As I walked into Ian Smalley's Monterey Street gallery on a scorching hot SLO summer day, I was instantly hit with a wave of cool. And it wasn't just the air conditioning—the space had something intrinsically laid-back about it.
Upbeat tunes playing over the gallery's sound system bounced off the freshly painted white walls and light wood flooring. Smalley sat behind an understated desk space at the back of the gallery. Behind him, a glass display read "the art of cool" in primary-colored, lowercase block letters. Fittingly, Smalley wore a "Mr. Cool" T-shirt—referencing the Roger Hargreaves children's book—and a hip pair of gray slip-on Vans. Natural light pouring in the front windows illuminated the canvases featuring larger-than-life pop culture icons, a dozen of which line the walls of the space.
As one might expect from the name of his gallery, Smalley said he's "just doing things that are cool, that people like." His muses range from old country stars like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings to Hollywood icons like Marilyn Monroe. Choosing such recognizable idols, Smalley said, "resonates so strongly with people that it's a very easy connection to make."
The Art of Cool Gallery saw its official opening on Sept. 6 at Art After Dark. Despite being a new addition to the Art After Dark map, the space was full with gallery-goers. Smalley said he saw a few repeat visitors during the evening.
The story behind the new space is just as casual as the vibes it gives off. Three months ago, Smalley was training to compete at a national arm-wrestling match, running his local supplement company, and making art on the side, as he had done since attending Cuesta College in the '90s. He had sold pieces here and there, hung many in his own home, and was occasionally commissioned by close friends who wanted their favorite culture icon rendered masterfully on a 3-feet-by-3-feet canvas.
"It's always been my side hobby," Smalley said.
But just two weeks before his arm-wrestling competition, Smalley had, in his words, "a super intuitive moment." He decided to ditch the strength sports and open his own gallery instead.
"I decided, and then two days later, this space had just come up for lease," he said. "So I just said I wanted it. That was that. Everything happened in the last three months."
In the months following his spontaneous decision, Smalley worked tirelessly to get enough pieces ready in time for the Sept. 6 opening.
"It was crazy, but this is probably 300 hours of art, just extra in my life," he said.
Smalley has never had much trouble selling work in the past: He once set up eight of his pieces in a parking lot and sold two in half a day.
Despite this, he said, "the commercial aspect was never of interest to me." Smalley plans to donate all his gallery proceeds to charity.
The inspiration to give back came after Smalley donated one of his pieces to an annual charity fashion show held at the Madonna Inn earlier this year. After watching bidders fight over his piece, resulting in a $1,700 winning bid that went to charity, Smalley thought, "What if there was an opportunity to have that experience again, but just have my own space?"
"My company is going to subsidize the rent on this place, so that way I can give 100 percent of the proceeds to local charities," Smalley explained. "I could do these, and they'd be in my house, and I'd enjoy them, but that's not the point. ... While it's cool to put them on display and put money in my pocket, I'd rather have the experience of someone buying it, and then taking the money and doing something that actually matters with it."
Local charities that Smalley plans to give to include the Assistance League, the Humane Society, and RISE SLO.
"Basically women, children, and animals locally," he said. "Depending on how it goes, I might let people pick if they feel strongly about wanting to direct their money towards one way or another. This isn't a nonprofit—if you buy a painting, you're not getting a tax write off. It's just me making a choice."
In keeping with his relaxed approach, Smalley said he plans to simply replace his works as they sell, and see where it goes. Having signed a five-year lease for the space, uptown SLO will be his base for the foreseeable future.
"A lot of artists are trying to say something or make some sort of expressive statement," he said.
But for Smalley, it's about seeing the tangible good that comes from giving back.
"I am excited about the impact. ... I'd like to report on that," he said. "Like, if somebody bought this for 800 bucks, this many kids got school clothes who wouldn't have otherwise—I want to start connecting dots for people. Most people want to be selfless, but it's not in the nature of our culture to do that. So I am basically doing this to prove a point." Δ
Arts Writer Malea Martin is feelin' cool. Send arts story tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.