With close-cropped hair, slim glasses, a black T-shirt and jeans, Laurie Beasley looks agelessly artsy, though the proprietor of Oak Park's Ridge Art willingly divulges her age. She's 60. Could turning a passion into a profession have youthful benefits?
Beasley is clearly energized by her second career, which revolves around her storefront gallery in the Harrison Street Arts District and includes curating art shows and leading African safaris. She launched a business selling art in 1998 out of her home on South Ridgeland Avenue, after 25 years in advertising-related jobs. In 1999, she moved her growing art collection into Ridge Art's current space at 21 Harrison. Regular gallery hours followed two years later.
The space now swells with art in a variety of materials, shapes and styles.
On one wall hangs a large, hand-painted poster from Ghana promoting a slasher film. Traveling "theaters" in the late 1970s or early '80s once used these artworks by locals to market scheduled showings of VHS tapes, before most villagers had access to televisions or electricity. Above the colorful hanging sits a row of Haitian libation bowls, carved from gourds.
On the opposite wall, metal sculptures from Haiti feature simple figures and abstract designs, based on the spirits and symbolism of Haiti's Vodou religion. Heaped on a table in between the brown-toned gourds and metalwork are brightly colored, sequined Vodou flags.
These eye-catching flags are hard to capture in words or even pictures, but they are at least partially responsible for Beasley's transformation to art entrepreneur.
In high school, Beasley knew two brothers whose father headed the art department at the University of Maine. He was connected with the Skowhegan School, an art school and summer retreat where more experienced artists mentor emerging ones.
"That's what turned me on to art. They had a fabulous collection in their house," Beasley remembered.
At Maine's Colby College, Beasley majored in English and minored in French and philosophy.
"I had a really good French teacher in high school," she explained, noting that where she grew up, French-Canadians were the predominant minority.
Beasley also took art appreciation and art history classes in college and acquired a few pieces of art, in some cases trading term-paper typing services for student work.
Her first encounter with Haitian flags occurred some 30 years later.
"I had seen my first Vodou flag in New York, in Soho," Beasley recalled. "I couldn't afford to buy one, but I bought a book."
The book, by Tina Girouard, described the "Sequin Artists of Haiti," the Vodou flags, and the spirits that drive the imagery of those artworks. Beasley's interest grew.
"I went to Miami a couple of months later on business. I found flags and bought some, and then I contacted Tina Girouard and went to New Orleans," Beasley said. "She had a whole collection of elaborate flags and sculpture. I spent the weekend looking at Haitian art."
Girouard subsequently invited Beasley on her first trip to Haiti, which she took in February 1997.
"I just absolutely fell in love with the culture and the country," she remembered, with awe. "Wow, it blew my mind."
Building a family, making a living
Beasley described her first visit to Haiti as a kind of aesthetic and spiritual awakening, akin to the political one she lived through earlier on the campus of Purdue University, during the Vietnam War.
She met and married her husband, Noel, on the West Lafayette, Ind. campus while in graduate school. (At the time, graduate students were exempt from the draft.)
"Things were getting tense on campus with all the war protests. It was really hard to study," she said.
When her husband got an opportunity to teach at a university in Japan in the summer of 1970, they went together. While in Asia for two years, Beasley also taught and did a lot of traveling. After the couple returned home, Beasley intended to finish her Ph.D. in 18th-century English literature at Purdue. She completed the class work but never finished her thesis.
"I got sick of school," she said frankly.
Beasley worked part-time for a few years and ran an "underground newspaper" with her husband.
"It reminds me a little bit of the Wednesday Journal, probably the early days," she said, with a laugh. "We were kind of guerilla journalists."
The couple added a son and a daughter to their family and lived for a time in Indianapolis before moving to Oak Park 20 years ago. While her husband rose in the ranks at what is now the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, Beasley took a job with Spiegel in Oak Brook. That didn't cool her ardor for travel, though.
"When my kids got older, we started traveling a lot, taking them to Mexico," Beasley recalled.
Beasley sold some pieces from her Mexican travels out of her home, but it was her first trip to Haiti that convinced her she needed a career change.
"When I came back from Haiti I knew I had to get out of advertising," she said.
Fortunately for her, Spiegel in 1997 was planning a series of layoffs. When her boss came to discuss Beasley's future in the restructured company, she asked to be included on the list of people being offered severance packages. She ultimately got her wish, after agreeing to train her replacement and putting in nearly two more years of work.
While still at Spiegel, Beasley took several more trips to Haiti. She began supplying gift shop merchandise for museums showing exhibits on the sacred arts of Haitian Vodou, including the Field Museum. She also rented the space that now houses Ridge Art.
In January 1999, she left Spiegel for good.
Beasley hung her first show of Vodou flags, at the Oak Park Public Library, the day before she first visited Haiti.
"Each flag was anchored with a black and white photograph done by a wonderful photojournalist," Beasley said. "She had spent a couple of years in Haiti during the coup [1991-1994] and had some incredible photographs of people in their daily lives."
Vodou flags were originally made for use in religious ceremonies, and each one is dedicated to a particular spirit, Beasley explained. "Veves" are abstract representations of the spirits.
For example, the spirit "Erzulie Danthor," symbolized by a veve with a heart and a knife, represents the single mother. Beasley hung a flag dedicated to the spirit next to a photograph of a woman holding a sick child.
"The spirits really reflect people's concerns," she observed.
Some flags capture the Vodou spirits in more human form, using images such as the black Madonna or St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. The latter would celebrate Danbala, the Great Life Spirit and master of the sky, typically represented by a serpent.
Beasley noted that she's not a practitioner of the Vodou religion. "For me, it's an aesthetic experience."
She does believe Vodou has been unfairly vilified in the past.
Girouard's book explains that Vodou arose from the slaves in Haiti, who combined beliefs from varied African pasts with those of their Catholic "masters." Specific spirits are honored by meditation and offerings, something that has been labeled as pagan but which Girouard equates with the Catholic saints.
"Haiti for 200 years has been demonizedâ€"Vodou, Vodou, Vodouâ€"people have to demonize their enemies in order to oppress them," Beasley said. "We wanted to prevent slave uprisings in this country, so we demonized Haiti and its uprising and religion. If we can get rid of this 'otherness,' we will lose the desire to hurt and repress. That to me was the spiritual awakening in Haiti. Before that, I was very political, but there is a more flexible tolerance to my politics now."
From a religious standpoint, Beasley said she has moved away from a specific ideological position into a more "holistic, humanist position."
"If there is anything divine, it's in all of us as individuals, and that's the thing that unites us," she said, in an attempt to articulate her beliefs. "If we let that out, then a lot of the issues that divide us vanish. We all basically want the same things. We want security for our children. We all want beauty in our lives."
Exploring and evolving
Beasley's definition of beauty has continued to grow, beyond her love for the Haitian country and culture.
In January 2001, she visited Benin, West Africa with an artist friend and stayed with a local artist and his wife. Beasley has visited Africa three times since, finding works like African masks, hand-painted barbershop signs and the Ghanaian cinema posters.
On two trips, she escorted groups on safaris in East Africa with a business partner, Pat House. House directs a museum in Fullerton, Calif. (Beasley recently curated an exhibit there called "Children of Lent: Paintings and Poetry in Creole.") The partners co-curate shows for other museums and plan to do more safaris. They incorporate both wildlifeâ€""shooting with a camera"â€"and art.
"We make arrangements with naturalists in Tanzania that do the driving and guiding. We do the art part," Beasley explained. "We always have to have an art dimension to everything."
She has found making connections to local artists surprisingly easy, with a little advance research.
"Haitians are so friendly and open. They want to share their culture. You make friends fast," she said. "Universities are a great source [of contacts in the arts]. It's hard to describe; it just kind of organically happens. I think when I get off a plane there's an aura."
Beasley currently tries to go to Haiti twice a year, though the political instability of the country has limited some of her trips. She visits Mexico annually and has plans to visit Turkey in January 2006.
"I try to go to one new place a year," she said. "The gallery is really an evolving thing,"
Beyond Haitian and African art, she carries original works from Cuba, Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, including Canadian Inuit and Native American pieces. Her interest in emerging artists who capture the struggles and aspirations of everyday people is something that unites the diverse work.
"I am really interested in peoples' art from the ground up. The everyday person's expression of their spiritual life, aspirations. I think it's the basis of the aesthetic unity in my gallery," Beasley observed. "People are very concrete in what they are depicting. It's representational. Oftentimes it's very political. Sometimes it's very sexual. It's always very spiritual."
She also points out that the art materials themselves are frequently unique: Haitian metal sculptures crafted from 55-gallon steel drums that once contained oil; three-dimensional faces brought out from discarded wash basins; posters painted on stitched-together sacks that once held flour.
Beasley personally owns most of what she sells in the gallery and frequently lends pieces to museums. Her choices are based on gut feel.
"When I look at a piece, I don't even think. I just kind of look at it. It just has to sing to me," she said. "Then I try to figure out, sometimes months later, why I like this piece."
Beyond planning a trip to Turkey, Beasley is working on applying for a grant from the Village of Oak Park to redo Ridge Art. She hopes to make the space look more professional, accessible and open, and to create room for hosting lectures, films or book signings.
"I think the gallery really draws a lot of people into the area," she said. "I am not going to change my pricing or anything, but I want to make it a beautiful, efficient space."
Beasley said business is good, both from customers who shop at the gallery and collectors who know what they're looking for and purchase online. Though some people may initially take exception to a Caucasian woman acting as an authority on African or Haitian art, "that dissipates pretty rapidly," Beasley said.
"People understand how much I love it, and that I'm honest. I respect the culture," she said. "The work that's coming out now is just wonderful."