Phyllis Hernandez opened the doors of Sala de Arte, located at 4828 E. Ninth St., on May 8, 2021, more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hernandez works at the North-East Branch of the Kansas City Public Library as a -, and was one of the artists who worked on the mural behind – on Independence Avenue in 2020.
“After I did the mural last summer, it motivated me to want to create more art,” Hernandez said. “I’d been looking all over Northeast, and I reached out to Bobbi [Baker-Hughes] and Rebecca [Koop], and said, ‘I’m looking for a studio, just somewhere quiet where I can create art.’”
The space Hernandez is renting faces the Ninth and Van Brunt Athletic Fields. Hernandez was struggling to find a place, but after one of her daughter’s soccer games across the street, she pulled out of the parking lot and her eyes caught the FOR RENT sign in the window of the lofted storefront. When she walked into the brick-walled room with its high ceilings and lights, although it was small, she knew it was perfect.
Nearly a dozen artists displayed their talent at an open house on the evening of July 10. Aside from a monthly open house, Hernandez has started keeping the gallery open every Saturday from 12 to 5 p.m. so people can browse. They’ll eventually open on Sundays for the same hours, and Hernandez hopes to add more local artists and mediums as the gallery grows.
“[I wanted] to give the opportunity for the people in this community a chance to showcase their work,” Hernandez said. “It’s an outlet for that hidden talent, like Batula works at the library and I never knew she was as talented as she is.”
Batula Hussein grew up volunteering at the North-East Branch of the Kansas City Public Library, and after graduating from the University of Missouri – Kansas City, she returned to work as a library assistant. She paints, draws, and does henna, but didn’t think it would ever be possible to show her artwork in her own neighborhood.
“I just like things that get me out of everyday life,” Hussein said. “When I’m painting or when I’m reading I don’t have to think about anything, like my mind kind of goes blank and I enjoy that time. It feels like another way to get away without really having to do a lot.”
When the library was closed because of COVID, the staff would hold weekly Zoom meetings, which would often end by sharing progress on different creative projects. In September Hernandez is planning an open house with library staff to show off their variety of talents including quilting, graphic novels, jewelry and painting.
Not only is it an art gallery, but Hernandez wants to invite people to create art. She keeps it stocked with paint, canvases, clay and other supplies for both children and adults.
Many of the artists displaying work have been drawn to the Northeast over the years, but Daniel Garcia-Roman has been here his whole life. He now serves as the Youth Advocate and Teaching Artist at Mattie Rhodes Center.
Garcia-Roman’s inspiration changes every day. A year ago, it would have been for self-affirmation and self-expression, but going forward, his art is about showing the affinity and presence of Latino people. He’s working on being more intentional with his artwork, as he realizes artists of color can sometimes feel pressured to represent their culture and their people.
“I’m happy that I don’t have one medium,” Garcia-Roman said. “Artists of color shouldn’t be burdened by their lived experiences – or any burden, really – an artist label.”
He displayed paintings of scenes inspired by both places he’d traveled and his own urban neighborhood, prints and a collage at the open house. Garcia-Roman’s work shares a wall with some of the artists he looks up to, like Isaac Tapia and Rico Alvarez, both well-known muralists in Kansas City, and Chico Sierra.
“They have their works in many spaces, but they’re all about not occupying those spaces, wanting other artists to come before them,” Garcia-Roman said. “They’re not limited by a culture or an artist label.”
Within the past year with his work at Mattie Rhodes, Garcia-Roman has shifted his focus to teaching art. He and Hernandez plan to host a painting class for adults at the gallery who haven’t had the opportunity to create.
“There’s a lot of guys we know that like to create, but it’s that hidden talent, but they don’t do anything,” Hernandez said. “They go to that nine-to-five job supporting their families.”
“You’re already an artist in ways you don’t know about,” Garcia-Roman said. “We say poems in our head without writing them down, we daydream paintings in our head, it’s just a matter of starting somewhere, putting it into the world.”
“Daniel walked into the library just a few months ago, first time I met him, and we were talking about Mattie Rhodes’ student art, and he wanted a place to showcase the student art, but because COVID the library’s not doing that right now,” Hernandez said. “I started thinking there isn’t a place to showcase art in the Northeast neighborhood.”
She admires the grassroots efforts of Art Garden, which meets every Sunday on Lexington Avenue, and appreciates the art shows that happen every so often at the Northeast Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Growth Gallery (EGG), but they’re not open all the time.
Luis Alfredo Gonzalez grew up in Independence, Mo., but was born in the Bronx. A true 90’s kid, his painting style is inspired by New York City’s energetic punk era, using scraps wood as canvas.
“Any issue I have, this is why I paint,” Gonzalez said. “These paintings all have a meaning to me… Some of them I’ll wear my heart on my sleeve, but some of them it’s tough to truly be open.”
Kye Stone, who relocated from Seattle, Wa., to Northeast Kansas City about a year ago, worked on live portraits on the sidewalk outside on the balmy summer evening.
“A lot of these artists have full-time jobs, they have families to support, so art may not have been their first career, but they have that hidden talent,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez has lived in Historic Northeast for about 20 years. Despite the number of artists who reside here, for as long as she can remember there hasn’t been a gallery located in Northeast. Garcia-Roman added that there’s barely a handful of gallery spaces east of Troost.
She said many artists don’t realize the talent they have, and often charge low rates on their work to bring in extra income. Hernandez doesn’t take any commission from the artists, and she hopes having a place to display their art will help them see what it is worth.
“I get excited when a painting sells because that just means we’re doing something for the community,” Hernandez said.
Sala de Arte will host its next open house on August 14 from 5 to 9 p.m. with new art in the gallery and local musicians playing on the sidewalk.