Archway Gallery presents Cookie Wells and Bally Studios in colorful profusion
by Bradley Donalson
From April 4–30, Archway Gallery will be opening a new exhibit from member artists Cookie Wells and couple Virginia and Andre Bally, who are collectively known as Bally Studios. The exhibit, called Body Language, promises to be a riot of color and movement with Wells’ watercolor figures and Bally Studio’s brightly painted ceramics. Wells claims that “[it’s] kind of like a match made in heaven.”
Archway Gallery touts itself as one of the oldest artist-owned galleries in the country. They got their start in 1976 when 11 artists decided that they wanted to have artistic control over the process of selling their art. Archway is wholly owned and operated by its member artists. From coordinating events to curating and everything in between, the artists take on the needs of the gallery. Almost 40 years later, the gallery has only improved with age. With over 30 member artists and almost 4,000 square feet of gallery space, Archway has taken root in Montrose and thrived. The entire gallery is rearranged every month with each artist given space to show a sampling of their pieces, while the front of the gallery is reserved for their monthly exhibits. Archway’s website claims that it has been a key player in the lives and art of over 110 Houston artists.
New to Archway, but quick to point out they are not new to Houston, are Andre and Virginia Bally. This husband-and-wife pair founded Bally Studios in 1994, and they joined the artists at Archway this past August. Together, this duo can boast almost 60 years of experience working with ceramics and glass, and their artistry shows in their work. For Body Language, this couple will be offering a collection of ceramic masks merged with halos that extend behind them. The halos are made of porcelain, float glass (similar to window glass), or a fused glass that resembles coral. Each mask is a unique, collaborative work from both artists. Andre explains that “all the work we do is collaborative. A lot of people find that interesting that we can work together. Every piece we make, we’ve both had our hands on it.” Virginia clarifies, “When I look at it, it tells me what to do. It speaks to me, and then I go with it. Each one’s individual. Andy loves to do the black and white. He’s very much into the process, and I’m more into the design, I think.”
This perfect pairing lends itself to gorgeous pieces that range from vibrant to subdued color palettes, stark contrasts, and intriguing geometric and free-form designs. Each mask that the couple makes is cast from a friend’s face or their own. Both Ballys have masks cast from their own faces that may make it into the show, as well as a couple of masks based off of Wells’ face. Virginia recalls that they’ve had so many friends ask if they could have their faces done that they once threw a party where they did nine people’s faces. Each mask takes multiple steps to complete, and they each take between four and six weeks to go from a casting to the finished product.
In contrast, Wells’ watercolors seem much faster, although if you ask her how long it takes to do one, she’ll respond with “50 years!” Wells has been a member of Archway Gallery for 20 years, and she currently serves as the gallery’s event coordinator. Wells’ offerings for this exhibit are watercolor figures on a special paper called yupo, a synthetic paper made from polypropylene. The paper doesn’t absorb the water, so the paint stays wet for longer. The yupo helps Wells to create dynamic and flowing figures in vibrant, almost vibrating, colors. “Figures were always my first love,” says Wells. “I’ve done that for the last three years. Liz Spencer and Gene Hester in the gallery had a show about a year ago where they worked with the figure. And they decided to have figure-drawing sessions in the gallery a couple of times a month. Quite a few of these paintings are from models that I did here in this space.” A fitting tribute to the gallery that has become her home.
But Wells’ paintings incorporate another element that brings home the concept of the show. Incorporated into each of the paintings are lines of poetry from native Texan and local poet Loueva Smith. Wells said she’d been thinking about the name “Body Language” for a show for the past year, and sometime last August, she began to incorporate the words and poems into her art, giving the title an extra dimension and profundity. Half the poems used in the paintings came from Smith’s Book of Wool and Fur, a collection of poems about the intimacy between two women. First introduced to Smith’s poetry at the monthly gallery readings put on by Archway, Wells claims that the poetry is like a love song, and the romantic quality speaks to love as a whole. “Loueva has been very, very gracious and generous; I can’t say enough about her generosity,” says Wells. “To let me strip those poems apart, put a line here or a line there, just kind of magically came together. I think the whole show should be magic because it was magic to me. And then having [Bally Studios] join me was just icing on the cake.” And seeing the works together does look like magic. The graceful and fluid figures meld with the words to produce something greater than each element alone, and when paired with the range of emotions and details in Bally Studios’ masks, they complement and complete each other to become something more.
Body Language will be at Archway Gallery (2305 Dunlavy St.) from April 4 until April 30. The show’s opening reception will be held on Saturday, April 11 at 5–8 p.m. with a special reading from Loueva Smith the following Sunday at 5 p.m. Smith will be accompanied by choreographer Lydia Hance, and the two will perform word and movement inspired by the art of Body Language. More information can be found at archwaygallery.com.