Gallery owner W. Andre Allen was at his rock bottom when the tide turned. After finishing college in Miami and working in the music industry in PR and in the restaurant business, his career as an artist had come to a stand-still. "From 2008 on I think I sold, oh my god, maybe one or two pieces," he recalls, regarding his tenure at the South Florida Art Center where he rented a studio.
But in 2010, a fortune-bearing stranger walked in. "A man was just standing there. He had all these books on him. And prints and everything." He was the owner of Oceania Cruise Lines. He liked Allen's acrylic paintings on glass and he wanted to buy them — a lot of them.
"He asked me where I had been and everything ... I lied, I had been in such a bad depression. He said, 'If I needed you to do this or that, 10 or 20 times over for me, would you be able to do that?'" He had a new ship he was outfitting and he wanted Allen's work on the cabin walls. "He pulled out all of the blueprints and was showing me all of the suites and where he wanted to put all of the paintings and it finally hit me. He bought 100 pieces and that changed my whole life."
Allen would go on to furnish a twin ship for Frank Del Rio (president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line), too. And many more thereafter, becoming one of the top-selling African-American artists in South Florida from 2011-2015. "I don't know any other artist who has a collector with that much of their work."
You can see Allen's marketing background play out walking through his Downtown Charleston gallery, which opened last year, located at 140 East Bay St., just South of the busy area near restaurant row. In addition to the mostly abstract, contemporary works on the walls (the one exception being the more figural pieces done by none other than soul singer Betty Wright, his famous godmother) there are scarves and cover-ups, printed with Allen's work. His merchandise is also carried on the cruise line where, for the last eight years, he has spent four months out of the year as an artist-in-residence, making art and touring Europe and French Polynesia.
- The gallery opened on East Bay Street in the summer of 2018
Allen's interest in art was spurred by accident while touring with Wright. The band's wardrobe never arrived, so Allen went to Michael's and started embellishing clothes with rhinestones. That was in the '90s. From there he was inspired by an artist he met at an African Expo in Miami, who was selling painted vases and plates.
"I bought 10 plates and anything that said acrylic paint for glass. I started doing the fair on South Beach every Sunday at 6:30 a.m. I had a table, but no studio. I was working out of my closet at the time and I thought that was the coolest thing."
As it happens, lightning would strike twice for Allen. After meeting Del Rio in 2010, he would meet his romantic and business partner, Jeffery Allen Holden, the very next day.
"Our anniversary was yesterday," says Allen. "We've got nine years." Jeff is a joint owner in W. Andre Allen Gallery and also took up art after they met. Many of his works are featured on the gallery walls, as well. There's a blue series, like aerial shots of ocean currents. Jeff also designs the furniture for the gallery. Together, they represent Baltimore-born, Instagram-discovered artist Ty Davis Bey. Jeff saw his work first, and contacted him on social media. His contemporary paintings are diffuse, using a technique he calls "Evolutionary," where the paint is applied with alcohol or water, creating blotted clouds of color, like ink stains on paper.
Beyond the gallery, Allen and Holden are also working with local real estate agents, staging companies, and interior designers to furnish the million-dollar homes of the Lowcountry. It has been an unconventional journey for an unconventional painter. Self taught, Allen also has dyslexia, a condition that translates to his painting process. "I work in reverse," he says "Where artists finish, I start."
Namely, he starts with the figures in the foreground of a composition and works backwards. The result is a diverse body of work that most recently has culminated in a series of paintings that almost resemble metro maps, intricately connected tributaries meeting and diverting along an imaginary grid. It is appropriately called the Manhattan Series.
You can visit the W. Andre Allen Contemporary Art Gallery Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturdays.