Wrightsville artists try to bridge cultural divide


Robert Oughton and Phyllis Koster have operated Wrightsville gallery Weavings, Ink., featuring local artists, for seven years.

Among the artists is Robert Hammer, who lives down the street and whose drawings are in this month's exhibition "Five Shades of Gray."

But he might be one of few Wrightsville residents who visit the gallery.

Oughton said most visitors come from York or Lancaster, and those who do come from Wrightsville tend to be new to town.

Soulless elitism: The gallery endures long periods without a single visitor, for which Oughton cites the town's culture.

People might be stuck in their habits, wrapped in the constraints of work and domestic routines. There's also the intimidation factor and the misconceptions of people who have never visited a gallery, he said.

"People feel like they'll have to buy something," said Hammer, who stopped by the gallery to drop off some prints.

"My wife compares it to going into a high-price dress shop," Oughton agreed.

The gallery owner has issues with the soulless elitism he sees in the art world, he said. It's something he and Koster seek to counteract by showing the work of a variety of local artists, including students, rather than featuring a traditional "stable" of artists.

Of his finely detailed, narrative pen-and-ink drawings and his wife's intricately detailed weavings, Oughton said, "People call it craft. They look down on it."

But the authority to determine what is good art rests with individuals and not institutions, said Oughton, who is self-taught.

And anyone should be able to join in: "Art is one of the only truly democratic things," he said. "Anyone can do it and get better at it."

Oughton wishes he could draw the "people with tattoos" into his gallery, and he tries to reach out, but he doesn't want to coerce anyone.

People with tattoos: Like Oughton, Nick Smith, who works at Phat Dragon Tattoos, the shop across the street, is self-taught and likes to do pen-and-ink drawings.

Though he works across the street and lives a few blocks away, he has never been inside Oughton's gallery.

"I've thought about it," he said. "I see (Oughton) sometimes. I saw him down by the river taking pictures the other day."

Maybe if the gallery had more events, he would have checked it out by now, he said. But the gallery is open when he's at work, and he rarely deviates from his routine of going to work and then going fishing.

Making art: Artist Frank Morgan, who lives a few doors up from Weavings, Ink., devotes all of his spare time to making his artwork accessible to the public. He has turned his oil paintings into public art by adopting from the Renaissance tradition of displaying his work on the outside of his house.

A wall of copies of his paintings, all in built-in frames, greets passers-by. Walking down the alley behind Morgan's house, you can see a small painting of Jesus near the top of the chimney.

"In Italy, in the 14th to 16th century, artists would compete for commissions to make work and display it outside a rich person's home. It was there so that everyone could see it," he said.

Morgan wants his subject matter to be accessible, so he draws from mythology and the Bible. He also paints landscapes: his recent work displayed at Weavings, Ink. focused on the Susquehanna River.

Like Oughton, Morgan is deeply frustrated by the state of the art world and the institutions that support it — the galleries, museums and universities within which "people and art are bought and sold."

"Nowadays," he said, "art is a pastime for the rich."

Most gratifying: A career painter who studied political science and art at Harvard, Morgan now shuns galleries — except for his friend Oughton's — and works exclusively with clients he's cultivated over the years.

The gallery model is wrong for art, he says, and it pains him to think about it.

"How do people with tattoos feel about art galleries?" he asked. "Many people feel intimidated by the gallery experience. They feel they're too low down on the social ladder to qualify for it, that they'll say the wrong thing and make a fool of themselves."

Art shouldn't be about filling a niche in a market or playing a game the right way, he said. It should be about appreciating beauty and craft and connecting with tradition.

"The best things are said by the people with tattoos," he said. "When someone walking by responds to my work, that is the most gratifying thing."