Downtown art gallery owner trying to increase visibility, promote artists during difficult year for sales

photo by: Elvyn Jones

Lawrence artists Peggy Mohr, center, and Mehrzad Alison, left, work on landscapes Saturday, Oct. 16, 2020, on the sidewalk in front of Alison's Prairie Hills Gallery of Fine Arts, 843 Massachusetts St., as a way of promoting the work of local artists with work for sale in the gallery.

At the beginning of the year, when a longtime gallery owner moved his business to a new location on Massachusetts Street, he had plans for art shows, Final Friday exhibitions and more. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been hard for Mehrzad Alison to get his artists the attention he believes they deserve.

Dozens of colorful portraits and landscapes can be viewed through the front windows of the Prairie Hills Art Gallery, located at 843 Massachusetts St. The whole point of Alison’s move to his new space, in fact, was to put the artists’ works in a more visible location.

“When people come in and they see the art and they connect with it physically, they are more up to buy it than looking at a thumbnail,” Alison said, comparing in-person shopping to online shopping.

Now, Alison has had to find new ways to capture people’s attention — such as having his artists paint in front of the building.

This fall, Alison’s artists have been working on their creations in public, easily visible through the windows and on the sidewalk in front of the building. And Alison said it’s drawing some interest. During one outdoor painting session, he said two people who just happened to be walking by ended up leaving with a painting.

“We have been able to sell several paintings by stepping outside and painting,” Alison said. “My entire goal was to shove the artwork in people’s faces — put it in front of them.”

But despite some of the pieces in the gallery selling during this tumultuous year, Alison said the sales have been nothing like what he anticipated.

photo by: Lauren Fox

Mehrzad Alison, owner of the Prairie Hills Gallery of Fine Arts, 843 Massachusetts, is pictured on Nov. 23.

The Prairie Hills Art Gallery is not a traditional gallery based on consignments. Artists commit themselves to either six months or one year in Alison’s gallery. Each month, they pay a representation fee, which goes straight to the building’s utilities and rent. When their art sells, they keep 92% of the profit. In galleries that use consignments, artists typically keep about 40% to 50% of the profit, Alison said. Additionally, whereas many traditional galleries ask for the exclusive rights to sell an artist’s work, Alison said he encourages his artists to sell their work elsewhere in town, too.

As for Alison, he makes his own money off sales of his own paintings, classes, art restoration, art appraisals and more. But Alison worries that if sales don’t pick up, his artists might not want to stay on board with their monthly representation fee. If that’s the case, Alison might have trouble keeping up with rent payments.

Alison has 14 artists represented in his gallery. About half are artists Alison hand-picked because he liked their work. The other half are a select group of Alison’s students.

The Journal-World spoke to two of Alison’s artists, John Hooge and Nadine Button, about their work on display in Alison’s gallery.

photo by: Contributed Photo

Nadine Button, pictured with one of her paintings, is one of the represented artists at the Prairie Hills Gallery of Fine Arts.

Nadine Button

Painting is what gets Button up and going in the morning. It’s also what keeps her up at night.

“I just get lost in it,” she said. “I sometimes have to force myself to go to bed at night. It’s a habit — a pretty good habit, I guess.”

photo by: Lauren Fox

Nadine Button’s artwork is on display at the Prairie Hills Gallery of Fine Arts.

Button, an 85-year-old former accountant, didn’t have the time to devote herself to art until she retired around six years ago. She had always gravitated toward art, even from a young age, but her rural high school didn’t offer an art class. In her 20s, she took some oil painting classes at the Kansas City Art Institute. But once she started working full time and raising children, Button didn’t have much time for one of her favorite hobbies.

Now, she sometimes spends two to three hours a day working on her pieces.

“I just see something and I think, ‘Can I paint that?'” Button said. “It’s just a challenge for me.”

Button typically does acrylic paintings of landscapes that include trees, flowers, rocks and water. She said she currently has about 15 pieces at Alison’s gallery.

photo by: Contributed Photo

John Hooge, a local lawyer, author and artist, has several pen and ink drawings up at the Prairie Hills Gallery of Fine Arts.

John Hooge

Hooge is a lawyer who primarily practices bankruptcy law. He’s also the author of a fantasy book series that he illustrates himself.

About 20 of Hooge’s pen and ink drawings that he created for his books are up for sale in Alison’s gallery. It’s the first time in decades that Hooge has sold his original pieces. Many of Hooge’s drawings are of trees and squirrels, which are some of his book’s main characters.

photo by: Lauren Fox

John Hooge’s pen and ink illustrations are on display at the Prairie Hills Gallery of Fine Arts, 843 Massachusetts Street.

Hooge’s book series, “Leafensong,” is about animals in a forest, and it focuses on a group of squirrels and their enemies, pack rats armed with honey locust thorns. Hooge has always loved trees and their biology, and so trees also play an integral part in the story.

Hooge, like Button, went to a small high school with no art classes. The 70-year-old got into drawing after his wife asked him to illustrate a poem about 40 years ago. He started writing “Leafensong” 35 years ago. The first book, which has about 31 of Hooge’s illustrations, was self-published about a year ago, and now his daughter is editing his second book. Hooge plans to write three books overall.

The Prairie Hills Art Gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day of the week. Prices for the works currently on display range from about $300 to $16,000, Alison said.


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