It’s important to see familiar faces. Whether it’s the kind expressions behind the counter at the Kingsbridge Donut Shop, or a close relative who just happens to be passing on the sidewalk, interacting with old and new friends can brighten a day.
It’s a little different now, but as more places reopen in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the owners, operators and friends of favorite community establishments will be seen.
Elisa Contemporary Art Gallery is one of those places. For the first time in months, a new exhibit, “Dive In 2020,” is on view, ready for the public — at least those members of the public willing to be cautious.
Elisa’s owner, Lisa Cooper, has carefully reconfigured her Mosholu Avenue establishment to accommodate necessary social distancing measures.
“Four people max,” Cooper warns. “We’re open by appointment only. I’m very glad to be able to open the space back up to the community. But from here on, there are guidelines we have to follow.”
The gallery will open only on Wednesdays from noon to 5, and masks are required of everyone, including Cooper. While it’s something of an inconvenience, the gallery owner considers the discomfort of a mask indoors easily worth the possibility of interacting with the community face-to-face.
“It isn’t that difficult,” Cooper said. “I see people at other parts of the country not wearing masks and going to pools and the beach and pretending that nothing will happen. It’s not hard. They’re risking their health, and the health of others.
“There will be no risk here, I want this space to be good.”
Cooper’s gallery, like so many other businesses, shuttered in March. For Elisa Contemporary Art, it was the first time it closed in its 12-year North Riverdale history. In the interim, Cooper shifted toward an internet audience, presenting online exhibits such as “Cool and Calm,” featuring pieces meant to soothe and inspire calm in times of great stress.
“We also increased our Instagram presence,” Cooper said of the picture-based social media platform. “We went from updating every week or so to every day. Interaction between our buyers, our audience and the artist’s work needed to be shown differently.”
Traffic, initially, was slow. E-commerce sites such as 1stdibs became an invaluable tool, getting more eyes from around the world on the pieces Cooper hoped to sell.
However, Cooper attributes a rise in sales over the last few months to something far greater than an intuitive marketing site.
“You’re going to have people that have been staring at blank walls, becoming constricted in their own homes,” Cooper said. “They don’t like it. We want to provide feelings of calm, peace, ease and joy with the pieces we sell and the artists we represent.”
“Cool and Calm” was an important jumping off point as an online exhibit, utilizing pieces featuring the color blue to evoke a sense of contemplation and peace. Now that the gallery has reopened, “Dive In 2020” — showcasing the works of artists Carol Bennett and Martha Hughes — features bodies moving elegantly through water, suspended in pools, or at the beach. Cooper considers it vital if visitors are going to observe the piece in the gallery, then, for the most part, remain indoors.
“These are pieces that aim to be a sort of portal,” Cooper said. “Martha’s work is somewhat miniature, but these little spaces and pool scenes send an invitation of color and shape.”
It seemed many across the country were vying for pieces just like that. Throughout the stay-at-home order which several states instituted, buyers from Florida, Texas and California flooded Cooper’s selection of works on 1stdibs and other sites, craving what she referred to as an escape beyond the unknown.
“No one understands really what’s going on right now,” Cooper said. “Everything’s changed and shifted in ways we’ve never had to experience before. Yet our buyers in Texas or Florida or even California, they’re going forward with a project to redecorate and re-evaluate their interior spaces.
“It’s something very important to be mindful of what your home looks like and how it makes you feel.”
Cooper considers the neighborhoods of North Riverdale and Riverdale to be gems of the natural world living harmoniously with the urban environment that surrounds it. It’s in that world she’s glad of the wide windows that allow passersby to glance inside and see the paintings carefully aligned on the walls, even in times of horror.
“I see people stopping and looking in,” Cooper said. “There is a smile and curiosity on their faces. Almost like they’re excited.
“I like to think they’re wondering how the art, these pieces, would look on their walls — walls that are currently white and barren.”