Boxy Rebellion

I n the midst of the Audubon Arts District stands an exhibit space that’s three-of-a-kind.

Creative Arts Workshop’s Tiny Gallery—set inside a red, yellow and blue signpost, like an obelisk or a totem, outside the building’s entrance—is New Haven’s only art gallery open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Composed of three glass window boxes that are each 10 3⁄4 inches wide by 10 3⁄4 inches deep and 17 inches tall, it’s not only the city’s smallest gallery but, says CAW’s public relations manager Katherine Spencer Carey, “the smallest in the state and quite possibly, New England.” (Alas, Nashville, Tenn.’s NSAG Gallery, a single box measuring 27” x 37” by 4.5”, lays claim to being the smallest in the world.)

It may indeed be wee, but this mite is mighty. Created in 2008 by New Haven design firm Group C Inc., the post’s original purpose was straightforward: to better signal the workshop’s location. Built in 1972, CAW was angled to face Orange Street, which was effective as long as Audubon Street’s one-way traffic traveled towards Whitney. Later, when the pattern was reversed, “people would drive right past us,” Carey says. So, the city gave CAW funds for relevant improvements to its façade.

At first, the glass boxes inside the colorful pillar were used to house decorative art supplies and pieces of pottery. Then, in 2010, CAW graphic designer (and former communications director) Lesley Holford was inspired to turn the structure into an “official” micro gallery as a way to introduce casual passersby to the workshop and, perhaps, spark something bigger.

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“This is not really about small art,” Holford says. “This is about thought-provoking art, art with big ideas, art not defined by its size, which brings public art to a more intimate, personal scale. I imagined the usual Audubon Street habitués—commuters rushing from the Audubon Court garage to their workplaces, parents dropping kids at lessons and busloads of hipster Educational Center for the Arts students—passing by the Tiny Gallery and taking a moment to reflect on the nature of art, the meaning of life, everything.”

The gallery’s first exhibit, Shoveling Chairs, was an installation of tiny handmade chairs, all different, by CAW drawing and painting faculty member K. Levni Sinanoglu, a sculptural project inspired by Men Shoveling Chairs (Scupstoel), a 15th-century drawing attributed to Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden. Other displays have included Stone-Paper-Scissors by New Haven sculptor Jason Noushin (who divided his themes among the three window boxes), colorful Day of the Dead masks by ceramist Violet Harlow and Victorian Vision, featuring dollhouse-sized miniatures of pots, furniture and bathroom fixtures by Orange-based potter Michael Bradford. One of Carey’s personal favorites was a youthful 2012 exhibit by Southern Connecticut State University student Christa Harlow Blake that consisted of 4-inch tall, Lego-style clay people whose open chest cavities revealed dangling, detailed red hearts.

Currently, the Tiny Gallery is showcasing multimedia artist Susan McCaslin’s micro-rockscapes, composed of hand-painted paper mache “rocks” made from cardboard, newspaper, masking tape and flour paste. Smaller figures and other elements set around the rocks give the same sense of size perspective the viewer experiences in nature, just scaled way down. As a whole, the exhibit is meant to illustrate different kinds of space: personal, communal and emotional.

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Though the gallery’s window-boxes offer two-sided views of their contents (and is lit from top to bottom at night), it still presents challenges to both audience and artist. While most conventional galleries hang their exhibits at eye level, only one of the Tiny Gallery’s windows offers such ease of access—another is set at lower-leg level and the third, well overhead. It’s neither weatherproofed nor climate-controlled, which makes it less than ideally suited for certain kinds of artwork.

Despite those challenges, the Tiny Gallery has definitely succeeded in one of its primary goals: winning attention from neighbors and the respect of those “Audubon Street habitués” that Holford coveted. Executive Director Susan Smith notes that once the mini-gallery was up and running, a frequent visitor to the nearby New Haven Housing Authority even appointed himself its unofficial ambassador. “He’d park himself on an adjacent bench and act as docent for all the passersby,” she says.

As for the gallery’s future, it’s still open to interpretation. CAW is actively looking for a followup to the McCaslin exhibit. “One thought we’ve considered is a mini-painting show by the CAW faculty,” Carey says. As acting Tiny Gallery coordinator, she’d also welcome a micro-installation composed from found objects, as long as it’s “well-thought-out.”

In other words, you just need a great little idea.

The [Tiny] Gallery at Creative Arts Workshop
80 Audubon St, New Haven (map)
Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
(203) 562-4927 | [email protected]

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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A former senior editor at Connecticut Magazine, Pat Grandjean is a cultural omnivore who loves everything from Beck and “Doc Martin” to Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino. She currently spends much of her free time volunteering at the New Haven Animal Shelter and cleaning apartment closets.

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