After working as chef, ANDREW HALEY followed another passion: fine art.
His Sperryville gallery features an unconventional selection of local artists
I came to my career as an art dealer by way of the kitchen. When I was five, I would sit at the kitchen table and draw until I’d filled my wagon with pictures, and then sell them door-to-door. My imagery tended to depict war and its consequences: the late 60s; lots of one-armed stick figures; houses with bombproof nets stretched over them. Prices ranged from 1 to 5 cents, a valuation method based on candy prices at Adam’s Store. I’ve been focused on art and food for a long time.
Growing up in Buffalo, New York, was great. It’s an ethnic community, mainly Polish and Italian, and the food is amazing. And we had the Albright Knox Art Gallery. My mother, who was a great cook, took me frequently. Armand Hammer’s storied collection toured the gallery around 1978. I was lucky enough to see it. It caused a profound shift in my perception of art. Sargent’s portrait “Mrs. Edward L. Davis and Her Son, Livingston Davis” stared right back at me. I felt it.
Like most parents, my mother worked hard to enrich her children’s lives, but where others struggled to introduce leafy green vegetables, my mother was serving curried calf brains in puff pastry shells — delicious. Sitting at the dinner table was a serious affair. You were expected to pay attention to the food, and mom’s penchant for obscure organ meats ensured that we did.
When I was 12, she married Mr. Gioia, a Sicilian cobbler. In the summer, he would pick dandelion greens in the back yard for the salad. At the table, he’d emote through a mouthful of greens “grass.” He rarely wore a shirt at dinner; conventional manners just weren’t relevant at his table. And my mother was the formal type — she’d spent years admonishing us about elbows on the table, etc. In Mr. Gioia’s house, it didn’t matter. His approach to life obliterated our conception of manners. His cooking style was direct; grilled meats and vegetables, and lots of salad. I’ve always been a little bit stuck in my ways. Even then I was analyzing the situation-context matters. The best food is simple and close at hand. Life happens before convention.
At 16, I began working in kitchens. I’ve always loved food, but my motives weren’t romantic — $3.65 an hour didn’t cover food and rent. Being a chef is great: Your uniform consists of what most people call pajamas, and hunger gives you a great reason to go to work every day. Like so many pragmatisms, cooking became a way of life and, as my wages improved, I started collecting art.
My collection began with small pieces, etchings and works on paper. An early favorite was a dry point etching by Neil Rizos. I first met Neil while working as the chef at the Airlie Conference Center. We were hosting an Earth Day fundraising event and art was the focus. While running trays to the buffet, his “Red Tail Hawk” caught my eye. I expected to enjoy the work, for it to be a passive, decorative, element in my life, but it became much more than that.
Neil’s approach to life is not conventional. After graduating from college, he accepted insecurity. He lived out of his car, and he put everything into his work. Neil looks deeply into the world around him and brings that vision to focus in his art. It’s a visceral process, and he can’t turn it off. His work is a testament to the difference between art and pictures.
Rizos helped sharpen my focus. I collect and sell the work of artists I know to gain insights on their preoccupation. A relationship puts those perceptions in context. It can be a challenge, but the discoveries make art and collecting meaningful. Driving west one evening on Route 211 through Rappahannock County, I crested the hill at Massies Corner just as the sun was setting. For me this is where Rappahannock really begins. Looking up, I saw the sky just as Chris Stephens, long-time regional artist, paints it. It was stunning; I was in a Chris Stephens painting. Prior to this moment, I hadn’t experienced the full depth of Chris’ work. Context provides insight that deepens appreciation.
When the Virginia Museum of Fine Art presented a show of Picasso’s work in 2011, my wife and I took a group of students down for a look. I moved through the show really trying to see the work. I didn’t feel it. Picasso’s art is out of context for me, but it’s convention to see the work as genius. When it comes to Picasso, I’ll defer to higher powers. A lot of what convention calls genius, especially in art, I take issue with. Damien Hirst’s dot paintings leap to mind. He pays “artisans” to paint dots on canvas, he signs them, and people buy them. Hirst says “you wouldn’t want a dot painting by me; I’m a terrible painter.” (Google “Damien Hirst’s Treasure Hunt for Rich People Who Like Dots”). The parable “The Emperor’s New Clothes” exists for a reason.
My experience in the kitchen informs my practice in the gallery. Convention is a guide, but if that’s all there is, food or art, the work will be stale. With food, conventional assessment takes a backseat because the process of chewing and tasting is direct and non-conceptual. With art, especially abstract art, people often place convention in front assessment.
My work as a chef was mostly conventional. I’ll cite youth in my defense. My last boss, Doug Larson, in his own inimitable style, implored me for years to do better. There were perks; Doug took me to some fantastic restaurants in an effort to open my eyes. If my kitchen produced anything particularly mediocre, Doug would sit me down and say something like, “It was dry and tasteless, like wallpaper paste,” over and over again. These sessions would last up to an hour. His carrot tied to the end of a stick approach eventually yielded fruit. As a dealer, curating my gallery, I try not to let it be dry and tasteless.
Rappahannock is the context for my gallery, which made its evolution easy. Finding great paintings is the hardest part of being an art dealer, but from the moment we arrived, an established community of artists proffered consistently amazing work.
Much of the work I sell stays in the county. The collectors, like the artists, are a particularly self-determined bunch. Rappahannock slows people down. It’s an expansive place where people can breathe and see. No one wears a suit here, which also helps with the breathing. People don’t come here for reason — they come for the feeling.
Haley Fine Art connects artists with collectors and the context in which their work evolves. I’ve always preferred restaurants with open kitchens; it inspires excellence anonymity will never know. Being open keeps people honest. My gallery is an open kitchen.
“Eat Where You Live” bumper stickers are everywhere in the Piedmont — I think people really get it. We’ve had enough of hothouse tomatoes and tasteless fruit. Art, abstracted from its source, like a strawberry in winter, isn’t very satisfying. What’s on the table should reflect the region. The same holds for art. In a world of choices, the best art reflects the world around you. Look in your own backyard and trust your gut.
About the Author:
Andrew Haley has owned Haley Fine Art in Sperryville for nearly 13 years. haleyfineart.com