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Native Hons

Hampden Homegirls Open Gallery And Shop Dedicated To Local Artists

Sam Holden
HOT OR NOT?: (from left) Lisa Penn and Laurie Hare have come to somewhat regret the name of their new gallery.

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 9/7/2005

2 Hot Art Chicks holds an opening for the paintings of Juliet Gilden Sept. 8.

For more information call (410) 235-1888.

“Look, there’s one of my artists right there,” Lisa Penn says, gesturing outside to a stocky, Bettie Page-banged woman schlepping down the Avenue. “Hey, girl,” she calls out the door, stepping out to schmooze and leaving Laurie Hare inside to mind the gallery they’ve created at 820 W. 36th St., the one with the purple paint and orange trim, the flame-faux-finished “Hampden Hot Tub” bathtub in the front lawn, and the sign that says 2 hot art chicks.

“We were having a rough time coming up with a name,” says Hare. Pressed for time, they took the suggestion of friend Damion Wolfe. “He came up with the ‘hot chicks’ idea, and we pushed it away, thinking, Ha ha, that’s funny, we need to come up with a serious name.” But they decided, after their mothers declared “2 Hot Art Chicks” perfect, that they could deal—as long as the sign included the subtitle “(or two chicks with hot art),” which it does. “Now people always ask, ‘Are you one of the hot art chicks?’” Penn groans.

Co-owners Hare and Penn couldn’t appear more different—Hare is long-limbed and polished, with flat American speech and restrained silver jewelry, while Penn has the scrappy, terrier, don’t-give-me-no-bullshit Hampden homegirl demeanor, emphasized by the hybrid vowel “ayo”s curling her smoker-rough voice. But don’t be fooled—both are from the neighborhood. “Third-generation Hampden,” Penn says proudly. “We went to St. Thomas together. We’ve known each other our whole lives. Our mothers grew up together. Our grandmas still play cards together. And we’re best friends.”

So how did two best friends from Hampden come to own a gallery on the currently superhot Avenue strip? “I was at the coffee shop across the street and I saw one day there was a sign on this shop,” Hare says “At the time I was living with Lisa, and she’s an artist, and so we decided to open a gallery. It was a very quick decision. We didn’t talk about it. We looked at the space on a Wednesday and signed the lease the next Monday.” One frenzied month of renovation later, the space opened for business May 5, 2005.

Inside the petite rowhouse, bright cream walls hoist an eclectic, yard-sale collection of paintings, prints, tchotchkes, and doodads such as beaded necklaces and onesies printed with Buddha-baby graphics and dog tags emblazoned with caricatures of different breeds. The “serious” art and track lighting is in the middle room, but everything’s hung salon-style, with just enough breathing room between pieces, and visitors can help themselves to Pixie Stix from a plastic beach pail.

“The middle room is more the gallery, so to speak, and the front room is more gifts.” Hare says. “We just wanted to have a good flow walking through.”

“We want people to want to come in here and stay in here,” Penn echoes. “To be interested in what’s hanging on the wall, and if they want something, to be able to afford it. Not stiff and straight up and down, like some galleries are.” In other words, pleasantly and nonthreateningly funky, just like any other neo-Hampden emporium.

The art (culled from a mix of trained and self-taught artists, many of whom live within walking distance) forms a hodgepodge more crowd-pleasing than hip or surprising, but there are some exceptions. Mary Beth Harry’s watercolors of feather-boaed men and obese, masked women are stranger (and wittier) than a first glance reveals. Daniel Branch’s “Red Rockets,” a robot-legged assemblage, dominates the middle room with the space-opera, disco queen force of its presence. And the handmade pottery (made by Joe Vitek, Irina Elashvili, and John Gazurian) is a secret bargain, perfect for thoughtful gifts and priced to move. (Penn’s got some of her own work on display, including a killer magazine rack hand-painted with cheesecake pin-ups that manages to be both visionary-kitschy and glamorous.)

There’s not many wall-sprawling canvases commanding hefty price tags, and that’s intentional. “If somebody comes in here and there’s a $3,000 painting, there’s not many people who can afford that,” Penn says. “We want to display as much as we can. We’ve had a couple larger pieces, but they’re more expensive and they stay on the wall longer, and we’d just rather show more work.”

“That’s a goal, too, to keep rotating artwork to give as much exposure to artists as possible,” Hare adds. “We have artists waiting and we want to give everyone a chance. We don’t want to say, ‘Well, it’s been two weeks and it’s got to go down.’ We understand art isn’t an impulse buy. People come in and think about it and come look again and then they buy it.”

In keeping with the affordability factor, Penn and Hare encourage artists to provide prints of their work for sale in the gallery as well. “I tell the artists, if someone buys one of your prints and has it at their house, it’s a constant reminder that they need to get the original,” Hare points out. Sure enough, September’s featured artist Juliet Gilden has prints available of her Walter Keane-eyed, problem-hipped women for sale in the print rack, along with a handful of other over-the-couch-friendly works “suitable for framing.”

2 Hot Art Chicks may not be the most contemporary or consistent gallery in Baltimore, but it certainly is one of the kindest to artists. Its commission structure of 60-40 (with the 60 percent going to the artist) is definitely generous compared to the 50-50 deal (or worse) that is usually standard. “I never thought 50-50 was fair,” Penn says. “I used to work in tattoo shops where it was 50-50, and it killed me to hand over half my money at the end of the day.”

“That 40 percent we use for food and music at shows and marketing the artist,” Hare adds. “That’s where the extra money goes. If we wanted to get into a business where we made millions, we wouldn’t have started a gallery. The point was to help artists.”

The days when two locals can claim an Avenue property on a whim may be numbered, if the scaffolding across the street at the Hampden Hall building is any indication. But Penn and Hare, who have both seen 20-odd years of changes in Hampden, remain optimistic. “I think the changes are a good thing,” Penn says. “I remember the way Hampden was, and the reasons it’s made fun of. It’s kind of sad to see the new development—I mean, it’s good in a way, but it’s sad to take away the feel of the neighborhood. But it’s a much more fun place to live now for us. I guess we’ll just wait and see what happens.”

“As long as the community feeling stays, Hampden will be OK,” Penn adds. And if that community feeling includes two lifelong friends joining hands in a new venture, all the better. “It’s always been a dream of mine to have a gallery,” Penn continues. “And I can’t think of anyone else other than Laurie that I would take the risk with. So I think it was meant to be.”

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