By Rick Pender
After more than a quarter-century in the art world, Marta Hewett is known as one of Cincinnati’s smartest gallery owners.
She opened her eponymous gallery on Over-the-Rhine’s Main Street in 1991, showing contemporary paintings, ceramics, glass and textiles. Final Friday Gallery Walks that began 26 years ago were her idea. Glass has been Hewett’s particular passion for many years. She left town in 2001 to work at a contemporary glass studio in Louisville, then returned to affiliate with Neusole Glassworks in Walnut Hills.
Her current gallery, established 10 years ago in the Pendleton Annex, represents work by approximately 50 artists. But she brushes aside remarks about being “iconic.” Laughing, she said, “People walk in the door and say, ‘Gosh, I never heard of this gallery!’ Of course, I’m happy when someone new comes in. You never can rest on your laurels – they won’t be there very long.”
Let’s just say she’s well established. So when her scientist husband began working at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota in late 2015, she had to decide what to do. Splitting her time led to thoughts about relocating or closing the gallery. “I got some very good advice from a gentleman who owned a gallery in Boston before he moved to Cincinnati,” she recalled. “He closed his gallery there and regretted it. He felt he should have kept it open and hired someone to keep it running. I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
A mutual acquaintance suggested she meet David Smith, a native Cincinnatian who spent a decade managing Robert Miller Gallery in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. For family reasons he was back in town. “We got together several times,” Hewett said, “and decided this seemed like a good fit. His background is very different from mine.” They began working together last October.
Smith grew up in Anderson Township, attended St. Xavier High School and studied at Miami University. Then he moved to the East Coast, settling in New Jersey and working in Manhattan. He and Hewett crisscrossed careers and paths: She’s a Midwesterner who spent time in New Jersey but gained her gallery experience in Cincinnati. After finishing a master’s degree in art at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, she worked at and eventually managed Hyde Park’s Malton Gallery.
They complement one another in mutually supportive ways. About Smith, Hewett said, “Working at Robert Miller Gallery, that’s priceless experience I didn’t have. I really wanted someone to come in and add their stamp to the gallery. I’m not a real controlling person. David has introduced me to several artists I was not familiar with. Those kind of suggestions are what I’m excited about.”
From Smith’s perspective, Hewett’s longevity and insight were attractive. “To work with somebody who really knows the gallery business – I really appreciated her eye not only for the art she represents, but also her commitment to craftsmanship,” he said.
Smith, a generation younger than Hewett, sees her as a mentor. “Now I have someone to look up to again. There’s always something to learn. You can’t really study this. You have to just get in and do the work, learn from other people. Working with great people makes the difference.”
Smith is enthusiastic about the developing Pendleton neighborhood. “Marta turned me on to changes happening, like new apartment buildings, including the old SCPA building,” he said. “To be part of a truly vibrant, up-and-coming community . . . I’m glad to be here.”
Even though Hewett will split her time between Minnesota and Ohio, her principles will continue to guide the gallery.
“I’m always looking for artists’ work that has a certain degree of quality, brilliance and distinctiveness,” she said. “I want to present artists who are creating work that, when you look at it, there’s no question who’s done the piece. You know it’s that artist’s work. We want to show work that’s not going to be mistaken for anyone else’s.”
The current exhibition at Marta Hewett Gallery exemplifies her principle. “The Birds of Paradise: New Paintings by Kevin Veara” will be on view through March 25. Veara, a painter from Springfield, Illinois, has an eye-catching, colorful style. His paintings, rooted in his love of birds, are vibrant riots of brilliant color and floral designs. His work has been shown previously at Hewett’s gallery, but this is his first solo show there. It also includes two paintings in the same florid style, full of sinuous curves and natural lines around a bird, but rendered in black and white.
He said it took him nearly 20 years to find his true subject matter. After nearly a dozen false starts, he realized he’d been painting birds since he was 5 years old. He’s an avid birdwatcher. “I just like birds,” he said. “I keep track of birds on my property. As global warming is changing the planet, the birds are changing their timing.”
Veara said his art mentor believes his bird paintings are self-portraits. Hewett said, “Birds are a lot of what Kevin’s paintings are about. They’re obviously beautiful subject matter, really interesting and great to look at. But thinking about birds as barometers – that makes his work unique.”
Smith said, “This show is a good example of our first collaboration. Marta has shown Kevin’s works before. So this was a chance for us to really look at his work and talk about curating it and designing it. It’s been a good start.”
Hewett added, “We looked at what Kevin had done, thinking about where things might be presented and wanting to have a couple of the larger pieces, lots of things were under consideration, how things would play off one another.”
Playing off one another: That theme distills how Hewett and Smith are working together. And that’s good news for art lovers in Greater Cincinnati.
Marta Hewett Gallery, 310 Pendleton, OTR, martahewett.com