“Figment” is an apt name for a gallery that has spent most of its existence thus far as a daydream in the minds of its creators, Alana Ballam-Schwan and Chad Medel. But unlike many daydreams, this one made the leap into reality — and much sooner than expected.
Ballam-Schwan and Medel, both 27, had been talking about opening a gallery for years in a “someday” kind of way, but when the opportunity to open one presented itself, they accelerated their timeline and jumped at the chance.
“I’d been planning in my head for a long time,” Ballam-Schwan said. “I had lists of things that I would want to do or have in the shop.”
“We’d daydream and research at night,” Medel added.
“It was like, ‘We’ll do this in many, many years.’ And then all of the sudden it was ‘We’re going to do this right now!” Ballam-Schwan said with a laugh.
The gallery, located on the first floor of the Senate building, opened in late July.
In creating the space the pair had some concrete and well-informed ideas about what to do. Ballam-Schwan studied visual art in college in Victoria B.C., and then went back to school for museum and gallery studies in San Francisco, following that up with an internship at the Catharine Clark gallery. She had also already co-owned a business in Juneau for a few years, Rag Doll boutique, formerly located behind Paradise Cafe. They also had lots of support from family and friends in Southeast, including input from gallery owners Michelle and Ray Troll, who have owned their Soho Coho gallery in Ketchikan since 1992. Medel grew up in Ketchikan and knows the Trolls well.
“It’s been fantastic to have somebody that has owned a gallery — a successful gallery — since the dawn of tourism (give us advice), that’s amazing.”
Ballam-Schwan’s background in museum and gallery work is reflected in the open, uncluttered space the two have created. One long wall is reserved for art, while retail items are grouped on the facing walls in small displays. The store is both a gallery and a gift shop, with the latter helping to fund the former.
The pair said one of their main goals in deciding to open the Figment, besides a shared love of contemporary art and design, was to encourage and promote young, emerging artists, both locally and around the Pacific Northwest.
“Most of the people we know that we have now as artists for the shop had these beautiful collections at home that they didn’t allow the public to see,” Medel said. “It was just friends that would come over and say, ‘I love your stuff, why don’t you do more?’ But they were never really encouraged by the public or outside sources. For me that’s what one of the more rewarding aspects of this.”
They plan to make First Friday shows a priority, with a constantly changing selection of art and other items, and said they will have live music at their openings — preferably from lesser-known musicians — whenever possible.
Their first First Friday, earlier this month, was a huge success, they said, with a line out the door. Ballam-Schwan said the community’s support of the arts, and the active role the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council takes in helping organize events like First Friday, is one of the reasons she loves living here.
“This is a great community — that’s why I stayed,” she said. “Why we both have stayed.”
Ballam-Schwan and Medel spent months this past spring getting their space ready. The shop, across the hall from the Juneau Artists Gallery, was formerly occupied by The Creating Place, and already had decent floors and lighting. But the pair re-designed the rest themselves, including fabricating all the display boxes and the front counter. (They had a bit of help with the latter from Tanna Peters and Michael Studt.)
When it came to filling the walls, Ballam-Schwan, who grew up in Juneau, and Medel, of Ketchikan, were able to draw on personal connections to get things started.
“I grew up next to (Ketchikan artist) Evon Zerbetz,” Medel said. “She was my neighbor. We did want the support of a bigger name to start with and she’s been amazing. And after that, everybody else was just people Alana knew either in passing or through other connections and it slowly fell into place.”
Other artists featured include local painter and multimedia artist Phoebe Rohrbacher, who will have a solo show at the gallery in November, and potters Kaki Shields and Joyce Payne. Shields and Payce also have their work on display at the Juneau Artists Gallery across the hall, but Figment carries some of the women’s funkier work.
Also featured at the gallery is Ballam-Schwan herself, who is a painter and avid crafter of all kinds.
“I’m usually making stuff at home,” she said. “We’ll go home and watch TV and craft.”
“The other night we were up to 2 in the morning without realizing it,” Medel said. “Alana makes so much stuff and I want to have her put more out.”
Ballam-Schwan will showcase her latest work in October.
In addition to the art, Figment carries a selection of retail items carefully handpicked by Ballam-Schwan and Medel. The pair avoids mass-produced items in favor of handcrafted pieces made by artists they can contact themselves.
“That’s one thing we’ve been striving for, is to make sure all the stuff is well designed. The majority of it, if it’s not local then it’s (made by) a smaller group of people,” Medel said.
Ballam-Schwan spends a lot of time on Google and Etsy.com looking for interesting items. She tends to concentrate on merchandise that would be at home in a museum gift store.
“That was kind of how I modeled the shop in my own way,” Ballam-Schwan said. ”I want to get there more and more. Museum gift stores are my favorite gift stores. They have everything.”
One of their choices for the retail side of the gallery is a line of jewelry from Nervous Systems, a husband-and-wife team from Massachusetts who create computer programs based on patterns that occur in nature. Another is a line of items such as coasters and bowls that have been made from discarded vinyl EPs. They also carry a small selection of jewelry from a woman in the Ukraine; Ballam-Schwan said her designs have been very popular and have nearly sold out.
The pair said they hope to expand their selection of housewares in the future, but aren’t sure how much they can fit in the space before it becomes too much.
Possibly on the way: ottomans and pillows from local interior design team Bauer and Clifton, who are also the couple’s personal friends.
The gallery is always interested in looking at local art, the owners said, but they include a caveat.
Medel: “We always want to see contemporary art.”
Ballam-Schwan: “But we are picky.”
Medel: “No photography.”
Ballam-Schwan: “We kind of made that rule.”
Medel and Ballam Schwan will celebrate September first Friday with an octopus-themed show featuring a group of artists and live music. They are open seven days a week through summer, and hope to stay open five days a week in the winter — and then on into the future indefinitely.
“Winter will be the true test,” Medel said, “But then after that, I feel like if we get through this winter, we’ll be able to have that store open for the rest of our lives. I want to. I never want to close it. I’m having too much fun.”