Robert Amos: On the front lines of art on the Avenue

When I walked in, Dale Shaw was sitting behind her desk at the front of the Gallery on the Avenue, surrounded by framing materials and lovely little paintings by artists she has represented for years. This has been her post since 1984, longer than any other gallery on Oak Bay Avenue, but the story goes back further than that.

Originally, Shaw worked framing pictures in the basement of The Little Gallery, a business begun by Marge and Jack Mills. Marge Mills had started The Little Gallery in Winnipeg and moved here to work as a decorator at Eaton’s. Before long, she opened The Little Gallery on Fort Street and soon moved to 725 Yates St., next door to Standard Furniture, where it thrived. There was a full basement under the store and in 1968, Shaw went to work there as one of nine employees. Upstairs, she told me, were paintings by Brian Travers-Smith, Harry Heine, Sid and Jesi Barron, and “our resident genius, Ernest Marza.”

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In 1977, Marge Mills retired, selling The Little Gallery to Harold Tweten, then a salesman at Standard Furniture. She had already opened another gallery on Saltspring Island that later became the Pegasus Gallery.

In those days Yates Street was quite an attractive location, with a canopy over the sidewalk and Birks Jewelers at the corner of the block. But the neighbourhood started to slide and, in the early 1980s, The Little Gallery moved to a quaint building where Fort and Oak Bay Avenue divide. Formerly a laundry, the building was “a nightmare” according to Shaw. It had been a laundry and “cleaners,” but a cat had been walled up in the building, there had been a fire “and the rats!” she gasped. Yet after a major renovation, it appeared to be an attractive studio.

Across the way, Paul Kyle briefly flourished and then left. His framer, Bernie Raffo, took over and renamed it Winchester Galleries and later sold it to Gunter Heinrich. But for Dale Shaw and Harold Tweten, the Fort and Oak Bay Avenue location never really worked. There was a needle exchange near the back door and she remembers Fort Street as “a racetrack” — everyone just drove by.

Shaw at this point had been married to Tweten for some years, but they divorced and she bought the company and moved it to the current location in Oak Bay. Though she purchased the business, he retained the name, so she named her enterprise The Gallery in Oak Bay Village.

“There was nothing much happening on Oak Bay Avenue then,” she recalled. Hers was the only art gallery. The short-lived Nunavut Gallery across the road had closed, and the Michelle Frost Gallery opened at that address. Later, under new management, it became the location of The Avenue Gallery.

While the others chopped and changed, Shaw continued on. The very popular artist Robert Genn had his first show with The Little Gallery when it was on Yates Street and has continued to show with Shaw ever since. Work by the late Harry Heine is still available, as are paintings by his children Mark, Caren and Jennifer. Ernest Marza, now 90, continues with unabated creativity.

On the counter in front of me were small watercolours by Brian Johnson, and I noted a fine early watercolour of his depicting snow on a totem carving. It’s truly a superior work of art.

That Johnson painting is a “resale.” Often when clients are downsizing or their heirs and descendants find that tastes have changed, they bring work back to Shaw, from whom it was purchased in the first place.

There certainly is a long-standing loyalty at work here. As Shaw notes, “I’ve been around a long time. You get to know these people.” She is trusted, and is happy to put clients and collectors together. And, quietly, her business goes along.

It’s a bit crowded in her small space, and she says she can’t arrange solo shows. She candidly admits that the framing costs often result in the artist being out of pocket even with a successful show.

So she surrounds herself with art she loves, and sits at her counter, a local listening post, taking care of her clients’ needs. “The only downside is you’ve got to be here all the time,” she sighs. “They don’t come here to talk to someone else.”

At that point, another person — customer? Artist? Old friend? All of the above? — looks in and I leave, to let her get on with her responsibilities. Dale Shaw is a very important position in the art world of Victoria.

 

The Gallery in Oak Bay Village, 2223a Oak Bay Ave. (250-598-9890, thegallery@shaw.ca)

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