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Artists recall gallery era, re-unite for show

The Alley Exhibitionists created many pieces of memorable art in, for and around the former gallery on Elm Street. A few of the "Alley Exes" pictured near a snow sculpture they created: Left to right, David Markson, Anna Markson, Kim (Orth) Knutson, Dawn Slater and Ritch Ellingson. <i>Submitted photos</i>

A group of about a dozen artists in River Falls named themselves the Alley Exhibitionists and would expose themselves publicly and regularly. They bared their artistic souls inside and outside of 114 E. Elm St., now the Calypso Salon.

The group re-unites for a month-long show in River Falls, Feb. 10-29, at Gallery 120 (120 N. Main St.).

Everyone is welcome to the opening event 4-8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10, where most of the Alley Exhibitionists will gather, greet and show original works at the reunion show themed 'Lost and Found.'

They'll continue the celebration that same evening 8-11 p.m. at neighboring Johnnie's Bar, where the Tin Pan Alley Cats will play live music.

The cooperative gallery formed not long after several members of the group had graduated UW-River Falls.

Local artists and members of the Alley Exes group David Markson and Dawn Slater say it was a unique era when the young artists brimmed with energy.

Markson said, "A lot of the members were in the group that was just graduating with an art degree."

Slater points out, "Except for the campus, there was no other place in RF to display art."

Slater said she, Kathy Dodge and Thea Ennen hatched and developed the idea over a pitcher of beer at Johnnie's Bar. They made a list of possible "allies" in art.

Ennen remembers the night, "We all knew artists who felt the same way we did about having a place to show art...we suddenly had about 10 people who were as enthusiastic as we were."

Ennen also recalls special and interesting guest shows, such as one produced by inmates from the prison in Stillwater, Minn.

She said the night before the gallery opened, its big front window got smashed, which she and fellow artist Mike Ray saw as they passed the space.

According to town lore -- a drunk person had fallen into it.

The group worked quickly to board the window and clean before the big opening.

Local artist and Alley Exes member Leslie Batt-Lutz said, "The group worked collectively to choose specific themes, in order to challenge ourselves artistically and also have an outlet for art without the pressures of needing to make a sale or impress anyone."

She says perhaps the most amazing aspect of the gallery was the "crazy mix" of personalities that came together to do everything from divvy up gallery space and maintain the building, to staff the gallery and hang shows.

She said her "hands-down" best memory from those days was marrying husband John in the gallery -- where they'd met -- in what had been planned as a simple civil ceremony.

She said by wedding time, there were so many people inside the windows fogged.

Mural madness

Markson recalls a variety of work in the gallery including paintings, stained glass, photography, pottery and others.

He says people are likely to remember the series of outdoor murals the Alley Exes painted.

The group created a new large-scale image each non-winter month on the alley-facing wall. Markson said the group obtained a grant to help fund some of them.

"Everyone got to try their hand at murals," he said, explaining that the members would rotate the responsibility of painting a new mural, usually helping each other. "Over the course of the life of the gallery there were probably a dozen murals painted over."

Markson remembers doing an Earth Day-themed mural and smiles at the thought of the River Falls Mona Lisa.

She sat in a lawn chair with sunglasses on her head and a local paper tucked under her arm.

The late Charlie Keenan, renowned local artist, painted the River Falls Mona Lisa's face.

Slater credits Markson for being the "mural master" and the late Keenan as a "fantastic illustrator" with a sharp eye for detail.

Slater, a fiber and glass artist, does leaded-glass windows and weaving. She recalls one mural paying tribute to Wisconsin's dairy heritage.

She said the painting drew criticism from a farmer who complained about the cow-inspired image not having the correct number of teats.

She and Markson say the Alley Exes also produced a monthly show plus did special events. Most of them also played an instrument, so they often had live music at their events.

Markson said, "Our October show was always a spook house, and we were able to call it nightmare on Elm Street because it was actually on Elm Street."

Then becomes now

Each artist will produce an original piece for the Lost and Found show.

Markson said, "I'm going to do a piece dedicated to Lund's Hardware."

Slater said she's creating a two-piece yen-yang window, with one pane representing light and positivity -- the other depicting more of a dark side.

She said the Lost and Found theme evolved from the group's talks about their personal experiences in the years since Alley Exes: Ups, downs, lost youth, gained well as dreams, retrospective thinking and spirituality.

"It's gonna be really interesting to see what people do," said Slater.

Each artist will also produce an artist's statement about their work.

So who's coming?

Nearly all the Alley Exes who are still living except for Brian Von Ahsen, who lives in Hawaii and writes songs.

The Alley Exhibitionists' core group includes Brian Von Ahsen, Leslie Batt-Lutz, Kathy Dodge, Thea Ennen, Charlie Keenan, Rob Larson, Kim (Orth) Knutson, Doug Peterson, Mike Ray and Dawn Slater.

The artists say the Alley Exhibitionists went strong but waned a bit as members' lives began to change with new responsibilities, families, travel, careers and other major events.

Fizzling energy and a change in the rental agreement prompted the group to close Alley Exhibitionists.

Markson and Slater say local artist Leslie Batt-Lutz kept a gallery going for a while, but most agree that since then, there hasn't been another group or display space quite like the Alley Exes.