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Jean Leigh runs Boystown gallery for everyone
by Kerry Reid

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Jean Leigh always had a clear vision for what she wanted her Halsted Street gallery to be: "I wanted a gallery where you could walk in and get something, rather than walking out brokenhearted." Since 2005, Leigh Gallery has been featuring artists across a wide spectrum of media—from paintings to prints, jewelry to pottery—at prices that won't break the bank.

If there's a unifying theme to the work Leigh seeks out, it's "pleasantries and escapism."

But that doesn't mean the work is all flowers and fluffy kittens. You can find photography by "storm chaser" David Mayhew that verges on the apocalyptic in its depictions of nature's power. Roger Heide's color-plane horizons in oil are, as Leigh put it, "flawless"—blocks of color suggesting seashore views stretching out to infinity that take on different subtle gradations of light and shadow as you move around them.

Leigh herself worked as a pen-and-ink artist for many years. One of her works—a drawing of the Cana Island lighthouse in Door County—hangs in the Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay. But the eyestrain of working on such detailed pieces under magnification took her away from creating her own work to showing and selling other people's art. And she's now one of the last galleries standing in the North Halsted area.

"I love being around art. Always have. So I thought, 'I'll just open a gallery.' I called 40 people to open this place and said 'If I open a gallery in Chicago, will you come?' And all 40 of them said yes. Not it's up to 80."

Leigh has spent a lot of time on the art-fair circuit. And that also influenced her approach as a gallerist. " I set it up like an art fair so you're getting almost all mediums in one small space. You don't get to see pottery in too many places."

An eye-catching display of pottery by Norbert White shows off his approach to porcelain. "He glazes, then carves all these pieces out to take the glaze away," explained Leigh. She pointed out that his attention to detail includes carving on the bottom of the platters and vases he creates.

White is also a bartender at Sidetrack—which highlights Leigh's emphasis on supporting local artists as much as possible. It's not strictly about altruism. She also noted that it's convenient to be able to get more work from an artist who lives locally if she sells out of her current inventory. And it also means that buyers have a good chance of meeting the artists whose work they are acquiring.

Being in Boystown also means that work with an LGBTQ appeal does well. Leigh pointed out paintings of the iconic rainbow pylons on Halsted Street by Michael Barnett, as well as works referencing the Pride, Bisexual, Transgender and Leather flags. While such pieces may be commonplace for the neighborhood, Leigh said "I get guys who come in from Russia or wherever and they say 'Oh my god, you have a gay flag in your window!' They come in here because art is cool and it's a safe friendly place compared to where they've come from. It's mind-blowing to hear that kind of story over and over again. Even when I go to art fairs in places like Highland Park, my wife reminds me that I'm in this gay bubble here. You forget because you're so immersed in it."

A piece by Nate Freeman in ARTNews last year noted how many "middle-class" galleries are closing in New York City—a phenomenon which has hit some Chicago galleries as well. For Leigh, part of her survival strategy is that, "I didn't go racy and political and all that stuff. You can go to Pilsen to get that stuff, or you can go other places. I thought, 'Let's just cover it so there's something for everyone in this area, because this area is so diverse.' You've got to make it so everyone can find something they like."

She also features diverse work from the artists themselves. Painter Armando Pedroso's work includes "cool surrealist houses" in vibrant colors, as well as his "urban grit" series—textured abstract pieces incorporating rusty bits of found objects against a backdrop of darker hues.

Because she's so hands-on ( Leigh jokes, "I have no life. I'm here all the time" ), she takes special pleasure in helping first-time buyers find something special that is "meaningful to them, rather than their being told it's meaningful. That's a big deal." She added, "There's nothing stuffy or stuck-up or any of that stuff here. It's good quality work at affordable prices and that's my thing. I'll have people come in and say, 'Oh, I can't afford anything.' I'll ask them, 'Did you look at the prices?' And they go 'Oh!'"

Making that personal connection means that, in a way, everything she sells carries not only the history of the artist, but the memory of the experience of buying it. Leigh said, "I bought a piece in Provincetown. And it was such a horrible experience that every time I look at it in my living room, I think, 'grrrr.' It left a bad taste. Whereas with other places, it's like, 'Oh, I had such a fun time with them and they were so nice.' And then it makes me smile to look at it."

Leigh's accessibility extends to non-human patrons as well. On the day we chatted, she broke off from our conversation to bring a dog biscuit to an adorable black pug, who stops by daily with his owner.

Even as the neighborhood demographics change—Leigh noted she sees more married straight couples now alongside gay men—she finds support from the community.

"I think they get it," Leigh said of her neighborhood patrons. "They know to support local and they really do." For her part, she continues to seek out new talent. The weekend before we chatted, she had scouted some new prospects at the Lakeview East Festival of the Arts. Other than talent, what Leigh looks for in an artist is someone who is "sane and pleasant."

And if seeking that sunnier side of the street is wrong, Leigh doesn't want to be right. "Honestly, we all need happiness and escapism. Everything here makes you kind of smile."

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