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The Starving Art Dealer



Myra Casis and Meg Sheehy have never had the kind of family or spousal financial support that many other gallery owners enjoy--they saved for more than a decade to open Zg. (Its unpronounceable name, written like an element in the periodic table, is meant to indicate its uniqueness.) They met during their first year at Saint Mary's College in South Bend, and right after graduation, in 1988, Casis began working as a receptionist at what was then known as Douglas Kenyon; Sheehy started a year later as a gallery assistant. By the time they left in 2000, Casis was the director and Sheehy the manager. They were negotiating the lease on their present space when 9/11 happened--and the lessor's terms suddenly improved. After Sheehy went to the library to read about galleries that survived wars, they anxiously signed. Zg opened in February 2002, and while its expenses are now being covered by sales, it's not earning enough to pay either owner a salary; they're still drawing on savings.

Sheehy knew she wanted to run a gallery in high school. "I've always wanted to be around art," she says. Her mother was an amateur painter who took her to museums, and living in the Boston area as a child made her aware of early American art and architecture: "I'd go to a friend's house and notice a mural and they'd say, 'That's from 1811.'" When she was a high school freshman and an older sister left for college, Sheehy immediately changed the decor of their room, stripping away Snoopy and rainbows to create a quasi art gallery: "I steamed off all the wallpaper, painted the walls white, and ripped up the carpeting to reveal the hardwood floors."

When Sheehy first enrolled at Saint Mary's her parents wouldn't let her study art. They relented when she almost flunked out the first semester, and then she not only did well in her art classes but in all her courses. From the beginning, however, she knew she didn't want to pursue a career as an artist. She met Casis during their first week on campus; they became friends and later a couple. Casis also enrolled in art classes: "I enjoyed making work for myself with whatever material was involved in that particular class. But I wasn't interested in exhibiting." When her parents insisted she get a practical degree in addition to art, she added a business major, which she figured would be useful in running a gallery anyway.

Douglas Kenyon, now Joel Oppenheimer, is best known as a dealer in Audubon prints. Though Sheehy and Casis admired Audubon's skill, they liked other, quirkier nature prints better and began their own collection. Zg's current show, "(Un)Natural History," pairs early prints they've collected with work that's closely or tangentially related by artists the gallery represents. Maria Sibylla Merian's Cayman With Snake--a 17th-century work marked by precise drawing and a flamboyant color sense--is hung with paintings from the "Botanical Heaps" series by Zg artist Gregory Jacobsen, which Sheehy describes as depicting "tangled tissues, muscles, raw meat, foodstuffs." She says that where early naturalist-artists were introducing Europeans to forms they'd never seen before--Merian traveled to Suriname--in today's image-saturated culture Jacobsen must invent flora and fauna to create novelty. Also being shown are works from a series of engravings commissioned by 18th-century medical doctor Robert Thornton, who had a passion for naturalist pursuits. Sheehy says she identifies with early entrepreneurs who fostered work they believed in without knowing whether it would sell. Thornton, for example, suffered financial setbacks, recovered, but finally died destitute after holding an unsuccessful lottery for the entire contents of his gallery.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea (portrait).

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