After walking through the Gallery of Photographic Arts' November show, Route 42 Revisited, a friend and I sat down on a couch in the middle of the gallery, reluctant to leave. The cozy space overwhelmed our senses, with photos on the walls and hanging from the ceiling in a pleasantly disorienting third row.
Several Cleveland State University photo students had traveled Route 42 from Cleveland to Strongsville, documenting the way neighborhoods change as we migrate. We were admiring the portraiture and the fresh visions of streetscapes, including Heather Posten's eerie East Coast Frozen Custard stand shot to look like a gray, glowing UFO.
Between the photos threaded the most unusual crowd I've ever seen at a Cleveland art opening — unusual because everyone was so normal. Instead of the Gallery Crowd, the show had attracted a mix of adults, college students and kids, some sharply dressed, some blue-collar casual, some white, some black, some Hispanic. We'd seen something new: a gallery devoted only to photography that transcends art's typical audience and thoughtfully examines Cleveland and the world.
All the images up on GOPA's walls — whether they're of Route 42 or Latin America or Ohio City through a child's eye — have one thing in common: They fit gallery owners Kristien and Marina Márquez-Zenkov's interest in socially relevant art. "If it doesn't have some issues focus, if it doesn't help teach people how to improve the world, we don't care," says Kristien.
The couple lives above their gallery, in a former storefront church just off West 25th Street. On weekend afternoons, they open the space to art lovers, photographers who use the Digital Darkroom to print their own digital-camera shots and curious kids who live nearby in public housing. The gallery is an after-hours project; Marina works as city councilman Joe Cimperman's executive assistant, Kristien as an instructor in CSU's education department.
For eight months now, GOPA has filled a void in the local arts scene, aspiring to the success of photo-only galleries in Toronto, San Diego and Pittsburgh: a reliable showcase for photography's power to connect with viewers. "Everyone can look at photography and understand it," says Marina.
Four years ago, she looked at the vast wall space in the couple's old loft apartment and decided to fill it with art. "I've always wanted to run a gallery," she says. Her parents were artists and as a child she'd paint copies of Edgar Degas and Jackson Pollock paintings and sell them in her front yard for a quarter.
So she and her husband invited local artists to display their work in the loft, especially young artists with accessible work who hadn't exhibited before. They threw parties and named their home the Creative Impetus Gallery. The couple set aside a separate gallery space when they bought their current home.
Creative Impetus became GOPA when the Márquez-Zenkovs realized last year that the photo exhibits they hosted on union workers, the homeless and Route 42 excited them more than the painting, fabric and furniture shows.
They've had a string of successful exhibits since, such as December and January's Rapid Stasis, which celebrated public transportation as "a way of reconnecting with the world." It used RTA trains as frames that focused viewers on the subjects' humanity: a guy standing alone in a train window; a conductor whose head is turned so you see part of her face, her name and conductor's number on a nameplate simultaneously personalizing and depersonalizing her.
GOPA's current exhibit, Latin America Exposures, which closes with a party on April 30, welcomes viewers with vibrant color images reflecting the region's contagious energy, then confronts with black-and-white images documenting working conditions. You can read insights into Cuban society in William "Chip" Carter's photographs or you can enjoy them for their vitality alone, fixating on the red costumes of the cabaret dancers poised between light and shadow. On the other side of a divider, a different Latin America appears in Piet van Lier's banana-plantation worker in Guatemala, suspended between a pulley's ropes.
In the next show, Through Students' Eyes (May 7 through June 25), students from Cleveland's Lincoln West High School, plus a younger child from the gallery's neighborhood, are shooting photos with three themes in mind: the purpose of school, what helps them succeed and what gets in the way. The students' works will be followed by a retrospective of GOPA's previous exhibits (July 23 through Aug. 27).
Photographs sell for about $100 and have gone as low as $25.
"I don't know that any of us are interested in the art crowd," Kristien says. "That's not why we're doing this. We invite people in off the street."
The Gallery of Photographic Arts, 2512 Church Ave. (at West 25th Street in Ohio City), (216) 861-3062. Hours: Sat and Sun 1 - 5 p.m. or by appointment.