Lesley Silver ‘You need art to breathe,’ says artist, gallery owner

Published 1:15 am Sunday, October 9, 2011

It was art on parade.

Or, more aptly said, art on the move.

And it was a sight never before seen on the streets of Vicksburg, something that really did stop traffic as about 75 people bearing various works of art began moving contents of the Attic Gallery three blocks to a new location in a 19th century building at Washington and Grove.

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Leading the throng was the late Rev. David Christian, an Episcopal minister, and beside him was Lesley Silver, proprietor of the gallery. Crossing the street, they ascended to the second floor.

It was the summer solstice, the longest and possibly the hottest day of the year. The next day, friends returned with pickups and moved everything. On Monday morning, Lesley Silver opened for business in the new location.

That was 15 years ago when the Attic Gallery was 25. Now it’s 40, the oldest art gallery in Mississippi.

It’s time for a celebration.

There’s “a lot” of everything” in the building, Lesley said, but she never had a vision, never thought of owning a gallery. That changed in 1971 when she and husband Mike Silver were on a trip to California and wanted to buy a piece of art for friends back home. Lesley wanted “something that lasts, something that means something.”

They found a shop that had the right feeling, and they were soon engrossed in conversation with the owner. They ended the evening as guests in her home, then at dinner. When she found that Mike ran a jewelry store and a bridal shop, the conversation turned to wedding gifts.

Californians, she said, often gave money for art for brides rather than silver or china. If the Silvers were ever interested in something like that, just let her know. A question provoked some thought: Where was the nearest art gallery to Vicksburg? In New Orleans.

On the way home from the Jackson airport, Mike had the idea of sending the lady $500 and she would send them selections of art to sell.

“Sounds great to me,” Lesley concurred.

On June 8, 1971, while she was having a birthday party for her 5-year-old, a box filled with art arrived. Mothers of the children at the party were excited. Most items sold for $25, the most expensive being $40, and to Lesley it was amazing “because I was making 20 percent off of $15.”

They placed a second order, putting the items in their house, “but what eventually happened was we got too much stuff for our living room. We ran out of chairs, out of floor space, and one day Mike said, ‘Whv don’t you go to Versil’s (a gift and bridal shop) and up those stairs that nobody ever went up.”

With flashlight in hand, she explored the cluttered second floor. Friends came to her aid, cleaning and fixing it, and the gallery she never thought of “just happened. It was a natural,” and so was the name. The Attic Gallery opened on Oct. 6, 1971.

Good things she didn’t plan or never thought of seem to happen to Lesley. That’s how she got to Vicksburg.

She was a college student at the University of Alabama when she met and married Mike Silver who promised, “We’ll never live in Vicksburg. So I married him.”

And with a smile, she added, “Now you notice Mike isn’t here, but I am,” as they divorced years ago.

Why they came here has been pretty much a secret until now. Mike’s father owned a jewelry store, and in October 1963 his help quit — just before the Christmas season. Mike’s mother called: Could he come home for a while to help his dad? And, by the way, Mr. Silver was never, never to know the behind-the-scenes maneuvering. And he never did.

So they came to Vicksburg. The months passed. Christmas was over — “Had been for a while. I guess you sort of fall into a rhythm of living,” so they built a house in Marion Park and in later years moved into one on Cherry Street.

Lesley was born in New York and lived there as a child, then at age 6 “my parents put me in the car and drove south. That’s how we ended up in Birmingham.” They moved so her father could help his father “who was opening a furrier business in the South. I think you know the end of that story.”

Her mother was a working artist, her aunt a sculptor and her grandfather painted. You don’t have to get into DNA to see why Lesley believes, “You’ re born with some of the love of art…I think there’s a propensity or something that ends up in you and maybe goes down into your very being, because I feel you need art to breathe.”

She also believes that, if one exposes himself to art and the variety of art, that understanding and desire can be developed, can be changed, can be expanded beyond a narrow view.

When Lesley was about 8 or 9, her mother, Klara Koock, set up a still life and supplied some oil paints because “they were the thing. I think I was born before acrylics were invented.”

Lesley remembers that the still life included bananas and, “as the days progressed, so did the bananas. I remember that distinctly. They got to the pudding stage.” She sat and looked out the window at other children playing and yearned to go out, but “Mother told me I had to finish this because you know you start and you end something. I haven’t learned that yet. I start and I start and I restart….”

She did finish the painting, but claims “I was a disaster with oils.” After that, she turned to pencil drawings in the privacy of her room, never showing them to anyone.

Her mother was very good, Lesley said, “so I avoided art as much as I could,” but in college she decided to tackle Art 101. She had a terrible instructor who “put his chin into his palm and stared out the window, put on some music and left the room.” He did set up some still-lifes and when she took a painting home her grandfather took one look and said, “It’s terrible.” And he was right, she said. Then she tried again, taking a class from Malcolm Norwood, an excellent instructor who later chaired the department at Delta State.

She didn’t continue her studies because she got married.

Lesley reconnected with art in 1978 when she was given a camera, an item she loved and took everywhere. “It was my entry into art,” she said of the 35 mm. “It became a part of me. You use a camera to see things and to give people a gift of seeing what you’re seeing.”

A real break in the learning process came in 1984 when she went to Penland School in North Carolina, and she said, “It changed me. It altered the way I looked at photography.” She saw photography in a different light, often as others viewed things, and she spent a lot of time in the darkroom experimenting, “not knowing that other people way ahead of you have done it in a superb and successful manner.” She began playing with photography, hand-coloring it, blocking out areas with rubber cement, spray-painting.

“If you don’t have an art background,” she said, “you’re given permission to do anything because you don’t know what is right and what is wrong. She loved mixed media, and her work always told stories — “little microcosms of life.” She printed a lot because, “Who would want to sleep when you have a dark room?”

She doesn’t do colorful things, she said. “I’m pretty drab, but I like to punch things up with colors. Now that I’m older I’m allowed to start liking red some, but I wasn’t a red fan when I was younger. I found out that I’m not a blue person. I tend to gravitate toward the drab, the olive greens…. I’m always telling stories and letting my art lead me. It might start with something, and I think I’m going some place, but it may lead somewhere else.” She doesn’t do light or flowers and finds people the most difficult.

If you wait until the mood strikes you before you start painting, Lesley said, “You’re copping out. Life is so limited,” so one should utilize each moment.

She isn’t one to judge another’s art, and the gallery provides a place for artists to display their works and also a place for the public to buy original, local art. The clientele isn’t just local — they come from as far away as Seattle. The Attic Gallery has been featured in publications from as distant as The Netherlands, Germany and Japan.

By actual count or in a ballpark guess, how many artists does Lesley think have been featured in the gallery?

“How about neither?” she said. “I haven’t a clue. I never refuse to look at people’s art. We are accessible. I will show it and promote it if I possibly can.” She especially enjoys connecting with young artists and giving them an opportunity to really look at art.

She’s won honors for her art including Best in Show and has been invited to show in several very selective juried events, but her special shows have been a mother-daughter one in Biloxi and then one with her daughter and her mother.

There have been many theme shows at the Attic Gallery, but an upcoming event is the first since she and husband Daniel Boone moved into the top floor of the building. Forty artists have been invited to exhibit one painting eachm and the public is invited.

For Lesley Silver, “Art is something that makes me feel. It activates the emotions….It just changes me.”

There’s a large octagonal table in the Attic Gallery on which some art is displayed but also where friends sit and visit, enjoying conversation and coffee. The table came from the original gallery where it served the same purpose, helping to provide a comforting, nurturing atmosphere.

The move wasn’t just a physical one, for the spirit of the Attic Gallery continues.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.