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    CJ Pressma leans back in his chair, a black cat with the physique of an overstuffed football brushing past his leg. “I was afraid this would happen,” he says, fiddling with the fritz-y hearing aid in his palm. A big leafy houseplant arcs behind his shoulder, obscuring the framed photos by famed artist Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Art dominates the room, filling not just the walls but shelves as well — a lifetime of collection.

    Pressma seems to have the hearing aid working again. “Other than not being able to see or hear, I’m in perfect health,” he says with a laugh. He has been reminiscing the last few minutes, mostly about the Center for Photographic Studies, a now defunct photography school Pressma started in 1970. Eventually, he fast-forwards to 2003. After all, Pressma says, “This isn’t about me; it’s about Pyro.”

    If you’ve been to the Pyro Gallery in Butchertown, you might think the name comes from the converted house’s firework of a paint job — bright yellow-orange, accented in red. But the current spot is Pyro’s fourth. The name actually comes from the gallery’s first location in a former firehouse on Hancock Street. The original idea for the gallery, Pressma says, was to start a cooperative for artists interested in digital work. But like most everything else with Pyro, that’s changed — the gallery exhibits everything from collage works incorporating Donald Trump’s face to abstract fabrics that look like paper lanterns that have floated in from another world. So many artists have come and gone over the years that Pressma has a hard time remembering exactly who was there at the very beginning, 15 years ago. He thinks he’s the only original-original member still around.

    As membership grew, the firehouse got too small. Pyro moved into a space the artist Julius Friedman was using on Main Street near 21c. After a few years, Pressma says, it got too expensive. That’s when Pyro set up shop in NuLu, in the plaza adjacent to Feast BBQ. “It was a beautiful space,” Pressma says — an open, one-room floor plan. But, again, Pyro was priced out, and the gallery started looking for a new home once more.

    Pressma was tired of moving, but buying a space didn’t seem realistic. Pyro is a co-op, owned and managed by members and supported by their dues. (Full membership costs $120 a month, though there are lower-cost levels of involvement. Leadership roles like administrative director and artistic director rotate. Still, Pressma wanted to look for something more permanent. Pyro found it in Butchertown, in as hot a spot as can be. Naive, a mostly vegetarian eatery, is right across the street. Pyro’s backyard, which features an abstract sculpture by local artist Dave Caudill (and hopefully more in the future), leads to Vietnamese restaurant Pho Baa Lu. The gallery has a 10-year lease. “I jokingly said, but I really meant it: I don’t want to move again, and by the time 10 years are up, hey, I won’t be around,” Pressma says. “I mean, who knows?”

     

    There is no single aesthetic that unifies the artwork of Pyro’s 15 or so members, among them painters, photographers, printmakers, sculptors and everything else you can think of. Most of them are established artists, quite a few of them are retired, and membership skews above the age of 40, though several members tell me they’d like to see younger artists get involved.

    When asked to estimate how many artists have shown at Pyro over the years, Bette Levy, a fiber artist who has been with Pyro 13 or 14 years, balks. First of all, every member gets solo shows — one every year and a half or so for full members. But they can share those shows with gallery-approved non-members. Then there’s the member’s gallery, off to the side of the three main show rooms, containing work by any number of current members. If pressed to estimate the number of artists who’ve shown at Pyro over the years? “Well over 100,” Levy finally says. Seems like a conservative estimate.

    When I ask Pyro artists about their favorite shows, they always mention collaborations — in particular, a 2015 show pairing artists with poets. They’ve also put artists together with chefs, making work somehow related to menus, and hope to work with musicians in the future. “To be able to interact with people that you wouldn’t normally interact with is really pretty terrific. And being challenged to do artwork that’s related to a different medium,” Levy says.

    “My work has improved and changed and become more adventurous the longer I’m in the gallery,” Corie Neumayer says. “Because you just feel, well, you can’t keep doing the same thing.”

    This originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Still Fired Up." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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    About Dylon Jones

    Staff writer Dylon Jones began contributing to the magazine in 2014 and joined the staff in 2015. While working on stories, he's scaled overpasses in the middle of the night, taken notes in a mosh pit, fallen through a mound of driftwood, and had his fortune read several times. His subjects have included queer scream-pop duo GRLwood; Louisville's two-man dead animal removal team; Les Waters, now the former artistic director of Actors Theatre; Muhammad Ali's hearse driver and gravediggers; revitalization efforts in the Portland neighborhood; Louisville Orchestra conductor Teddy Abrams; ER doctors; musicians; artists; and garbage collectors. He is also an award-winning poet, with work appearing most recently in Tinderbox Poetry Journal. He likes page-turning stories about how people manage to be people, especially if they're doing it in Louisville. Know a good one like that? Email him at djones @ loumag dot com.

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