The spring of 1962 marked the time when a group of widely divergent, but professional artists joined forces, envisioning a non-commercial art gallery where their work could be shown on a continuing basis without institutional restrictions. Co-founders Eva Abou-Ghorra and Patricia Packard Moore, who served as the gallery’s first president, approached other ‘outsiders to the Fresno art scene of the day’ who they considered ‘forward-looking artists’ proposing the concept of a cooperative gallery that was to be Fresno’s first avant-garde gallery.
In the early 1960s, the Fresno Arts Center (now the Fresno Art Museum) was in a loft above a store on Fulton Street while the Tuesday Group, consisting of water-colorists painting together out in the surrounding landscape, were Fresno’s two existing formal on-going art venues. Ultimately, the nine responding artist representing a wide range of disciplines, who endorsed Abou-Ghorra and Moore’s original concept, recognized the need for another space where art-work could be shown. The Fig Tree Gallery Charter members were Abou-Ghorra, Jerry Dahlinger, Dean Dallin, Amy Kasai, Moore, Robert Ogata, Varaz Samuelian, Howard Statham and Marion Young. Both Moore and Statham have resigned as members while Ogata remains an active member–all three credit their years as Fig Tree members important to their personal development as creative, productive artists.
Following the first group showing of work by Fig Tree Gallery members in the Fresno Community Theater (no longer in existence) located on the old Fresno State College campus near McKinley Street, the gallery was commissioned by the Bullard High School Class of 1962 to design and implement a 17 by 11 foot mosaic mural of a fig tree symbolizing growth and maturation for the Bullard High School Senior Court. The inscription on the mosaic reads, in part, “No great thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes, or a fig.” The fig tree was chosen to represent life’s ripening cycle because the school served the community when it was built on ground where fig orchards had been replaced by homes. In its earliest inception, the Fig Tree Gallery accomplished one of its major goals listed within its working constitution–“To facilitate contact between artists and those who wish to commission art works and those seeking information on art.” Other aims of the gallery as stated in its constitution were: “To provide a gallery for the exhibition and sales of works, not only by members, but by other local artists, the high caliber of which it believes the public is insufficiently aware. To provide classroom space for teachers-members,” and fourthly, “To create an informal place for artist and laymen, novice and connoisseur, to meet, browse and converse.”
By December of 1962, the gallery opened its doors at 144 North Van Ness Avenue for an exhibition in celebration of the first space where the gallery would make its home until its second move to 1459 North Van Ness Avenue in July of 1971. That first December opening exhibition included the work of all nine Charter Members, augmented by that of three new members, Wayne Armstrong, Dave Barber, and Mary Maughelli. Demonstrations of pottery and print making methods by several artists along with an extensive display of paintings, drawings, photography, sculpture, prints, pottery, textiles, and stitchery created an exciting environment for Fig Tree Gallery’s beginning and the years that would follow. Of note, Robert Ogata would celebrate his first solo exhibition of recent paintings in February of 1963 and Varaz Samuelian, a painter, would create his first sculpture constructed of iron, nails, spark plugs, pipe and mosaic in the September of 1963. Art classes commenced in late September, the first, “Materials of the Artist” taught by Moore, followed by a painting class offered by Samuelian, a ceramic and mosaic class taught by Abou-Ghorra, and a print workshop headed by Young. Dave Barber would offer an eight-session course, “Expression Through Photography” while Joan O’Brien would teach a class, “Motion and Music for Pre-Schoolers.” Charter officers of the cooperative gallery were: Moore, president; Dallin, vice-president; Young, secretary; Abou-Ghorra, treasurer; and Samuelian, director-at-large.
In 1974, Fig Tree Gallery moved their quarters to 1536 Fulton Street making extensive remodeling of the space in 1984; that same year Gallery 25, a woman’s cooperative gallery, because the next-door neighbor at 1526 Fulton Street. Collaborations followed between the two galleries presenting exciting challenges to viewers as both presented current art practices organized around differing exhibitions grounded in divergent philosophies. The grandiose expansion of the Fresno Metropolitan Museum (now extinct) and their purchase of the Fulton Street properties for future development brought about another move for Fig Tree Gallery to quarters now currently located at 644 Van Ness Avenue. Necessitating change because of studio costs, membership has expanded and member solo exhibitions are more limited. However, the current location has become a hub for Fresno’s cultural art scene with neighboring Gallery 25 at 660 Van Ness. The Richard Silva and Dixie Salazar Studios occupy the building between the two galleries, around the corner is Corridor 2122, and, on the same street, three artist studios occupy the old Fresno Bus Barn Building, one of which, houses Ogata’s studio. The Fresno Art Council’s successful Art Hop on the first Thursdays of each month brings droves of people to the area that anticipate visiting the galleries and studios located in Fresno’s downtown.
Recognized as a gallery dedicated to contemporary approaches in art making along with a willingness to experiment became the characteristic common among the gallery’s most forward looking members. Seldom representative, abstractions of nature were a hallmark of many of the Fig Tree artists whose work represented a highly individualist approach to art making. Much of the work exhibited was experimental, often by a synthesis of processing the intellectual with the intuitive. The duality and contradictions found in humanistic concerns presented challenges that often were present in the theme exhibitions. Cooperative outreach to community organizations became successful demonstrations of political alliances–the exhibition, “No More Hiroshimas,” presented in August of 1986 brought together community organizations and anti-war groups in a presentation of a program featuring not only a multimedia exhibition in tandem with Gallery 25, but also a musical presentation of traditional songs and contemporary Japanese musical work by the Nadeshiko Japanese Chorus of Fresno followed by a reading of Fresno poet Philip Levine.
Other theme exhibits featured the intelligently sly and off beat humor often exhibited in work balancing more serious concerns. “Heat” of 1984 was exhibited during September’s heat wave. The cartoon-style drawing entitled “Hot Air Over Dallas” depicted the Republican Convention as a sea of placards bearing buzz words such as “Church,” “Apple Pie,” “Nancy,” “Ronnie Baby,” “Mom,” and the “Flag.” Another challenge to members growing out of the “theme” concept was a show entitled “Furniture” where the art created was based on associations made by the word furniture. “Fabrications” of 1980 coincided with the regional meeting of the conference of the Northern California Handweavers and the Fresno Art Museum’s exhibition of fiber art. Other collaborations include those with the Fresno Philharmonic Orchestra, the Fresno Chapter of Ikebana International. Curated exhibitions, group shows, invitationals, annual Christmas exhibitions along with the theme and solo exhibitions have made for a richness of varied experiences over many years. Gallery members have adapted to the changing times and to the ever-present challenges of a cooperative venture. By continuing support for the mature work of long-time members, embracing the aspirations of new members along with presenting challenges to the arts community, the Fig Tree Gallery can anticipate many years of continued success as Fresno’s longest surviving cooperative gallery.
Jacquelin Pilar, February 2012