Jody Hemphill Smith and her husband, Mark Paul Smith, have roots that run deep under the pavement of West Wayne Street. Hemphill-Smith was raised in Fort Wayne and met her husband while renting an apartment in a house just down the block from their current residence. They still own the house where their early seeds were sown, along with the architectural jewel that is known as the Castle Gallery. Hemphill-Smith has a strong passion for her hometown, most affectionately the West Central neighborhood. She and her husband have owned and restored a total of four mammoth homes on West Wayne, each time receiving the ARCH award. She hopes to assist in the renovation of 1122 West Wayne, the home that went up in flames on December 23. She has already renamed the property, “Phoenix” and is confident it will rise from the ashes.
Most often identified as a painter, Hemphill Smith recognizes that she approaches home restoration in a similar way that she does an empty canvas. She says her work in restoration could be described as her “practicum in 3D design.” She connects to the homes she restores just as deeply as any artist connects to her work. While Hemphill Smith’s paintings are heavily collected, her masterpiece stands three stories high and houses work from artists all over the country.
Castle Gallery is both home to the Smiths and a destination art gallery. After serving the city from 1949 to 1983 as the Fort Wayne Art Museum, the house was divided into multiple apartments. In the process, sections of the house were sealed out of sight, only to be discovered years later by Jody and Mark as they worked to restore the architectural gem to its proper state. Three small kitchens, remnants of the old apartments, connect to the rest of the house by back hallways, doors and staircases – perfect tunnels to hide the behind-the-scenes scurrying that takes place during an event like a gallery opening.
Jody and Mark Paul opened the house as a gallery in 1995 with a Valentine’s Day show. On February 9, 2013 the gallery celebrated its 18th annual event with wine, chocolate, live music and fine art. Hemphill Smith described the event, which features bright colors and floral themes, as an opportunity to give people their “fix of color,” a craving that so many of us experience this time of year.
Hemphill Smith’s paintings certainly offer color. The majority of her works depict bits of nature, mostly flowers, but some vegetables and even a few animals. Her flowers are full of energy, as if dancing or exploding from the ground, celebrating new life and happily letting us know that we made it through yet another season of gloom. Her brush strokes show movement; her colors are bold. Hemphill Smith is not an artist of subtlety; she has a vibrant soul, and her paintings reflect her personal energy.
Hemphill Smith’s paintings, along with work by dozens of other artists, fill the walls of the nine-bedroom, nine-bath Castle. Pieces of art can be found in every corner of the house. Paintings fill hallways, bedrooms, stairways and offices. No space is off limits to art. Hemphill-Smith tells her artists, “You could be hanging across from the washer and dryer or you could be hanging on the front wall.”
While some artists might take offense to their work showing in a laundry room, there is no shame at the Castle. Robin Cheers – an Atlanta artist who handles local commissions, painting popular Fort Wayne locations such as the Oyster Bar – hangs across from the washer and dryer. Her work elevates the atmosphere for tackling mundane chores. Doing laundry surrounded by beautiful paintings can’t be all bad. (The laundry room is also home of “Jim Morrison Way,” the details of which you’ll have to learn on your own when you visit.)
The Castle is full of subtle surprises, and each hidden treasure is connected to a story. It’s up to each visitor to find clues that unfold to reveal quirky and often heartwarming stories. For example, the artist Carolyne Fehsenfeld, renowned instructor at the artist residency Ox Bow, painted a series of tiny pieces that currently hang at the end of a hallway on the second floor. The pieces are lovely, but a quick-browsing visitor could easily rush by without much thought. Pass them slowly, and you will see the ghostly shadow of the king of clubs or maybe the jack of spades hovering in the background, asleep behind thin layers of paint. The artist painted the miniature gems as she spent hours keeping company with her ailing parents in the hospital. The compact size of the cards (tiny canvases complete with a handy carrying case) attracted Fehsenfeld. Knowing the hours at the hospital would pass more enjoyably if she were painting, she brought a deck and a few tubes of paint and began creating a collection of unique works.
Another series of tiny works comes from a mother of young children who craves quiet, creative time. Rather than prop her feet up when her little ones head off for a snooze, Julie Waranch Fleshman paints mini-works in gouache. Her one nap-one painting method produces small designs with such fine detail that a person may wonder if the brush’s hairs could be counted on one hand.
Hemphill Smith’s paintings reflect stories that tell of her own connections with people. Her vegetable series was painted on the deck at her Lake Michigan home where she gathered five easels and five still lifes to create five large paintings. The vegetables Hemphill Smith studied weren’t plastic fakes or random grabs from the supermarket, but rather ones hand-grown and nurtured in a friend’s garden, then carefully chosen and harvested by the collector who commissioned the originals. The time and care given to grow, harvest, and arrange the produce are celebrated with Hemphill Smith’s choice of vibrant color. Her loose style reflects the energy contained inside of each pepper, eggplant, and tomato.
Hemphill Smith’s landscapes, still lifes, and interpretations of the Castle itself are in the hands of collectors all over the country. Art lovers fall head over heels for the stories and vibrancy Hemphill Smith brings to her work. One of her clients even purchased a piece specifically for his cat. The painting was hung at eye level, just above the floor, perfect placement for a feline friend.
When traveling, Hemphill Smith is often reminded of paintings sold to clients long ago. “When I see an old piece, it’s like revisiting an old friend.” Like most artists, Hemphill Smith feels a deep connection with her work. The artist’s spirit is spread across the canvas. When a person buys a piece of work they bring home a piece of that process.
Castle Gallery hosts five receptions each year to invite collectors to meet artists and in turn develop lasting relationships. A personal connection makes the work more meaningful to clients and helps foster a feeling of appreciation, not only for the work but also for the person who created it. Passionate art collectors don’t fill their homes with canvas, oil and pigment, but with parts of people who they know and genuinely care about.
Hemphill Smith and her staff work hard to maintain a constant flow of new work in and old work out of the Castle. Her goal is to keep the walls interesting by rotating pieces and hanging art in new combinations and different locations to create a unique experience each time a person visits.
If you choose to visit – and I highly recommend you do – move through the Castle slowly. It is easy to be overcome by the building’s regal personality, but if you allow your eye to wander, you will come to see the details. Stained glass windows, a coffee table made from the guts of a grand piano and inlaid floors show off the architecture like jewels around a woman’s neck. Small doorways lead to small hallways and back staircases. Wind your way through. There are three stories of detail and story to uncover. (Two tidbits to lookout for: flying pigs and a hidden Nancy Drew.) If you reach the rooftop deck, its view may set your mind wandering as you simmer and process all that was seen on the inside. While you’re up there, look down at the neighborhood filled with layers of history, impressive architecture and fabulous art. Hemphill Smith has left her influence all over the place with the homes she has renovated, the art she has created and the connections she has made with people.
The 18th Annual Valentine’s Show runs through March 16. Regular gallery hours are Tuesday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., or by appointment.