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The Attic Gallery: Love of art creates unique Vicksburg venue

Walk up the stairs at 1101 Washington Street and enter a whole new world. 

Visiting The Attic Gallery atop the Highway 61 Coffee House allows someone to escape their worries for a while and indulge their senses with works of art lining the walls and adorning the floor. 

 That’s the atmosphere owner Lesley Silver has tried to create over 47 years, even when the gallery first opened at 1406 Washington St., in the building now occupied by Sassafras — to walk up the steps and enter a unique world.

“I thought that people would love coming up the stairs, because they left their worries behind; it was a different world and they still say the same thing,” Silver said. “What we’re doing is connecting the people with the art and making them breathe differently and feel differently.”

There was a time when an art gallery was a foreign idea, and it was as distant as the Milky Way.

Although her mother was an artist and she was surrounded by art, Silver wasn’t that interested in following in her footsteps.

“My mother graduated Pratt Art Institute in New York and taught at Pratt Art Institute,” she said “Then my parents moved from New York to Alabama in the 1940s, and I stayed away from doing art visually. I didn’t want people to see me doing it because my mother was so good. I just stayed away from doing things, except I would go in my room and do things.”

When she was a student at the University of Alabama, Silver said, “I thought I would just go to college and graduate and do whatever you do after college. I took one art class at Alabama and it was a disaster. I took painting 101, and I showed my work to my grandfather, and he said that was terrible.”

It took a series of events over about 11 years before The Attic Gallery became a reality, and it began with a man named Mike Silver of Vicksburg.

“He was in the military at that time. It was 1960-61, and he had become an officer, and he felt like we needed to get married, because he was going to be gone for four years and I wouldn’t be here when he got back,” Silver said. “We ended up in Hawaii.”

When Mike was discharged in 1964, the couple went to the New York World’s Fair and then to Leslie’s parents, where they lived while Mike looked for a job. That October, he found one — helping his father at his jewelry store in Vicksburg at the request of his mother.

The couple later built a home in Marion Park and, by 1966, they had two children.

But art was still a part of Leslie’s life.

“Every time we went anywhere, I gravitated to the art, because I grew up with art all around me. My mother had drawings, art books on the table, I was surrounded by it.”

It was a trip to California and a visit to the Comsky Gallery in Los Angeles, that started the move toward the gallery. Gallery owner Cynthia Comsky, Leslie said, talked with her and Mike about art, and they had dinner with Comsky and her husband. She also told Mike if he would send $500, she would send art. He took her up on the offer.

The artwork arrived June 8, 1971, while Leslie’s daughter was having her birthday party, and the women attending with their daughters all bought something.

“I ended up making 20 percent off of $20, which was $4. I was rich,” Leslie said.

More packages followed. When the artwork began stacking up in the couple’s living room, Mike suggested Leslie consider using the attic above Versils, the family store at 1406 Washington.

“I went up into the attic, and there was no electricity,” Leslie said. “I walked up in the dark and it was sort of a very mysterious, haunted, but more than that, it had decks of cards under the linoleum; you knew it was right on the river, it had been used for gamblers and it had its own history, and it was kind of exciting.

“Over the next month or two, people helped me clean out these areas (in the attic), and at that time, I don’t think they cared that you threw things out of the window. We threw everything out the window in the back alley, and we started having a floor to put things up. I didn’t have a table, but it was getting cleaned out.”

She later invited the Ferdinand Roten Gallery of Baltimore, Maryland, which brought artwork to different areas. The gallery agreed to come to Vicksburg, Leslie said, but told her she would need to get eight tables. She would also be able to get 20 percent in cash or artwork from the sales.

“They came and people really supported it in Vicksburg, because there were Roloffs, there were real Picassos; this was something that had a reputation with all the educational institutions. It was really exciting that we got to see that, and because I had to get eight tables, it was ‘OK, now they’re gone, what do I do?’

“You looked around, and there were some artists in Vicksburg and slowly, I started asking people to show in the gallery and I would hang the art with clothespins, and I had no air conditioning, no telephone, no heat, no bathroom, facilities, but it was all about the art. It is still all about the art, it’s just now we have more conveniences.”

The gallery got the name The Attic Gallery because of its location in the Versils attic.

Fast forward to 1997. Leslie and Mike had divorced, she married Daniel Boone, and had just bought the building at 1101 Washington Street, the location of the former Delchoff’s Restaurant.

“When we bought the building, it had no electricity. I had no idea how long it had been empty. There was dried food on plates. It was in terrible shape,” Leslie said.

The art was transferred from the former gallery location to the attic of the coffee house on the summer solstice in 1997.

“There was about 75 people, and everybody picked up something, and we all put a piece of art in this building,” she said. “The next day everybody went to the old place and they got stuff out and we never closed for a day. The community was just so supportive and important to us.”

The gallery’s collection is a mix of artists who are in museums, artists who have been homeless, and artists of every ethnicity.

“I want our art to say something to the people,” Leslie said. “It’s a personal thing. We want people to connect with the art and to get something from it; it can be calmness, it can be excitement, it can be an anxiety, it can be anything. We want people to feel, and feeling is important.

“What I try not to have is trite art. I don’t want something to be redone and redone and redone and it loses the energy of the piece. It’s something that makes you connect.

“It comes from that person touching that piece of art and working with it; that canvas that board, and something magical happens. I’ve had some artists I’ve shown for 45 years.”

The gallery, she said, “Has been my life and it has changed my life, and it has changed the direction of my life.

“It’s kept me rooted in Vicksburg because I believe strongly and people come from all over the world, and they come back and I just feel like it to be a touchstone when they come. I’ve seen so many people come in. I’ve seen it change because of the generations and I’ve seen it spill over into the next generation and the next generation,” she said.

“I’m honored I’m allowed to still be on Washington Street after 47 years showing people’s art.

“This place is important to them and they are important to us. I think these special places like the art galleries and the coffee houses bring people to Vicksburg and build our community,” Silver added.

“They come and sit at the tables and experience Vicksburg and they stay. And when they start doing their own artwork and then they want to share it and they bring it here.

“I don’t ever want to discourage people from doing art; it’s just that I can’t have everyone’s art here because there’s not enough room.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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