“Light and Shadow”Julie Leidner on a Reimagined Space
Sheherazade is never open and never closed. The garage-turned-art-gallery is illuminated 24/7 with site-specific installations visible only to passersby on Magnolia Street. The surrounding neighborhood of Old Louisville is known for its Victorian houses, some of which are well-preserved family homes for the wealthy, while most are split into rented apartments for college students, young adults, and low-income families. For one weekend in October, the streets will flood with the bourgeois attendees of the St. James Court Art Show. Old Louisville is a place where many demographics briefly intersect.
Positioned across from a dive bar and a food mart, Sheherazade’s location is not exactly the seat of Louisville’s art community. Yet creativity still manages to thrive in Old Louisville, a neighborhood where artists often cross paths with each other. Artist Julie Leidner facilitates Sheherazade, and it was here that she met the space’s former resident. Leidner has reimagined the space as a site where art is presented to the viewer with minimal barriers. You walk down the street at any hour and the lights are on. The space asks nothing of its viewer—it doesn’t matter what clothes you are wearing, who you are with, or why you’re in the neighborhood. The window keeps you out physically, but it does so impartially. Everyone is on the outside; the best vantage point is public and shared.
Leidner has made conscious decisions about the type of work shown at Sheherazade. Her mission statement calls for risk and challenges to the status quo. She also desires to promote artists who may not already have a foothold in Louisville’s art scene. The inaugural show features Norman Spencer, a self-taught printmaker. The first time I saw Spencer’s work, I was drawn to his prints of Victorian houses, many of which I recognized from the area. There is a simple joy in seeing something familiar recreated by someone else’s hands: “Hey, that looks like my old apartment.” Spencer’s older work celebrates these historic structures with the roughly-hewn lines of block prints, the traces of the artist’s labor made visible.
Featured in an Old Louisville art space, Light and Shadow literally exists within the architecture of Spencer’s oeuvre, but this installation explores more organic forms. Cyanotype panels contain ghost-like images of ginkgo leaves and moths—I think of the ginkgo trees I’ve seen in local parks, planted along Main Street, and on University of Louisville’s campus. The pattern changes as the panels recede, suggesting shifts in a cycle. Ginkgo leaves become maple and oak leaves. Moths and butterflies change color. The central image is the same on each of the three panels: a large block print of a smiling woman. Her bare shoulders and patterned dress suggest warmth and celebration. Spencer uses these symbols of life and renewal to fill the space, the bright and fluttering swaths of color directly opposed to the cold street outside. The gallery holds a recollection of a different season, something we cannot touch but can only access through the glass of our memory.
Public art encourages, humanizes, and brings together the surrounding community. Sheherazade offers artists like Norman Spencer a platform to do so in a place where a multitude of people converge. I interviewed Julie Leidner to learn more about the history of the space and her vision for its future.
How did you come across this space? To your knowledge, how was it used before?
Sheherazade’s existence is owed largely to my friend Shohei Katayama. The space was previously rented by Shohei. He’s the one that transformed the garage and adjacent room from a raw state into a pristine white gallery space, which he called Thinkbox Contemporary, and he used the back room as his art studio. I was living around the corner on St. James Court, and he was my neighbor. When I found out that Shohei was moving away for grad school, I sort of pounced on the space without really having a clear idea of how I was going to use it.
That was in 2016. It took me a year and a half to settle in and figure out how I would make the space work for me. And while having a combined art studio/art gallery in this space was Shohei’s vision before I came along, Sheherazade is different from Thinkbox and does have its own identity.
As a side note, an article recently ran in the LEO Weekly that said that Sheherazade is a “new name for an old space” and referred to me as the “new gallery manager.” It’s not just a new name, and I don’t think of myself as a “gallery manager” either—that job title is way too professional-sounding for what I am. I’m not a manager, I’m just an artist. Also, Thinkbox was not originally founded to be a 24/7 window gallery, as the LEO article states. ThinkBox was more traditional in the sense that it was open by appointment, and much of the work in that gallery could not be viewed from the outside. By contrast, the work in Sheherazade is site-specifically intended only to be viewed from the outside, there are no open hours, and most importantly there is no part of the exhibition that cannot be viewed from the outside.
How much of a hand do you have, or plan to have, in curating the artists' work for the space?
Since Sheherazade is literally and figuratively an extension of my studio, the choices that I make regarding the space are very personal. I see the exhibition up-close every day while I’m working in my studio, which is in the room right next to it. That doesn’t mean that the work I choose to show in the space has to be comfortable or placid for me to look at, but it does mean that the work and/or the artists in the space need to suit my vision and mission. I’m very intentional about approaching artists who I think would activate the space in an interesting way and also who would get something significant out of the experience in return.
What challenges or limitations have you found working with a space that is primarily viewed from the outside?
Rather than it being a limitation, I really find the window gallery format to be very freeing. It’s kind of like the feeling I had when I first got a smartphone and could suddenly check my email on my phone. Everybody said that I was going to be more chained to my phone because of the constant connection to internet, like it was going to bog me down. But in reality it just meant that I didn’t have to go all the way home to get on my computer to check my email. I could check my email from anywhere. That felt freeing. Similarly, I don’t have to sit at a gallery desk and let people into the space to see the art in Sheherazade. The gallery can be “open” and I can be anywhere. It’s great.
To really dig into your question though, the biggest drawback that I’ve found so far to having a window gallery is that there is only one chance during every exhibition for people to personally interact with me and the artist. We just have the one-night-only “Open House” when people can enter the space and see the exhibition from behind the scenes. Because there are no other regular opportunities to meet people throughout the duration of the exhibition, there are maybe less connections to be made, less new friends to make, etc. There are also less opportunities to “sell” the work to potential patrons when it is just a window gallery, but as a non-commercial project space, that is not a priority anyway.
What are some ways members of the community can respond to and support Sheherazade?
Come see the shows that we have, and walk around beautiful Old Louisville while you are at it. Come to our openings and BYOB because we operate on a zero-dollar budget. In whatever ways you can, show people that you appreciate seeing artists make atypical public work—work that may not necessarily fit into cookie cutter molds or on the backs of fiberglass horses for example.
Yoko Molotov has a GoFundMe page to help her raise funds for her upcoming show (opening March 10th). I might occasionally share things like this, because as I suggested earlier Sheherazade is a totally artist-run, low-budget project space. Here’s the link if anyone feels like helping out our next artist: https://www.gofundme.com/yoko-at-sheherazade
Light and Shadow is on display at Sheherazade until March 3.
Sheherazade is located at 1401 South 3rd Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40208 and is visible 24/7.
Mary Clore, Contributor to Ruckus