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Happy to let tough times spawn great art
Opal Gallery occupies a petite storefront nestled between A Cappella Books and Savage Pizza in Little Five Points. It’s a small space, and a quick turn around the gallery could take less than five minutes — if it wasn’t for director Constance Lewis.
At the gallery’s April 9 opening for David Knox’s This World Below: Portraits in the Era of Katrina, Lewis buzzed about in a hot pink ’50s-style cocktail dress, energizing the sepia-toned photographs, “craw-doo encrusted shutters,” and chatty but monochromatic crowd.
“Hi! Thanks for coming. It’s great to see you. Hey, do you know so-and-so? Let me introduce you …” she chirps before slipping off to the next group. Visiting Opal always means meeting someone new, and that’s a conscious effort on the part of Lewis. “That was one of the points of having a storefront,” she says. “It’s accessible to everybody. The people that are a part of it create it. That’s the point.”
And so is cultivating an artistic community. Lewis, who earned a degree in photography at the San Francisco Art Institute, wanted to reconstruct the creative culture in Atlanta she experienced in the Bay Area. “The gallery is a place for people to explore, so that the work shown isn’t defined by the gallery, it’s defined by the creative input,” she says.
If it seems like a bit of an ambiguous plan for such dire times, it also seems to be working. Opal celebrated its one-year anniversary last March, and the little gallery appears to be going strong. “When times are tough, artists do what they do best and that’s create,” says Lewis. “When there’s need, I think there’s potential for something new and innovative.”
She says that, at the risk of sounding sappy, she believes we’re living in one of the most interesting times in the art world, “where people are able to come up with things that are really, really innovative, because of the lack of security that we have in the economy — and in life.”
Lewis’ positivity is more than bearable — it’s infectious. She’s convincing in her assertion that there’s a reward to be found in this seemingly difficult era. “It inevitably makes a project, or even life, more interesting,” she says.
— Debbie Michaud
Happy to have two reasons to be happy
Four months ago, things were looking pretty rough for Calavino Donati. Her namesake restaurant in Oakhurst, which she’d opened on the heels of having to shutter her popular Roman Lily Café in Inman Park, was struggling. She’d just launched a desperate MySpace campaign, asking friends and customers to donate some cash to save Calavino’s. The loss of her beloved Italian restaurant, so soon after jacked-up rent forced her to close Roman Lily, would be too much for her to bear.
So at the urging of her wife, Doria Roberts, Donati swallowed her pride and asked for help — and help began to trickle in. But it wasn’t enough. She’d opened Calavino’s months before the onset of the recession. She also opened it without a financial cushion, and once business slipped, she couldn’t catch up. She had no choice but to close Calavino’s doors for good.
She might have given up on her lifelong passion, too — if not for the persistent support of Roberts, an acoustic folk goddess who, despite a busy tour schedule, threw herself into helping Donati launch a new restaurant.
“She reminded me every single day of how much people loved my food and what I did,” Donati says. “When I was ready to just pack up a van and move to the beach and wash dishes at a dirty little Mexican restaurant, she told me to just keep trying.”
Two months ago, Donati got a call from My Sister’s Room, an East Atlanta bar whose owners wanted Donati to manage the business. She wasn’t interested in working at a bar, but she and Roberts met the owners for brunch. And they came up with a plan.
My Sister’s Room used to be a restaurant, and some of the bones of that restaurant still existed — most importantly, the range hood and walk-in cooler. What’s more, the bar business didn’t really pick up until 10 p.m. So Donati decided she’d “move in” to My Sister’s Room. In the hours before the bar opened, she’d have enough time to serve lunch and dinner. Her new restaurant would focus on more affordable Southern fare — duck and waffles, dill-havarti mac-n-cheese, spicy collards — to better suit these tough financial times.
Since mid-March, Donati and Roberts have been running the 50-seat Calavino’s Soul Kitchen out of the Glenwood Avenue bar.
“We’re doing two concepts out of one place,” Donati says. And so what if she and Roberts have to drag the tables and chairs into the kitchen at the end of each day to make more room for bar patrons — and then drag them back out every morning. These times require ingenuity and hustle, of which the couple has plenty.
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