Lewis Art Gallery framework has built upon its humble beginnings

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Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 12:00 am

It's hard to appreciate an art gallery when you grow up in it. Not above it, not next door to it, mind you, but in it — to the point of being awakened by a startled customer who's taken a wrong turn and walked into your bedroom.

Julie Wynn's mother, Carolyn Lewis, opened Lewis Art Gallery in a rented house at 8900 West Dodge Road in 1971. The one-story home served as showroom and living quarters.

“My sister Amy and I had our bedrooms, but everything else, even the kitchen, was part of the gallery,” said Wynn, who was 13 years old when her mother hung dozens of paintings throughout the house.

Now Wynn and her husband, Joe Wynn, own the gallery, one of Omaha's oldest. Julie Wynn no longer lives at the gallery, unless you count the long hours she sometimes puts in.

But the time she spent growing up in her mother's home and gallery taught Julie Wynn a valuable lesson: “You buy a painting because you love it, as opposed to buying something to match your sofa. If you love it now, you'll love it 30 years from now.”

The gallery has moved twice since its founding. In 1979, Lewis moved the gallery to 8025 West Dodge Road, where it remained until 2008. “We were sandwiched between Arthur's Lounge and Davidson's Furniture, which are both gone,” Julie Wynn said.

When Children's Hospital & Medical Center announced its expansion plans, the Wynns saw an opportunity to design the gallery of their dreams.

Today, the Lewis Art Gallery, in its 42nd year of business, and its 20-year-old sister store, Personal Threads Boutique, a knitting and needlepoint supply store, are celebrating five years in their current location, a 16,500-square-foot building at 8600 Cass St. The two-story building was custom-built and custom-finished to display and store the treasures that Julie Wynn and her mother, who died nine years ago, collected over four decades.

“We bought a vacant lot and had this built. This is our neighborhood,” Julie Wynn said proudly.

In fact, if you look out of the gallery's west-facing windows you glimpse a corner of the house and gallery — now doctors' offices — where Julie grew up. Walk the length of the gallery to the east-facing windows, and Julie Wynn will point to a patch of grass that fronted the gallery's second location.

The gallery's contemporary and antique paintings, sculptures, jewelry and lamps, combined with the knitting store's collection of yarns, buttons and notions, make it a destination for customers in search of “treasure,” whether it's a $10 “girlfriend gift,” a skein of hand-dyed wool yarn or an oil pastel by Jane U. Scott, a Nebraska artist who died in 2011 at age 93. Together, the gallery and yarn store employ 13 full-time and part-time workers.

“I've been shopping there for 10 years,” said Adele Swihart, who just bought her first painting, a farm scene by Kansas artist Todd Matson, from the gallery this week.

“I'm a long-timer with the yarn store,” said Swihart, who lives in Grand Island. “I make sweaters and outfits for the grandkids. They have some of the most beautiful yarn I've seen, and Joe gives good advice. He can put stuff together — colors, texture — to give it the 'wow' factor.”

Joe Wynn took over running Personal Threads nine years ago.

“I was semiretired, but Julie was getting home late, at 9 o'clock some nights, and I asked her if she needed help,” he said.

His first order of business: He taught himself to knit.

“He is the best beginning knitting teacher,” said Julie Wynn. “He taught himself to knit right-handed and then he learned to knit left-handed so he could teach his left-handed students how to knit and reverse a pattern.”

While the art gallery is quiet and exudes a calm, leisurely ambience, the second floor is an all-day happy hour for strings of knitters. On any given day, the store hosts two or three classes and is occupied by students who knit, chat, drink coffee and laugh at one another's dropped stitches.

The first-floor gallery rarely, if ever, notices the second floor's revelry.

“That's because there's 5 inches of concrete between the two,” Julie Wynn said, tapping the floor with her foot.

Just like its first location, which was a home, the two-story steel, concrete and glass gallery and yarn store, which was built by Omaha's G&S Construction, has a homey feeling to it.

Brightly colored contemporary paintings, gauzy multicolored scarves and tall, shiny vases greet customers when they enter the foyer.

On the first floor, angled walls lead the eye and feet through the store, and form a series of tall mini-galleries that showcase everything from contemporary art to soulful paintings by regional artists of wide-eyed Herefords and their offspring.

“They're meant to illustrate what looks good on what,” said Julie, who painted each wall a different color, a palette of gold, brick, purple and green hues.

Not sure if a painting or an object d'art will look “right” in your living room? “When picking art, people are afraid they're going to make a mistake. We let them take things out of here on approval.”

Beyond the aesthetics, the couple, who have been married for 27 years, say they love the building's functionality.

“This building has made our lives a lot easier,” said Joe Wynn, who spends most of his time running the yarn store.

In a specially constructed storeroom, thousands of skeins of yarn are stored on space-saving shelves, which are mounted on tracks and open and close at the press of a button. Throughout the building storage space is plentiful, enough to hold hundreds of paintings, with an unloading area.

“No more unpacking boxes outside in the cold like at our old store,” said Julie Wynn. An elevator whisks customers to and from the second floor.

In the gallery, four revolving octagonal pillars display more than 1,000 frame moldings. “Everything you see is in stock,” she said. Most framings can be completed in a week.

When she turned 18, Julie Wynn left home and worked at a theater for nine years, five years as manager.

“I needed a break from the gallery,” she said.

She rejoined the business on a trial basis in January 1983 when her mother asked her to return.

That was 30 years ago.

As adults, Wynn and her mother discovered they were a perfect fit. “She was smart and innovative,” she said. “I'm more fiscally conservative.”

The return also gave her a new appreciation of her mother. “Here's this brave young woman, recently divorced, with two young daughters determined to open a gallery. Ninety-five percent of galleries fail. My mother didn't plan on failing.”

“Her mother had enough discipline that she really did plow all the profits back into the business,” added Joe Wynn, who met Julie when she was working at the store.

“He came in to have a picture framed,” Julie Wynn said.

After several visits, “he invited us next door to Arthur's for a drink and my mother was smart enough to say 'You go — I'm too busy,'” Julie recalled.

The couple still find time to meet for lunch several times a week on the stairwell that runs between the first and second floor.

A painting of Julie Wynn's mother hangs in the first-floor gallery. At first, the Wynns thought about putting “her” behind the counter, but that was too imposing, so they settled on a spot about 10 feet away that allows “her” a full view of the sales counter.

“Mom still overlooks the store in a supervisory position,” Julie Wynn said.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1142, janice.podsada@owh.com

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