Being the “only” anything isn’t always easy, but when you are the only African American gallery in a city whose black population is just about 22 percent, the level of difficulty would seem to increase. But E&S Gallery has faced the challenges that come with the word “only” and risen above “only” to grow one of the most successful galleries in the country focusing exclusively on art created by African Americans. In fact, for two years straight, American Art Awards has named E&S Gallery as one of the Top 25 galleries in the country.
Walking into the current E&S gallery space on 108 S. 10th Street is transporting. To enter, a bell must be rung and when entry is granted, you are invited warmly into a space filled from the light wood floor to the top of three floors with colorful, diverse art including works by masters like Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, and Louisville’s own Ed Hamilton. On the second level, a custom framing shop sits amid the art. You can purchase both framed and unframed works here.
Sitting down with Cathy Smith-Shannon is a delightful endeavor. Her demeanor glows as she talks about E&S’s artists and the roots of the business she and husband Walter Shannon have built.
“Walter moved here from California. His background was in the furniture and design industry. He published an early art catalog that was a retail catalog. That introduced a lot of clients to African American art.”
A Louisville native, Cathy’s own background was in marketing and public relations. She came into the business when she met and married Walter.
“I do most of the marketing, advertising, and have evolved into doing sales and art management,” she says. “The fact that we collected, over 20-some years, quite a bit of art; that’s kind of where my knowledge of art has come from.”
E&S precedes their marriage by a few years. Walter opened the gallery in 1989 in a space located on Shelbyville Road and Dorsey Plaza. Together, they moved the business from that space and a temporary space nearby to 706 W. Main St. When 21c Museum Hotel was being planned, their space was purchased, and the Shannons bought a building a few blocks west on 10th Street in Portland. The current space is the first that they’ve owned. The others were leased.
“When You Call, We Pick Up the Phone”
To survive all of those years and moves, Walter and Cathy have had to be shrewd business people and rely on quality, reliability and good business sense to keep the work flowing.
“One thing is, it’s hard to hit a moving target,” Cathy relates. “So that’s why we travel quite a bit. It’s really hard for a city to support a gallery. You have a limited number of clients, especially when you specialize like we do. Clients know we’re open five days a week. When you call, we pick up the phone.”
E&S has worked with some of the larger corporations in the city like Brown-Forman and KFC, providing educational art displays and sometimes decorative works for stores. Recently, E&S has participated in the Fantastic Voyage cruise hosted by nationally syndicated black radio personality Tom Joyner and locally in the Grand Gala.
“When we were invited to participate in the Grand Gala, the main draw for them to us was that we represented the Twin. We were actually able to bring those artists in and they painted an original, and that was auctioned,” says Cathy.
Twin is an artist duo made up of identical twin brothers, Terry and Jerry Lynn from Memphis, Tenn. The brothers are each proficient painters well-versed in realism and abstraction and able to transverse mediums with ease. Twin creates their most compelling works by painting on the same canvas at the same time. Their works reside in the collections of major celebrity clients like Kanye West, singer/songwriter Kem, and Louisville’s Ulysses ‘Junior’ Bridgeman.
E&S periodically hosts events at their location. “We typically do a holiday open house. We have several artists who contacted us after Muhammad Ali passed, and they are working on images for a tribute that we’ll do in January,” says Cathy. The show will include works created by Ali himself.
Ali came from a family of artists. Both his brother, Rahman Ali, and father, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr. were painters. Some of their works can be seen in black churches throughout the city. E&S Gallery will host this tribute from January through March of 2017 as a celebration of Ali’s January 17th birthday.
The Shannons are no strangers to working with celebrities. Many of their clients are prominent African Americans throughout the country. Cathy shares, “A lot of the celebrity clients are folks that have been collecting for some time. Sometimes they could be new to collecting, as was the case with the singer songwriter Kem.”
One thing is certain, E&S gallery has work to please every palette. Fine ceramic sculptures by Woodrow Nash and the mixed-media paintings of Leroy Campbellwere favorites on this visit. The gallery represents nearly 30 different artists.
The story of E&S is truly one of great love and dedication. Walter Shannon and Cathy Smith-Shannon have built a sanctuary of black art and provided the city of Louisville the opportunity to see art works that might only be seen in major art museums. Even greater, the Shannons and E&S have provided African American artists a way to sell their work, have it fairly represented and displayed with pride.