Eight summers ago, Melissa Dunn and Hamlett Dobbins were trying something a little new and a little crazy. Dobbins was working to convert the 19' x 16' front room of his home and studio at 2553 Broad into a tiny art gallery. Dunn, the first artist to exhibit at Dobbins' new Material Art Space gallery, was ditching her narrative painting style and plunging headlong into abstraction. Flash to now: Dunn's abstract work is highly regarded, and the run-down neighborhood where Dobbins made his stand is in the midst of an impressive comeback.
The less good news, in some regard, is that following "Material Anthology" — a retrospective at Crosstown Arts — and one final gallery opening for painter/blogger/teacher/chef Bobby Spillman, Dobbins' little-gallery-that-could is shutting doors for good.
"It's pretty much all about Rome," says Dobbins, also the director of the Clough-Hanson Gallery at Rhodes College. He was selected to be one of 30 fellows at the American Academy, where American artists, art historians, critics, and composers gather with only one purpose: to do their thing.
"When I moved into this neighborhood in 2004, it was very different," Dobbins says. "There was a biker bar down the street where the Five in One Social Club is now," he says. "We certainly didn't have a bike studio like Victory that sells $5,000 bikes back then."
Dobbins takes no credit for what's happened on Broad, which has since become a destination for art and live-music enthusiasts and a home base for the UrbanArt Commission, Memphis' public art resource.
In its five-year run, Material will have hosted 104 shows, showcasing the work of 114 artists, including some who might not have been shown without a space like Material.
"We wanted to create a place where young artists could come in and not have to kill themselves to fill a huge space," Dobbins says. "If somebody had three paintings, it would be great. It's also a space where commercially viable artists like Tad Lauritzen Wright could do something weird, and it wouldn't be the hardest thing in the world for him to do it."
Dobbins says he's especially proud to have shown party/portrait photographer Jamie Harmon, who had never imagined his work in a gallery context.
"Jamie, more than anybody else I know, has documented the creative class in Memphis during the last decade," Dobbins says. "If they write that story, Jamie has really documented it.
"Joel Parsons who works at the Metal Museum started this project at Rhodes called 'More Than Art,'" Dobbins says, recalling another of his favorite shows. "It was a thing where homeless people could get a meal and have some company and work on some art. One of those guys, Mark Pilgrim, made these drawings that were amazing, and we showed those."
Pilgrim died a year later. "He was just one of those guys they find in a building," Dobbins says.
Dobbins minces no words when asked if he intends to open a new gallery after returning from Rome: "Oh no." That part of his life has passed, he says.
"Material Anthology" commemorates Material Art Space's impact on the Memphis art community, collecting work by 75 artists who've shown at the gallery during its short, inspiring run.
The opening reception for "Material Anthology" at Crosstown Arts is Friday, July 12th, 6-9 p.m. The show runs through August 11th.