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    “You heard about the banana?” Cathy Shannon asks. She and her husband Walter, owners of E&S Gallery, have just returned from the Art Basel art fair in Miami. The banana was a real banana, duct-taped to a wall by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, with a $120,000 price tag. “Some people were offended,” Cathy says, “but you have to learn not to take yourself so seriously.”

    “Everybody did a spoof,” Walter says. “We had a banana taped to our exhibit space.” When asked how much their banana was, he says with a laugh, “Free with purchase.”

    All of this talk of bananas seems oddly fitting because E&S Gallery got its start at a fruit market in Los Angeles.

    In the 1970s, at 17 years old, Walter Shannon moved from Memphis to California and got a degree in art. His first job out of school was working for a furniture company, finding art and accent pieces to use in staging. He teamed up with a guy to sell art at a fruit market before heading to Stockton, where he opened his first gallery, selling Afrocentric products.

    Those early works were uneditioned prints coming from publishing houses. “We were selling decoration,” Walter says, “not collectibles.” Shows like Good Times in the 1970s and The Cosby Show in the ’80s alerted broad audiences to the possibility of African-American artists and subjects. Though museumgoers were unlikely to see work by or depicting African-Americans, television introduced the public to such works. “There was a thirst for this imagery,” Cathy says.

    In the late ’80s, Walter was “burned out on California” and wanted to be closer to his aging parents. Plus, he says with a laugh, “My ex-wife told me that California wasn’t big enough for me and herself.” His sister and brother-in-law lived in Louisville, and they suggested he move here to partner with them on the gallery. (The E in E&S stands for Eubanks, his brother-in-law’s surname, the S for Shannon.) The partnership ended after a few years, and Walter continued the business on his own. 

    Walter and Cathy met in 1992, appropriately, when she came to E&S to have a picture framed — an image of a couple holding hands that she’d picked up at an art fair in Chicago. They married in 1997, and by 1998 Cathy had left her job in marketing with LG&E to work with Walter full-time. In the early years, the Shannons built their calendar around a list of Black-interest conventions published by Black Enterprise magazine. E&S Gallery’s first Louisville space occupied a 2,500-square-foot storefront in Dorsey Plaza off Shelbyville Road. “He selected the location,” Cathy says, “because there was a prominent African-American hair salon next door. The center also had a contemporary sofa gallery, so you had people who were doing improvements to their home or had money to get their hair done. You might as well come to E&S and get custom framing.” E&S occupied a space on Main Street for six years, until 2004, when 21c bought the lease to the gallery for its kitchen.

    Today, E&S occupies 11,000 square feet across three floors of a charming brick building on 10th Street, on the border of downtown and Portland. The Shannons found the building by chance when they went to look at a different one across the street. “I just happened to look over and see a for-sale sign on this building,” Cathy says. “It’s over 100 years old, but it survived the (1937) flood — though I think the first floor was under water.”

    Initially, Walter wasn’t excited about the space, but after talking to an architect, he had a vision for a grand staircase — the first thing one encounters upon entering the gallery. Originally a hodgepodge of cubicles, the first floor now has a clear purpose: displaying art, including a wall of African masks. The staircase compels visitors to ascend into what used to be a photography studio, where the Shannons have installed skylights that brighten the large second floor.


    E&S Gallery owners Cathy and Walter Shannon.

    But the E&S expansion was about more than floorspace. Over the years, they’ve moved progressively away from decorative wares and more deeply into the world of fine art. The Shannons now show higher-end works in a third-floor addition, including a number of editioned screen prints by the late painter Jacob Lawrence, whose work is associated with the Harlem Renaissance. The third floor also has a window that looks down to the second floor, and from this vantage point a visitor gets a view of a large cut-out painting of Muhammad Ali with grand butterfly wings. Walter tells me this piece, by the Louisville artist Charles Rice, wasn’t intended for sale, though he’ll consider offers on anything in the gallery.

    This is why Cathy keeps her favorite pieces in her office — the only place in the gallery where the work is not for sale. Two pieces she is especially fond of include the picture Walter framed for her in ’92 and a quilt by the New York-born photographer and textile artist Myra Greene. “When we bought it,” Cathy says, “(Greene) told us it was both of her grandmothers depicted as angels with wings. She said, ‘They’re my guardians.’” For Cathy, the maternal figures reference both her mother and Walter’s.

    When E&S moved into this building, the Shannons worried they wouldn’t be able to fill the space, but one would never know it. The second floor is home to the framing department and works in every media, ranging from ceramic busts by Akron, Ohio-based artist Woodrow Nash to fiber works by Sherry Shine, who lives in New Jersey. Cathy says Shine’s work sells well at E&S because “the texture is something that appeals to collectors in general. Most people, when you see a painting, the first thing you want to do is walk up and touch it.”

    “For as long as we’ve been in the business,” Walter says, “the consumer has gotten smarter. It used to be that, especially in our area of Afrocentric products, it was so…lacking that once it became available, everybody (wanted it). And now people are asking for specifics.”

    Clients — an estimated 90 percent of whom are from out of state — have included celebrities like Sinbad and Muhammad Ali, and the gallery’s artist roster includes acclaimed names such as Twin (twin brothers from Walter’s hometown of Memphis) and Elizabeth Catlett, originally from Washington, D.C. “We helped Elizabeth Catlett get recognized by a university that declined to admit her as a student when she was 16 because of her color,” Shannon says of what’s now Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. “The university came back and actually gave her a doctorate degree a few years before she died. She was in her 90s.”For Black History Month every February, the Shannons host a reception. This year’s, on Feb. 7, will show pieces by nationally known contemporary artists Leroy Campbell, Kevin Williams and Kevin Cole. The event will double as a fundraiser for Simmons College, Louisville’s only historically Black college. In 2017, E&S showcased work by Ali (whose father was a sign painter) and Nelson Mandela. “(Ali’s) style was very primitive,” Cathy says. “He wasn’t a formally trained artist. He painted images of what spoke to him. One was done in a boxing ring and contained one of his poems. Another referenced his religion. Even in its simplicity, there was definitely a style.”

    For five years in a row, American Art Awards has named E&S the best gallery in Kentucky, and the group has also included E&S on its list of the top 25 galleries in the U.S. Over the years, artists have noticed E&S’ rising profile. Once, at the National Black Fine Art Show in New York, Cathy was busy helping a collector when an artist stopped by to talk about being represented. Cathy says that, though the event featured art by Black artists, “a lot of the galleries were not Black-owned.” The man left his card, and when she had a chance to look at it, she found it belonged to Richard Mayhew, an artist whose vibrant, nearly abstract landscapes she’d already admired.

    “We see clients from New York to Chicago,” Walter says. “We do shows in California and New York, on cruise ships” — including the Tom Joyner Foundation cruise, officially the Fantastic Voyage, which donates profits from the cruise to a scholarship fund for historically Black colleges and universities. For shows, Cathy says, “Walter lays out designs, and I make sure everything has a price on it. We don’t want people to think we’ve just made a price up on the spot.”Cathy has started working on a master’s degree in art history and curatorial studies at the University of Louisville. She believes that the depth of exposure to artwork in such a program will better prepare her to find what clients want. “A lot of collectors say they want something different,” she says, “and collectors are informed; they’re attending art shows and looking at sale records, but they still need someone to help direct them, because it’s easy to get overloaded by thousands of images.”

    With so much travel, the biggest challenge for the couple is getting time at home, which is closer to the gallery’s original location in the East End. “Sometimes we feel like visitors,” Cathy says of the brief periods they spend in Louisville between the 15 or more art shows they attend in a year. Walter dreams of a future where he’s able to sell work from his home office on a beach in Florida. “I’m giving (Louisville) two more years,” he says.

    “I think you’ll give it five years,” Cathy responds.

    “We just left Florida, and everybody had on short pants,” Walter says wistfully of their trip to Art Basel. “And then I came back here.”

    But Walter’s long-term vision of selling art from the beach is about more than escaping winter. “We’re getting into an area where we own collections,” he says. “Art is not like fruit — (fruit) doesn’t store well. When you’re buying the right artists, the longer we keep them, the more expensive they are.”

     

    This originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “Fruitful Endeavor.” To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Andew Cenci, andrewcenci.com

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