WOOD RIVER — This past April Fools’ Day, Gary Conrad — who signs his work with the self-described “sassier” Gary Von Dell — celebrated the holiday in a resonant way.
“I’ve always been called a fool by the world for having fun,” said Conrad, owner and founder of Von Dell Gallery and Studios, Wood River’s first art gallery.
Conrad — along with longtime friend and house artist Fred Spence III — gutted and remodeled the once run-down East Ferguson Avenue location into an inviting space for artists, students and enthusiasts.
“We wanted to employ a mixed motif of classical and modern styles with exposed duct-work to show visitors that there was no ‘cheating’ on the rehab,” Conrad said. “One hundred percent of the wiring, heating and plumbing are brand-new and the only original flooring left is the flooring in my studio and Fred’s studio.”
The inspiration was brought to life following Conrad’s retirement from the mental health profession — first as a mental health technician and then as an activity therapist — but he’s always been interested in creative things, such as woodworking.
“I come from a family of fairly talented people, and my mother always encouraged us to expand our horizons,” he said.
Conrad considers the gallery to be a tribute to his late mother, and both of his sisters have been supportive of the endeavor — Paula Raymond providing technical assistance as a consultant and Barbara Pitt supplying her painting talent.
Conrad cites a monthly class conducted by Jo Lynne Lair — whose art is showcased at the gallery — as another essential influence.
“The class was a foundation that allowed me to meet talented artists such as Rita Cooper and take seminars with Mary Carola Lawson,” he said.
Von Dell showcases the work of nine artists, ranging broadly in style and subject matter. A stroll up the branching grand staircase and past the snack area and more “provocative art” reveals a multitude of doors, each “private and lockable,” Conrad said.
“I searched for a location with proper studio space for a couple of years and I believe that this one is perfect for a studio artist,” he said. “Artists thrive in communities together: they feed off of each other and motivate each other to keep working and further improve their skill sets.”
The first studio belongs to Tiffany Johnson Cade of Florissant, Mo., who will present an upcoming social justice series at Jacoby Arts Center and teach a future class at Von Dell for 25 congregation members from her church. The studio opposite Cade’s belongs to mixed media artist Linda Miller — experimenting with collages, ink and even coffee in her wide range of work — and the studio perpendicular to Miller’s belongs to college student Matt Bell, whose work often displays a contemporary pop-art influence.
The fourth studio has a distinctive setup.
“This studio belongs to a group of artists from Florissant, Mo., that have been painting together for 30 years,” Conrad said. “They come by once a week, bring snacks and the occasional bottle of wine, and work on their pieces.”
The group, which is open to join, includes experienced oil and acrylic artist John Marcum, Mary Ann Borgmann and Kent Scheibel.
Conrad describes Spence as a “cat out of the box” and prolific in his fiercely impressive work ethic.
“I asked him to join me in the painting class and everything kicked in,” he said. “He was putting out great techniques and he still paints constantly. He can have a major painting ready every three or four days.”
Conrad calls himself a “true to life artist” who paints what he sees.
“I believe in the here and now, possibly as a result of my mental health background,” he said. “I don’t see the world in abstractions, but I can definitely appreciate other people that are able to create abstract art.”
In maintaining a gallery, Conrad commits to the mission of keeping art affordable and available to people.
“I would like for people to save money and buy a real, one-of-a-kind painting instead of a mass-produced print; take a chance that the painting will become valuable someday,” he said. “I’m glad to be in that pipeline to connect the dots: it exposes me to spectacular artists.”
One of the reasons for keeping both artwork and studio space affordable — the latter starting at $150 per month — is to allow more people to enjoy it, Conrad said.
“I’m not doing this for money,” he said. “You can call this a social experiment, and I like the challenge.”
Conrad takes pride in what he considers a strategic location.
“It’s at the center of a mass of colleges, such as Lewis & Clark and SIUE, which gives local college students a great opportunity,” he said.
Beyond the college crowd, Conrad has plans for art-savvy students of any age.
“I want the whole concept to expand and for Von Dell to become a real art center, with collaborations for local school districts and colleges,” he said.
With a sizable yard surrounding the gallery, Conrad foresees a summer art fair — with “rows of tents” — on the horizon, as well as a potential pottery studio and space for glass fusion art.
“I want you to pursue your dreams,” he said. “If you’ve got talent, share it. I believe that everybody has a talent, and I hope I can be part of the discovery process.”
Von Dell will host a lighthouses and seascapes class on Saturday, Aug. 6, taught by Rita Cooper.
“Mrs. Cooper will make sure you succeed, and she won’t let you leave until you’re absolutely happy with your painting,” Conrad said.
The gallery, 102 E. Ferguson Ave., is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays; it’s closed on Tuesdays. For information, call (618) 251-8550 or visit vondellgalleryandstudios.com.