Art and activism inform each other at a North Shore art gallery

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By Elizabeth Rose, Contributing Writer

Women in Action Huddle

Newburyport – Following the 2016 election, Paula Estey, abstract artist and owner of the Paula Estey Gallery, crawled into bed depressed.  Not only had her preferred candidate lost, but she felt her gender had been undermined by the winner. After two weeks of inner soul searching, she heard a call to build a political movement and to use her art gallery as a physical location for meetings.

“What the heck good is a regular art gallery after an election like that?” she said.

In early February 2017, just two weeks after the Women’s March, she called her first meeting of the Women in Action Huddle of Greater Newburyport. Over 40 women attended, a capacity crowd for her gallery located just steps off the main street in Newburyport, Mass.

By bringing people together she felt an immediate support, but just numbers in a room wasn’t enough. Next she needed to marshal their collective energy towards changing the national narrative that had just been elected to office. The women all agreed that the rhetoric of divisiveness, xenophobia, and the denigration of women’s body parts issuing from a president were a concern. They divided into special interest groups and set action goals for change in education, the environment, racial relations, and political voice.

Through the next two years the gallery continued to sell art as before, but workshops and speakers were added. Topics became more political across a spectrum of national news including women candidates, the environment, organic foods, zero waste and indigenous values. She hit on all hot button issues, including the climate march and Black Lives Matter.

“By March of 2019, we had an exhibition called ‘Ecology’ and two artists presented their own personal ecologies and passion for the environment through their work. This event marked the real beginning of new programming at PEG and our audience was standing room only. For our women’s candidate night, we had 100 people,” Estey said.

Bag Lady initiative of Women in Action

By 2020 the Paula Estey Gallery (PEG) had become the Paula Estey Gallery, A Center for Art and Activism, becoming an active meeting ground for the fusion of artistic creation and bettering the world. For Estey, it’s about mining the deepest and truest relationship between the two concepts, and sometimes this is more poetic than actual.

“You can get speakers about the environment, you can do anything as an activist organization, but for us the art piece is about reverence. What we show has a reverence for all beings, the planet, all sexes, everything, and that’s the bridge for us,” she said.

Today the enterprise has expanded leadership with a staff of four, two advisory boards, and a full board of directors. The operation has applied for nonprofit status which would make it open to tax-deductible donations. Throughout this journey, Estey has reflected a belief that “art and activism is as much about beauty as lighting a fire under somebody.”

“Activism has to be fluid. Where your attention is applied needs to change quickly. And art reminds you-with reverence and sacredness – why you are out there,” she said.

Estey acknowledged that she was born into white privilege as the daughter of an ambitious entrepreneur who pursued a goal from humble roots. He was Frank Crocker Estey, who in 1960 was one of a band of men she called “upstarts from Beverly and Salem” who founded Marshall, Inc., the pioneer “Brand Names For Less” retail store. Her father’s persistence gave her the roadmap, she said.

“What you dedicate your heart to will move your feet,” she said. “Art and activism are as much about beauty as lighting a fire under somebody, because to me beauty does that. I’m dedicated to be an activist center that shows absolutely beautiful art.”

The Paula Estey Gallery is located at 3 Harris Street, Newburyport, MA. For more information visit paulaesteygallery.com or call 978-376-4746.

Photos/submitted