‘Just Art, Not Credentials': Artist-Owned Touchstone Gallery Turns 40 This Year

The New York Ave. art gallery has a lot to offer on local art

Haunted faces and lithe bodies cover the pristine, white walls of the New York Avenue art gallery.

At the start of every month, Touchstone Gallery opens with a new show. March started with "Figure 8 Plus 1," a showcase of work from nine member artists exploring the human form.

It's not a new concept; humans has been obsessed with themselves since they could paint on walls. But the intimate space paired with interesting techniques and personal backstories give the exhibit a special touch.

Janathel Shaw's clay sculptures stands out from the bunch, sitting in stark relief against the collages and paintings that cling to the wall.

As an educator and an artist, Shaw creates pieces with a more urgent undertone. Her sculptures plead to be seen and remembered.

"A lot of my work is inspired by a social narrative," she says.

As we discuss her sculptures, her most recent piece, Black Pieta, looks on with somber eyes. It's a bust of a black woman with a drawing on her chest of her clutching her son in her arms. There's an air of sadness and strength; at any moment, it almost feels as if she'll release a muffled sob but continues to look on with resilience.

This piece was cathartic since Shaw had lost her son to cancer.

"I need to reveal, examine, provoke thought or critical thinking through my work of art," she continues. "I focus a lot on how I'm perceived or how we perceive people of color because I am a person of color. I may work on pieces on how we're treating our children or what complicated issues our children are dealing with because I'm a mother and an educator."

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Another standout was Dana Brotman's paintings on cardboard. On how she started working with cardboard, she says, "I'm a little anxious looking at a blank canvas. Like that white canvas, it's blank. You have to do everything to it. Cardboard always brings something to it; it's got color and texture. When you paint on it, you never know how it's going to react the paint. I like that interaction. It's like a conversation with the canvas, the cardboard."

Her pieces are mostly rudimentary sketches of women on brightly colored backgrounds. The cardboard adds texture and gives it a more personal, journal-entry feeling. For Brotman, creating art is a necessary compulsion.

A psychologist by trade, Brotman is a self-taught artist. Sometimes, not having a background in art intimidates her, she said, but being a part of the Touchstone Gallery makes it less daunting.

"It can just be about the art and not my credentials," she says.

The original location for the gallery was opened in 1976 in Dupont Circle by 30 artists. Now, in its 40th year and with a new location by CityCenterDC, 45 artists share ownership of the gallery.

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"This is more of a community approach to showcase art," gallery director Ksenia Grishkova says.

Through their nonprofit, Touchstone Foundation of the Arts, local emerging artists are encouraged to apply for fellowships with the gallery. Interested participants can still apply for the two-year fellowship until March 31.

"Figure 8 Plus 1" runs through March 27. Check the gallery's website for more upcoming shows. 

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