Art in the Attic
By Michele D. Baker | Photography courtesy of Michele D. Baker and Attic Gallery
Lesley Silver sells, makes, and breathes art in Mississippi’s oldest independent art gallery.
The eclectic space at the corner of Washington and Grove Streets in downtown Vicksburg is a community treasure known as The Attic Gallery. Since 1971, curator and owner Leslie Silver has poured her heart and soul into the gallery that sort of “just happened.”
Filled with Southern folk art, funk, contemporary fine art, handmade pottery, glass, and jewelry, The Attic Gallery contains treasures for every taste. Along with the crafts and fine art, patrons can also find blues-related items sitting cheek-by-jowl with landscapes and Elvis collages or religious art depicting Our Lady.
“Every piece in the gallery speaks to me,” says Silver. “The art in this gallery has a narrative or an energy. I really react to the pieces here.”
The Attic Gallery celebrates its 50th anniversary this fall, and its beginning success was as unexpected as the assortment of artwork found on the walls and tables in the historic building.
In the early ‘70s, Silver and her then-husband owned a bridal gift shop/jewelry store just three blocks from her current location. In 1971, the Silvers visited California and wanted to bring a gift for friends in Mississippi.
“We wanted to bring our friends something that lasts, something that means something,” remembers Silver.
In a California art dealer’s shop, they became fast friends with the proprietors; the Silvers learned that West Coasters often purchased art instead of household goods for brides-to-be. Several hours of discussion turned into dinner, and on the flight home, a plan was hatched.
“My husband suggested we spend $500 and ask our new friends to send us a selection of art to sell in Vicksburg,” says Silver.
The box arrived on the day of daughter Kallyn’s fifth birthday, and “the moms at the party cleaned us out,” remembers Silver. “Most pieces were about $25, and the most expensive piece was $40.”
Hot on the heels of this success, the Silvers sent for a second $500 box of art from California. When it arrived, the couple realized this could become something really special. There was empty space on the floor above the gift shop, so with flashlight in hand, Silver explored the cluttered second floor. Friends came to her aid, cleaning and fixing it, and the gallery she never planned just happened.
“It was natural,” she says. So was the name. The Attic Gallery opened in early October 1971. “Our friend Macy Hart was good at knots, and we hung up the art with clothespins,” Silver says. Other stock came from the gift shop below, and slowly, inventory built up.
“I have no idea how many pieces of art we have,” Silver says with a laugh. “So, let’s say a million.”
The Attic Gallery contains the work of artists from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi with a few other locations sprinkled in.
“I want to know the artists,” explains Silver. “Art is visceral and emotional; it teaches people to see differently and enriches their lives.
In addition to curating, encouraging and selling art, Silver is also herself a visual artist. Her mother was a working artist and teacher of art, her aunt a sculptor, and her grandfather painted.
“My mother was an astonishing painter,” says Silver. “My whole life, I grew up with art books… and her amazing still lifes.”
Although she worked as a photographer in the 1980s and was always surrounded by art, Silver didn’t begin making her own art until much later, dreading comparison to her talented mother. “She would have hated that I didn’t do art out of that fear,” says Silver.
Today, her preferred method of expression is mixed media, creating beautiful scenes in boxes with found objects including photos, paper, and little odds and ends. Nowadays, a friend brings her unusual containers, challenging her with the question, “What can you make out of this?”
“We are here to introduce new artists and art and to create energy together,” says Silver. “This isn’t a trendy gallery; we all learn together by watching.” Fodor’s Guide agrees, once declaring the spot jam-packed with “regional art and fine crafts chosen with a discriminating eye; walk up the steps for the unusual.”
Fiftieth anniversary celebration planning has unlocked opportunities for Silver and her colleagues to really display the talents of these local artists. The Facebook page (TheAtticGalleryMS) will showcase artwork by decade, complete with artist statements. A writer/photographer is working on a coffee table book of the gallery’s offerings in time for Christmas sales.
“The most exciting celebration is in October, near our actual anniversary. Starting now, we’re collecting art from about 30 artists,” says Silver. “During a party at the gallery, we’ll have all those artists here and do a big reveal.”
Silver believes that if a person is exposed to the varieties of art, understanding and desire can be developed and expanded beyond a narrow view, opening them up to all kinds of new experiences.
“Art is something that makes you feel. It activates the emotions,” she says. “You need art to breathe.”