Letter from Katie: Portrait of a Gallerist

In friendship and in art, Phyllis Weston has cultivated masterpieces.

Phyllis Weston was waiting for me at her gallery in O’Bryonville on a warm Friday afternoon in mid-autumn. I could see her a half-block away, in her pink designer suit and low-heeled bone-colored shoes. Her hair was twirled up in an elaborate French twist—a swirl that added a centimeter or two to her height. Even so she was tiny, a doll-sized woman. Up close, after hugs and “darlings” and “so glad to see you’s” she was the same Phyllis I’ve known since 1975—older, of course, and frailer, but still possessing the force of a tornado. She has been called the Grande Dame of Art in Cincinnati, and certainly she is that.

There are two things that Phyllis has never been willing to tell me: her age and the recipe for her decadent chocolate cake. Both are wonderful mysteries—the kind that keep you guessing. Is she 85? Does she use heavy cream in the frosting? I know this much. The chocolate cake is unmatched, and Phyllis is at an age at which a lot of other women spend their days tucked up watching reruns of
Murder, She Wrote and waiting for grandchildren and great-grandchildren to visit.

That is not the life for Phyllis. Here in her lovely gallery, she took the arm of her assistant, Cate Yellig, leaning on her ever so slightly, and her vital juices seemed to bubble over. “The art gives me life,” she said simply. Then she handed me a pair of 3D glasses.
I had come to the gallery to see a display of  works by Cincinnati artists Mark Patsfall and Brian Stuparyk called Elements of Perception. But when I put on the glasses and peered at a piece by Stuparyk, I couldn’t focus. Cate suggested I try them with the blue lens over the right eye, and that did the trick. The painting’s  disjointed images merged immediately into something I could grasp: an  octopus overtaking Fountain Square! In the next room, I was thrilled by artist Mark Patsfall’s video sculpture. A disciple of Nam June Paik, he had installed a  couple of mixed media pieces on silkscreen with lights and video. The stick figure in one of the installations had a mechanical mouth that appeared to be swallowing dollar signs, coins, and bills. I clapped my hands over my mouth, smothering a grin.

“Oh, did you already see it?” Phyllis said when she saw me.

“Isn’t it absolutely wonderful?” I said.

She nodded. “It makes you feel like a kid again.”

Phyllis once told me that she knew when she was a little girl that she wanted to be involved in art, she just wasn’t quite sure how. The how turned out to be as an art dealer. She’s been influential in art circles in Cincinnati for more than 40 years, much of that time spent at Closson’s, when the exclusive furnishings and decor store was downtown and included a gallery. According to Constance Coleman, an octogenarian painter who also refuses to retire, Phyllis was a force in the Contemporary Arts Center in the 1960s, when the CAC was presenting works by of-the-moment talents such as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Morris.
“Phyllis gathered contemporary paintings and painters and convinced them to show in this new venue,” Coleman says. “[She] made a significant difference in the success of the Contemporary Arts Center. Of course, that’s all we thought about in those days: contemporary art. We were driven to show what young artists were doing right now, the better to make Cincinnati a part of the national landscape.”

It’s clear to me that Phyllis still has the same drive today; it’s what propelled her to this venture in O’Bryonville. “I worked at Closson’s for 42 years,” she told me. “Then I was off a year before I started my own gallery. It’s been everything I hoped it would be.
“Once you decide to do something, well, then do it!” she added, her tiny frame summoning the words she’d lived by for so long. “And don’t let anything get in your way.”

If Phyllis has made a living from art, she has also made an art of living.

I met her and her husband, Leo, in 1975, on the same hot summer night I met Irma and Fred Lazarus, on Fred’s creaky old houseboat with a tiny kitchen belowdecks. They were having what Irma would have called “a gala” for the opera singer Alan Titus, who was the guest of honor that night. He was appearing with Cincinnati Opera that summer in The Merry Widow, but a few years before he’d set the world of classical music on fire when he sang in the premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, and Bernstein was a favorite of Irma’s. I was there as someone’s date and was too shy to say much of anything to anyone.

I remember the night was lovely, with sweet breezes and the sounds of the river everywhere. Fred cooked a dinner of steak and salad and apple pie, some of which had been brought aboard in baskets lined with red and blue checked cloth napkins. We ate, floating down the river in the pitch-black night. The farther we got from downtown, the darker the night became, and the deeper our sense of ease with one another. Someone produced a guitar, and Alan Titus began to sing folk songs in a powerful, well-muscled baritone. Fred asked for a particular song, and Alan didn’t know it, but I did. I have no idea where I got the nerve (it might have come from one of Fred’s martinis), but I suddenly burst into the tune: I gave my love a cherry/ That had no stone…

Everyone on the boat was silent at once, and I finished the old riddle song to thunderous applause. Then Alan Titus jumped in with “The Wabash Cannonball” so loudly I imagined schools of fish at the bottom of the river being jarred from sleep. He was kind enough to declare I had the most beautiful untrained voice of any he had ever heard, and he came into my next gig at the King’s Row in Clifton, with Irma, Fred, Phyllis, and Leo in tow, and got up to sing “The Wabash Cannonball” with such gusto he scared the band half to death.

It was the beginning of my long friendship with the four of them: Irma, Fred, Leo, and Phyllis. I sang at almost all of their parties for many years after that, and they showed up at my local appearances, no matter how shabby the venue. They used to come to Aunt Maudie’s in Over-the-Rhine, dressed in formal clothes after the symphony on Saturday nights. Please don’t sit at the front table, I’d silently pray, because I knew it was infested with roaches. And of course they chose that table almost every time. Miraculously, the enormous, prehistoric roaches never appeared until Phyllis and Irma were on their way out the door. But I lost 10 years of my life on those nights.

Phyllis’s Leo was a handsome man, in a Clark Gable kind of way, with dark hair waved back from his face and thick bushy eyebrows. He smoked unfiltered cigarettes back in those innocent days when a halo of cigarette smoke was just the slightest bit romantic. Leo had graduated from Harvard and although he had a private income he was the first real pack rat I ever knew. Once, when he and Phyllis were in Boston staying with their older son, Todd, Phyllis called to tell me they were coming home early, adding (under her breath), “I have to get Leo out of Nob Hill before the next trash collection.”

While Leo sat atop his collection of recovered treasures, Phyllis’s career as the director of Closson’s art gallery flourished. Her shows at Closson’s were sellouts; her energy, her resourcefulness continued to astonish. She gave a number of people their first shows, among them the nature artist John Ruthven. Phyllis’s desk was in the thick of things, right out on the floor—she got more customers that way—and she liked to chat if there were no prospective buyers around. At the first hint of interest in a particular picture, though, she was on the scent, like a setter pointing a pheasant.

As her Rolodex grew, so did her influence with artists and buyers. In 1981, when she was selected to put together a group of paintings for Procter & Gamble’s executive wing, it made her reputation. I remember how she slaved over that project; I’d find corrected galleys for the catalogue all over her desk upstairs for what seemed like an endless amount of time. But when she finished it, she won instant stardom in the art world, and P&G had a selection of paintings to make any corporate headquarters proud.
In 1996, Leo was diagnosed with lung cancer. Phyllis was stricken; there would never be another Leo—or “Lay-oh,” as Irma called him, pronouncing his name in the European manner. My friend, Don Parker, who was a math professor, worked advanced math problems with him for hours. I took bluegrass musicians by while he was sick, and we played for him on what was to be his last day outside the house before the cancer overcame him.

Phyllis was close to quitting, but “Leo made me promise I’d go on,” she told me. “I kept going in to work, because it was his wish for me that I would continue working.” It was probably the best decision they could have made, she says. “The art has given me an identity, and the kids [the artists] keep me young.”

The Closson family eventually sold the store, and it moved to Montgomery with a plan to feature more “decorative” art. It must have felt like a great loss to Phyllis after years of building up the store’s reputation as a source for serious work. But if Leo’s death didn’t end her career, she wasn’t quitting over this change of affairs either. She had a third act in her, and she started The Phyllis Weston Annie Bolling Gallery in 2006 (it became The Phyllis Weston Gallery in 2010). She got out her bulging Rolodex, called in her markers, and brought the best artists she knew, many of whom she had shown long before any other gallery owner was willing to take a chance on them. And she had the perfect venue for the kind of old-fashioned, elaborate parties that create excitement around an exhibit: her own home.

We called it “the mansion”—Phyllis’s antebellum house on the east side. Perched on a high bluff overlooking a bend in the Ohio River, from her living room you could watch the long, slow barges as they glided toward Louisville. The ancient oak tree in front of the house shaded the grounds in the summer and made a great playground for the energetic gray squirrels when the tree began to shed its leaves.

Legend has it that in steamboat days, two huge torches were kept burning on this hill so that the riverboats could see to steer the tricky turn safely.

The house itself was enormous. Its windows reached nearly 12 feet from the floor to the ceiling, gracefully rounded at the top. The first thing you saw when you came in the door from the veranda was the curving staircase with its wide banister of polished hardwood. It’s the kind of staircase you’d want to get married from, and in fact, a former Cincinnati resident, Jani Gardner, did exactly that. Jani was a writer, and she had a way with words and a sense of humor. Floating down the stairs in a bridal gown, she winked at Phyllis’s son John. “Always a bride,” the oft-married Jani quipped, “but never a bridesmaid.”

I remember how Phyllis laughed at my oohs and aahs when I first saw her living room. The furniture was all upholstered in white, and with light pouring in through those tall windows it was the most elegant thing I’d seen outside of Architectural Digest. “Oh, dear,” she said. “I just got old chairs and sofas second-hand and covered them in the same white fabric.” Here and there a painting or a piece of sculpture jumped out at you, luring you over for a closer look. The plain white furniture was a perfect backdrop for the art, which, as Phyllis said, “was just the point.”

So when her new gallery called for her to bring out her finest, Phyllis had her housekeeper, Yvonne, polish the silver, and she staged a few magnificent parties. She lit the sconces in the dining room, lined the long table with food in cream-colored bone china, then let the candlelight and wine work their magic on artists and customers alike.

I remember attending a party there for Michael Scott, a landscape painter who studied in Cincinnati whom Phyllis had given his first show before he moved to New Mexico. He and his guests and potential buyers arrived laden with antique silver concha belts and turquoise necklaces, some of them dressed in Nudie suits worth a few thousand dollars each. It was one of the most festive evenings I’ve spent. It paid off in sales and commissions, freeing Phyllis to do more contemporary art, while still selling mainstream paintings on the second floor.

“The Russian painters are collectible now,” she told me that day in the gallery. “But they are maddening. You think you have a show with them in February, and they aren’t ready by January. It takes a lot of patience to deal with them. Still, they’re so worth it when they produce.”

I laughed and wondered who would prevail: the Russians or Phyllis. I imagine she’s an excellent “prodder” after all these years of shepherding artists. The rest of her foursome—Irma, Fred, Leo—are gone now; only she remains. When you’ve lost that kind of friendship, what are a few stubborn Russians? If they think they can outlast her, they’ll be disappointed. Phyllis shows no signs of giving up.

She is one of those people who has become her job, and she tackles it by looking forward, not back. Even so, when I am with her I can’t help but remember the old days.

“Do you remember my giving piano lessons to Yvonne?” I asked her, and she laughed.

“Of course I do,” she said.

When I house-sat for Phyllis and Leo at the mansion I’d work on “Jesus Loves Me” with the housekeeper, Yvonne, on the out-of-tune grand piano in the living room. I did a double-take one day when Yvonne—my “student”—started the tune in G, rolled into C, and took off as if she were channeling Tina Turner.

“And all the chocolate cakes I baked for you when you house-sat,” Phyllis said, musing. We were sitting down now; I had drawn her into my reveries.

“I remember going to Irma’s with you for lunch one day, and [the cook] barely served us a cup of shrimp salad because the two of you were on a fearsome diet,” I said.

“Discipline,” she said, looking at me a little sadly. “Irma was made of steel.”

“You know you’ve been an inspiration to me,” I said, laughing a little tearfully. “You never gave up. I won’t forget that.”

She didn’t say anything. She simply put her hand over mine and looked far away, somewhere over my shoulder.


Photograph courtesy Phyllis Weston
Originally published in the February 2012 issue.

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