A two-mile bike, bus or car ride from the Capitol to Madison’s near east side will lead straight to Absolutely Art, the city’s community-based gallery, featuring works by nearly 200 artists. Although jewelry and greeting cards are best sellers, products ranging from paintings and photography to ceramics to furniture are for sale.
Meghan Blake-Horst, the gallery’s owner, ended up in her curatorial career after a curious beginning – a degree in exercise management and kinesiology.
But after a tough job market emerged, Blake-Horst found herself drifting in a different direction. Coming from a family that includes an actress, a writer, singers and a musician, Blake-Horst decided to go back to her artistic roots.
“The more I thought about it, I’ve just been immersed in the arts my whole life,” Blake-Horst said.
A local touch
After extensive networking with Madison’s arts community and using her background in management, Blake-Horst opened the gallery in 2005. Since then, she has purchased 90 percent of the gallery’s inventory from primarily Dane County-based artists. The other 10 percent comes from monthly exhibitions, which are based on consignment.
Now, the brightly lit, sunny-painted walls bring the gallery’s merchandise and featured shows to life, while leaving room for a laid-back, relaxed atmosphere.
“There’s so much to look at; there’s so much creativity,” she said.
One area is reserved for kids whose parents are perusing the gallery, with art supplies and creative opportunities abound. “We keep it laid-back, fun and playful – it’s very easy going,” Blake-Horst said.
Every month, Blake-Horst also holds two art shows. Throughout the month of November, works of photographer and digital artist Susan Lukas are on display in Window to Wisconsin, combining original photos in Photoshop and creating a pseudo-Impressionistic feel. At nearby Caf? Zoma, retired graphic designer Nancy Welch and retired teacher Judy Landsman’s November show, Wrapture, features repurposed Barbie dolls wrapped in papier-m?ch?. “It’s really abstract … really funky and silly,” Blake-Horst said.
December will feature 25 oil paintings of Madison, with campus buildings, the Overture Center, the Capitol and Tenney Park. “I wanted to celebrate Madison and all the iconic images that conjure up Madison,” Blake-Horst said.
In addition to her duties in working with customers and artists, marketing, staffing, inventory and accounting, Blake-Horst is always looking for ways to give back to the community. “I have such a strong connection with this community that I feel like it is my turn to give back,” she said.
Since the gallery’s inception, Blake-Horst has been involved with Dane Buy Local, a nonprofit that educates the community about the importance of shopping locally. “Your dollar bill goes seven times as far when you go to a local store rather than a chain store,” she said.
And her ties with local businesses in the community are reflected right in the gallery’s window – throughout the month of October, Blake-Horst asked customers to write down their three favorite local businesses, all of which currently decorate the window display. According to her survey, among customers’ favorite Madison businesses are Daisy’s Caf? and Cupcakery, chocolatier Gail Ambrosius, the Willy Street Co-Op and A Woman’s Touch.
Promoting Absolutely Art as a for-profit business with a nonprofit mentality, one of Blake-Horst’s largest community projects is the yearly Re-Art Swap, in which she offers all the gallery’s unused art supplies and art supplies that need to be repurposed to art lovers who might have something to trade in return. It’s an eclectic mix of items ranging from crayons to sewing machines to frames. Among the quirkier items, the state of Wisconsin recently donated old maps. “Those make really cool wallpaper or wrapping paper – the sky’s the limit,” Blake-Horst said. Treasures like barely used oil paints (worth $500) can also be found. And although the big event takes place in June, artists, both aspiring and actual, can arrange an appointment to check the gallery’s swappable inventory year round.
Blake-Horst also recently partnered with the Monona Public Library and the Susan G. Komen Foundation for breast cancer awareness, sells fine art and affordable gifts at the Overture Center’s monthly series, Overture After Work – of which the next installment is Wednesday night – and will participate at the Atwood Winnebago Winter Festival on Dec. 1.
Between her involvements with the community, responsibilities at the gallery and two children, aged 5 and 8, Blake-Horst wears many, many hats.
“I feel like I’m in college, working until 2 in the morning on something that has a deadline for the next day,” she said.
The most visited time of the year
While taking care of these regular commitments and planning for December’s show, Blake-Horst described mid-November through December as the gallery’s busiest time of the year. With some early shoppers already making their holiday lists, she said almost a third of her annual business comes from the year’s last month and a half.
And with good reason – although the gallery’s wide array of gifts is elegant and stylish, it’s affordable, even for an average college student’s wallet during the holiday season. Blake-Horst said 80 percent of the gallery’s inventory is less than $100.
“We have a lot of inventory that’s in the $15-$30 price range for your mom or your best friend [if] you only have $15 to spend but you really want to get something nice, thoughtful and handmade,” she said. “[Even] if you only have $5, you could get something unique and interesting.”
In the under $25 price range, popular and affordable gift items include brightly colored balsa wood earrings, waterproof wallets and fashionable winter wear made out of recycled sweaters and fleece.
Just a few miles beyond the familiar shops of State Street, Blake-Horst has created a gallery that celebrates Madison in all its elegance and quirks, worth the short commute for any city shopper.
“There’s local flavor in our local art, and [in] getting a sense of what amazing talent we have hiding in Madison,” Blake-Horst said.
Absolutely Art is located at 2322 Atwood Ave. For more information about the gallery, upcoming events and hours, go to www.absolutelyartllc.com.