A farmhouse, once again an art house

When Kellie Rae Theiss moved her downtown gallery into an old farmhouse in Linden Hills six months ago, it became the Red House Gallery, a crossroads of past and present.

The Red House takes its name from its most striking attribute, the cherry red exterior that distinguishes it from nearby homes. Its pillbox shape, peeling paint, aged wood, chalky white walls and antique fixtures testify to years of wear and tear.

Maybe it was because she grew up on a Nebraska farm, but Theiss was drawn intuitively to the two-story 3413 W. 44th St. structure. After she pulled up to the house a year ago she had a revelation, telling herself, "This is it."

The epiphany promptly ended a two yearlong search for a new space to display her collection of classical, surrealistic and impressionistic paintings and sculptures. Its historic character appealed to Theiss, whose blonde hair was tucked neatly into a vintage cloche hat.

Some doubted the quaint farmhouse’s potential as a gallery venue at first. After all, it’s a big change from the Warehouse District, where the Kellie Rae Theiss Gallery thrived for almost a decade.

Still, it was a strategic move. Unlike downtown, the Linden Hills space has free parking and a private restroom (where artwork also hangs – a proven selling location, Theiss noted). Since the gallery isn’t embedded in a maze-like warehouse but faces the street front, it attracts casual passersby.

Instead of bustling downtown streets, there’s a porch and even a sign that welcomes pets (a bowl of doggie treats also encourages canine walk-ins). Theiss herself brings her dog to work. She lives only five blocks away and walks to the gallery.

She said, "You don’t have to have a degree in art to look at art. I really want it to be a comfortable place for people to come to."

Theiss hopes that her new digs are less intimidating than the industrial space was.

"The house has such an incredibly good feeling," she said.

That feeling is no accident, as Theiss soon learned.

An artful history

Before Theiss arrived with her gallery, greeting card shop Maison Rouge inhabited the space. Before that, a local legend and renowned entrepreneur Anita Beck indelibly stamped 3413 W. 44th as a creative nexus.

Beck’s greeting card emporium boomed from the ’60s to the ’80s. The Red House was just one of a square of houses then that was painted her signature red. The patch was so recognizable that pilots who passed overhead nicknamed it the "red strip."

After Theiss swept and sanded the floors, she discovered fragments of the building’s past. She stumbled on a dusty printing press, a snapshot of women posed in the ’60s, a pair of antlers, a shelf display that said "Reindeer House" and a floor painting – which had an anecdotal history that Theiss learned from visitors who still stop by looking for cards or a bit of nostalgia.

This house in particular was called Reindeer House, where mostly Christmas cards and knick-knacks were sold – hence the antlers.

To promote her business, Beck and a group of female artisans set up installations that reinvented the house’s ambiance – for example, a jungle theme once predominated. In the ’60s, the female artists’ collective became Manamore, which is Italian for "Made by hands, with love." (Beck was 100 percent Italian.) Together, the women shared a love of art and crafts. Beck, who was passionate about folk art, was its first president.

Although Beck died in the ’80s, the group of over 70 women – photographers, painters and sculptors – still meets regularly around town.

The floor painting – of a rug painted directly onto the hardwood -is a Manamore monument brushed by long-gone friend Nadine Semans (whose work appears frequently in Kenwood).

The Manamore faux carpet decorates Theiss’ office now. As if passing the baton, the Manamore’s edict melded seamlessly with Theiss’ own credo. "I really do consider myself a self-appointed ambassador for the arts. I understand what a gift it is, with all of my heart – in their hearts and hands," she said.

A beneficial move

Not everyone was convinced of the karma of Theiss’s relocation.

Tangletown resident Sally Mars, wife of Theiss-represented Chris Mars, said that she was a skeptic at first. But when she stepped into the Red House, "I felt like I was in a different city. There’s a sense of a truly dedicated space. It’s a refined space and a truly refined collection of work."

Mars, a producer, photographer and writer, said, "There’s a certain peace in it being a house and having light come through the windows. Many museums are housed in spaces that have that kind of feel.

Chris Mars, former drummer for The Replacements, will soon show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave. S. His meticulous and complex oil paintings of disfigured people and other creatures gained notoriety in the macabre genre. He’s a psychological storyteller.

Sally Mars praised Theiss’ artistic sense and knowledge; "She reveres art and takes it to an important level. It’s beyond knick-knacks or pretty things. That’s what distinguishes it."

Furthermore, she said that the gallery proved the point that the city’s most valuable assets are often nestled deeply within neighborhoods. Theiss’ gallery reflects Linden Hills’ changing dynamics. "When we moved in 20 years ago" Theiss said, "this was an antiques neighborhood."

"Now it’s a gallery neighborhood. We’re seeing a real creative signature that’s appropriate for our neighborhood."

Kathleen Kvern, project manager for mnartists.org at the Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave. S., attributed that strength to the fact that, Theiss "is extremely selective and takes such care for her relationships with the artists. Clients get to build relationships with artists as well."

Kvern, also a customer, said that she placed her gallery buys in places where she’ll see them most. One hangs above the living room sofa and another in the kitchen. Her Theresa Handy piece is an abstract and colorful landscape with two trees. "It’s so peaceful and calming. I love looking at it," she said.

"Even though it’s truly sophisticated, it’s still accessible. [Theiss is] a teacher, and it comes through in how she presents work. She’s just as interested in giving you information as the work," Kvern said.

Theiss’s involvement goes beyond her gallery. She also serves on the Twin Cities Fine Arts Federation and spearheaded a comprehensive Twin Cities gallery guide with Kvern and fellow Federation founders Shelley Holzemer and Kris Henning.

She inspired collectors such as Bryn Mawr resident Kathryn Glessing. Glessing’s first acquisition came from the Kellie Rae Theiss Gallery five years ago. It was ceramicist’s Kelly Connole sculpture of a cat with a rabbit ear mask. She admired it for the sense of humor and humanoid attributes.

Now she has several other artists’ works, including Chris Mars and Theresea Handy pieces from the gallery. "Kellie has been an amazing influence on me. My house is known as my own little museum."

Her own work

Kvern and Glessing both treasure works that Theiss made; the gallery owner is also a prominent painter and sculptor. For example, Theiss’ "prayer boxes" feature edges that are worn down and smooth, and inside the lid she has painted a night sky and finches.

Theiss spends her weekends at her northern cabin painting and sculpting; fish, birds and plants are inspirations. Sometimes her details are so fine that she uses just a one-haired brush.

She exhibits her work about every two years because that’s how long it takes her to build up a body of work. A couple of her pieces hang at the Bell Museum of Natural History, 10 Church St. SE, on the University of Minnesota’s East Bank.

For her "prayer boxes," Theiss originally wanted to incorporate actual specimens in the manner of a taxidermist but later found that it was illegal. So, the sculptor adapted and recreated the small creatures.

The boxes themselves are recycled cheese boxes that Theiss received from her dad. Additionally, the wood that she used once belonged to a schoolhouse. "The wood for these constructions had to have a history like most of us – to have felt the weather and served a purpose," she said.

Theiss, who has experienced significant personal losses in the past several years, composed her "prayer boxes" in homage because, "I know how fragile life is."

All in all, "I try really hard to be open-minded but this is a reflection of where I’ve been. I have a very full and rich life right now," said Theiss.

Red House Gallery is open Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m.-4 p.m. For more, see www.theissgallery.com.