When Jodi Hemphill-Smith and her husband, Mark Paul Smith, opened the Castle Gallery in a 100-year-old West Central residence in 1995, they had a far-flung dream.
The far-flung dream was that Castle Gallery would one day achieve a national reputation and serve as a conduit between Fort Wayne and the larger artistic world beyond.
They came very close to flinging away that far-flung dream in 2011 when they briefly considered selling the gallery, going so far as to put it on the market.
A resulting outcry, local and national, over the listing made them rethink their rethink.
Then, in 2016, Mark & Jodi experienced what Steve & Edie once referred to as “the start of something big.”
The Castle Gallery landed the Oil Painters of America’s Salon Show, a national juried exhibition of oil paintings.
Soon, the Castle Gallery will play host to the National Oil and Acrylic Painters’ Society’s annual Best of America show.
It opens Oct. 16. There will be a reception on Oct. 20.
“The amazing part of the story to me,” Mark Paul Smith said, “is that (Hemphill-Smith’s) dream of having a national artistic center in Fort Wayne, Indiana has come true.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I know I bet heavily on it. But I never thought it would actually happen.”
The first Best of America show happened in 1991 on the Osage Beach, Missouri campus of Columbia College, not long after the National Oil and Acrylic Painters’ Society (NOAPS) was founded.
The purpose of a society devoted to both oil and acrylic painting was (and is) combatting a misperception among some collectors that oil paintings are de facto superior, said Nancy Haley, the NOAPS publicity director and treasurer.
“Oftentimes, you can’t tell the difference between oil and acrylic,” she said. “So part of what we’re trying to do is promote these amazing artists that paint in acrylic. When you put them with oil paintings in the same gallery – and maybe you don’t mention what’s oil and what’s acrylic – oftentimes collectors can’t tell the difference.
“They change their minds,” Haley said, “and it gives them a new perception on how amazing acrylic painting can be.”
The title “Best of America” really belies the scope of this show, Haley said.
In 2013, the decision was made to let international member artists submit work to Best of America jurors for consideration.
Hemphill-Smith said there were 837 entries this year. 124 paintings were selected by five judges.
The majority of entries came from the United States and Canada, Haley said, but they also saw work from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Germany.
Hemphill-Smith was asked to be a juror, but she declined due to the conflict of interest.
“Boy, am I glad I did,” she said. “You look at these and they’re all wonderful and you realize what a tough job these jurors had.”
Given the competition that the chosen paintings had to endure, it’s no surprise that the work is strong.
And varied: still lifes and portraits, landscapes and seascapes, city scenes and country scenes, realism and impressionism, foreign and domestic.
A couple of Fort Wayne artists made the show, including Sam Hoffman.
A show at the Castle Gallery is never just about the show. It’s also about the house.
The stone house was built at the turn of the century for the family of lumber baron B. Paul Mossman. It was designed by the Fort Wayne architectural firm of Wing & Mahurin “in the Romanesque style,” meaning that it is meant to evoke a European castle or church.
The B. Paul Mossman House was the home of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art from 1950 to 1984.
After that, it was artlessly divided into condos.
Hemphill-Smith and her husband lovingly and laboriously restored it.
And they still live there – many of the Castle Gallery’s spaces are rooms that they occupy when there isn’t a show going on.
So there is are storybook qualities without and within. Outside, it looks like the Palace of the Hobbit King. Inside, it looks much as it did when the Mossman family entertained guests there, albeit with some contemporary touches (a few of them of them reflective of Mark Paul Smith’s sense of humor).
Haley first visited Castle Gallery during the Oil Painters of America show.
“I thought it was a unique, beautiful gallery,” she said. “It’s that residential environment. It’s a beautiful, big home. Paintings are everywhere, from the upstairs third floor all the way to the main living room.”
Haley said Hemphill-Smith really knows how to sell a show.
“I have worked with a lot of galleries across the country and one of her strengths is her marketing,” she said. “She does not hold back. She gives it her all.”
Hemphill-Smith said that NOAPS has pulled out some stops of its own, taking out splashy ads about the Best of America show in several national fine arts magazines.
Mark Paul Smith said the upcoming opening reception is likely to be one where a glance to the left or right reveals a celebrity from the art world.
Castle Gallery existed when downtown was still in its pre-revitalized state, and Mark Paul Smith thinks it may have helped spur the ongoing revitalization we all enjoy (and await with confidence) today.
“We made it cool to come downtown for an art show,” he said.
Mark Paul Smith, a guy with panache, irreverence and joie de vivre to spare, said being an artist isn’t about what you hang on the wall. It’s about how you live your life.
“I always say, ‘Lifestyle is the ultimate artistic medium,’” he said. “You can be an artist in the way you walk your dog.
“This show isn’t just the art,” Mark Paul Smith said. “It’s the house. It’s the people involved. It’s their hopes and dreams.”