works in the gallery and the frame shop, and she has had her own studio space down the hall to the right of the frame shop for about two years. Irving is just a few doors down from her.
“It’s really great,” Stark said. “We have a really good community of artists in here that are by and large always working on separate projects, but we’re in here consistently … So it’s a really good sense of community that you don’t always get with studio spaces.”
All of the artists working and showing in the gallery talked about Well Street United, a show that’s held every other year where the artists who work out of Well Street are able to submit pieces for a combined show.
It’s fitting, though Mollett said he initially opened a gallery because he wanted a place to show that was more geared towards his interests. At the time, a lot of the galleries were combined with gift shop space.
“But they didn’t have what we call the white walls gallery, where you just have an empty room and you put the art up and it changes every month,” Mollett said.
Mollett said he thought it would be cool to have the “white walls gallery.” He wanted a place where he could show his work and he said his friends wanted a similar space, so that’s why he got into it.
“And really, it continues to this day,” he said.
Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7572.