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Wednesday, May 27, 2009 02:10 am

The end of the Prairie House era

Art gallery is closing because Edith Myers, 92, plans to retire

Prairie House today, on Lindbergh Avenue.

Back in the early 1970s, the owner of a downtown Springfield gallery hired metalsmith Joe Spoon to work as the “artist in residence.” The gallery owner provided a small, open studio in the center of the shop, and tended to usher any customer who asked about jewelry straight over to Spoon’s workbench.

“We’d sit down and design a piece of jewelry, and two weeks later they’d come back and pick it up. It was fun,” Spoon says.

One woman brought in a threaded metal pin that had been used to help her husband’s shoulder heal, with a request for Spoon to incorporate it into a special necklace. Another woman brought in vials containing her own surgically-removed gall stones, and Spoon fulfilled her vision by turning them into a pair of pitted pearl-like earrings. Mostly, though, he made custom wedding bands for, by his own estimate, “several hundred people” — including the owners’ son and daughter-in-law — over the course of the four years he worked at the gallery.

Spoon knew exactly why he was there, smack in the middle of what is now Tinsleys Dry Goods, where he felt like he was “working in a fish bowl.” He was there to lure shoppers into the gallery, and that was perfectly fine with him. “[The owners] knew they could do well with someone on site who could design jewelry right there in front of the customers,” he says. “I had a very good time working at Prairie House.”

Spoon exemplifies the kind of mutually beneficial relationship that owner Edith Myers forged between scores of artists and customers to make Prairie House a successful gallery for almost 40 years, first in its downtown location, and later on Springfield’s southwest side.

The gallery’s former location, on Sixth Street in downtown Springfield.

But the Prairie House era is ending: last week, 92-year-old Myers announced that she plans to retire, and that she will close the gallery on June 20. Until then, she will continue working, part-time, along with her daughter-in-law Gale Myers, who manages the shop. “I’m going to be down there while they close the business,” Edith says.

Her son, David Myers, says Edith and his father, Jim Myers — the son of one of the Myers brothers who owned Myers Brothers department store — had at least two motives for creating the gallery: First, they wanted to help Carolyn and Robert Oxtoby and Sarah Bartholf restore the building that had housed Abraham Lincoln’s law office, and for the first few years of Prairie House’s existence, the gallery occupied the ground floor of that historic building. The Myers sold the building to the State of Illinois and in 1985 moved the gallery a few doors south.

Another reason the Myers established the gallery, David says, was to provide a career path for him. “They wanted to give me a purpose in life,” he says. He managed the gallery from its opening in 1970 through 1972, and has since 1983 owned a similarly-named custom frame shop (Prairie House Custom Framing, which is a completely separate entity unaffected by the gallery closing).

But even though the gallery was created for these tangential purposes, it became, David says, his mother’s passion. “The store is the love of her life. She loves the people that come in, and she loves the art,” he says. “It’s the largest contemporary crafts gallery between the two coasts. There’s nothing else like it in terms of size and quality.”

For years, Prairie House had monthly exhibitions featuring ceramicists, jewelers and painters, and Edith would travel to shows to find new artists. Word of the gallery also spread artist-to-artist.

Carolyn Arcure, a New Mexico craftswoman who sells her Storybeads, or “narrative finery,” came to Prairie House 15 years ago on the recommendation of another artist. With degrees in both comparative religion and English literature, Arcure considers the myths and legends she packages with each of her creations to be as important as the jewelry itself, and is choosy about where she sells her work. “If the people in a gallery don’t kind of ‘get’ what this is, it’s just another pretty bead,” she says. “Whenever I’ve sent new things to Prairie House, it’s been much more than just a business relationship. They’ve been incredibly supportive.”

Paul Eshelman, an Illinois potter whose work is distinguished by its clean, simple, contemporary forms, also came to Prairie House around 1988 at the suggestion of a colleague, and sensed Edith’s appreciation of his craft. “There are much easier ways to make a living,” he says. “She did want the gallery to turn a profit, but I think she really cared about craft, and the people she had in there were people whose work she liked.”

Edith Myers, right, still works at Prairie House, which is managed by her daughter-in-law, Gale Myers.

Edith Myers, who has an economics degree from Northwestern University, claims her priority was on business, but her son David believes otherwise. “I think she did it mostly to promote art. I don’t think money was ever a big consideration with her,” he says. In fact, she didn’t accept credit cards until around 1994, instead extending “personal credit” to almost anyone. “She would say, ‘Take it home, we’ll bill you,’ much to my dismay,” David says.

“We had no problems with it ever,” Edith says.

She’s looking forward to finding fresh adventures just as soon as she retires. “I’m going to try to find something new to do,” she says. “I don’t intend to do nothing. You can’t be 92 and do nothing; that would be terrible.”

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