To the stars through ambition

Ad astra galleria opens with lofty dream of becoming arts, culture hub

Ad Astra Galleria owners Joel Bales, left, and Lisa Lett have turned the former Lawrence School of Ballet at 205 W. Eighth St. into an art gallery. The gallery is featuring colorful, abstract paintings by Lawrence artist Evelyn Haaheim through January.

Fixed to the worn wood floor at the old Lawrence School of Ballet is a grid of yellow construction paper stars.

Current tenant Joel Bales imagines toe shoe-clad dancers lining up on the stars during rehearsals. But he’s not really certain which of the historic building’s previous occupants left the stars behind.

All he knows is that they’re staying right where they are. After all, they inspired the name of Lawrence’s latest art gallery, which Bales and co-owner Lisa Lett opened in the airy second-floor space Dec. 12.

“We wanted a name that connected to Kansas because we want to feature Kansas artists,” Bales says of Ad astra galleria, 205 W. Eighth St., which borrows its name from the state logo. “We also wanted a name that reflected this location. … The concept is when you come up to the gallery space, you’re coming up to the stars.”

The first “star” of the gallery is Lawrence artist Evelyn Haaheim, whose vividly colored abstract paintings were featured at the opening night reception and will remain on view through January.

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Bales, a nontraditional student studying journalism at Kansas University, and Lett, a Topeka native and photographer who moved here from Phoenix to run Ad astra, plan to open new exhibits the first Saturday of every month, in coordination with Olive Gallery and Art Supply.

They also hope to use the nearly 3,000-square-foot gallery to showcase more than just visual art. They envision a cultural hub where performance artists, poets, musicians and others rent space for rehearsals, workshops, parties and performances.

“I want people to have a space to come in and meet other interesting people, look at interesting things and think,” Lett says. “My goal is to have it be a venue for ideas and eclectic things. I want to expose people to things they’re not used to seeing.”

Historic roots

The mammoth brick building has a long history in Lawrence, Bales learned by spending hours poring through documents and photographs at the Watkins Community Museum of History.

The Douglas County Historical Society has photos of the building dating to 1875. It was built by the Odd Fellows, a philanthropic organization that started a Lawrence chapter in 1870. Historians guess the building was erected between 1870 and 1875.

The Oddfellows occupied the edifice through the 1970s. It also housed government offices, the Chamber of Commerce, a bar called Chevy’s and the Lawrence School of Ballet. Holes along the perimeter of the sprawling gallery where dance bars once rose and a wall of mirrors hint at one of the room’s former uses.

“I was enchanted with the space,” Bales says. “It was begging to be used. I think it is a nice fit for community art showcasing. The building’s got a lot of character.”

Emotional exchange

Haaheim appreciates the gallery’s character, but more than anything, she’s grateful for the large open space.

“There aren’t that many places in town that would have been large enough for me to show these, especially the large pieces,” she says. “These paintings really benefit from being able to take a step back.”

The 23 works in “Via ad Primum Spectaculum,” Latin for “road to the first show,” represent Haaheim’s first solo exhibition.

Although Haaheim has a degree in glassblowing from the California College of Art and Design in Oakland, Calif., she has focused on painting because it’s a more practical art to pursue in a studio setting.

The works are gesture-based, she explains.

“I build a canvas, and then I stand in front of it with a paint brush and I start making gestures,” she says. “The gestures build on themselves, and (the canvas) suggests to me the next thing it needs as I stand there.”

“They’re coming from a very visceral part of me,” she continues. “My goal with the paintings is to evoke an emotional response in the viewer because these are emotional expressions of mine.”

Haaheim’s husband, KU music professor Kip Haaheim, composed original music to accompany his wife’s exhibit. He created it by choosing several of the visual elements in her paintings and feeding them into a computer program that translates images to sound waves. That gave him a baseline contour into which he plugged found sounds to create an organic soundscape, which complements the artwork “wonderfully,” Evelyn Haaheim says.

The space to be

Bales and Lett have already finalized plans for the gallery’s February exhibit; Clay Center artist Robert Pearson will show paintings, sculpture, poetry, books and films.

The gallery owners are optimistic the future of their second-floor perch will be bright. Bales estimated between 80 and 100 people attended opening-night festivities.

“I really believe in synchronicity,” Lett says. “Things have really worked in such a way since I’ve been here that I believe that this is the space to be in.”

Ad astra is one of a series of Lawrence galleries that have opened in the past year and a half — The Red Dresser, Olive, Grimshaw — that cater to emerging artists and seem to be drawing a young, energetic viewership.

Lett hopes to tap into the Kansas City art scene as well, both by taking trips to First Friday gallery openings in the Crossroads Art District and by enticing K.C. gallery-goers to make the trek to Lawrence.

“I’m aiming to get people in the gallery talking about the art scene, getting people going to Kansas City, getting them to get people in Kansas City excited about coming here,” Lett says. “A lot of it is just buzz and talking to people and letting people know. You get people crossing paths over and over, and you can create other collaborations.”