McFarland residents Kristin Ellis and her partner, Nicollette, quietly opened the Farwell Gallery on the day after Thanksgiving. Located in a sunny storefront on the first floor of an apartment building on Farwell Street, just west of McFarland High School, the once-empty space inspired Kristin to put her idea of opening an art gallery into reality.
“The concept of opening a gallery was something that had been in my head for years,” said Kristin, “but we hadn’t fully come up with what that vision would be. We found the space and fell in love with it. We had a short amount of time to put it together, but we named the gallery something that was easy to remember and that was visible and recognizable throughout McFarland.”
Kristin and her wife moved to McFarland around five years ago after outgrowing their home on the east side of Madison. They were visiting a friend who lived in McFarland and noticed an open house for a home that was for sale. They took a tour and fell in love with the house. Kristin says McFarland has a lot of small town charm, like what you’d see in a movie.
“Our neighbors brought us cookies when we moved in,” she remembers. “The community is very family-focused. People take care of each other, and they rally around each other.”
In a notable example of local support, the Ellis’ son became paralized when he was 16, and Kristin remembers incredible compassion from the school and members of the community. One of the school teams wanted to do something for her family, so they built wood ramps so their son could get in and out of the house.
“They go above and beyond what I would expect living in a community,” Kristin said. “You get used to living your own life and going through the motions, but here people pause and help others.”
Opening a shop during the COVID crisis is a risk and would give any business owner pause, but Kristin had a gut feeling that the space would work.
“It was a blank canvas. It had sawdust on the floors and wasn’t built out yet. The landlords were incredible with designing the space for our needs. From the layout to the flooring, the lighting, even installing gallery hanging systems, they really went above and beyond to design the space to meet our needs.”
Kristin’s background in art stretches back to ceramics and drawing classes she took in school, which inspired a degree in art therapy and studio art at Edgewood College. Now she creates nature scenes in glass mosaics and experiences firsthand the peaceful effect of creating art.
“I find making art really calming. It’s a way to center myself,” she explains. “It’s definitely something that when times have been stressful or chaotic, it brings me peace. Glass is challenging to work with. It’s actually dangerous to work with. But it’s like putting together a puzzle to make the different pieces make sense to the viewer. Some glass looks different in a window, and the colors look different in the light. It’s a challenge to include more details with smaller and smaller pieces.”
Kristin and Nicollette have a long history of collecting art, including pieces from their travels to Door County. The process of creating, collecting, and enjoying art is something that they enjoy doing together, and it guides the decisions they make on which artists to feature in the gallery.
“My wife and I are different in a lot of ways,” Kristin says with a laugh. “We are different people, but we agree on the artists we work with. We can easily agree on artists that have a wide appeal.”
Prior to opening the gallery, they reached out to artists they admired or who were friends-of-friends, including those who featured their work on Instagram and Etsy. Through a lot of Zoom conversations about the vision for the gallery, they pulled together a diverse mix of styles and stories. Now Kristin spends a lot of time responding to artists who approach Farwell Gallery. While the gallery is small and full, she is always looking for new artists to feature in the future.
The COVID crisis presents other challenges to how they use the space, but it isn’t stopping foot traffic in the shop. Kristin recognizes when gay and lesbian couples stop in and express how happy they are to see the art gallery in McFarland. The holiday season was a busy one. Kristin says it’s an interesting time for artists and for the business of selling art. While for some artists, the pandemic was a barrier to creating art, for others the COVID crisis opened the floodgates of creativity. Artwork is still selling as some workers’ culture shifts into a home-office hybrid in which people don’t want to stare at white walls. The Farwell Gallery is one functional piece of that larger picture of how people are expressing their creativity through artwork.
Kristin is looking to the future and what kinds of classes, events, or creative uses of the space would be welcoming to the community. A watercolor class sold out in two days. She’s looking forward to hosting coffee hours where people can visit the shop with no pressure to buy. She knows new parents could use a quiet place outside of the house to go and enjoy the artwork, a warm cup of coffee, and some conversation.
Though the future of art shows and events is uncertain, the Farwell Gallery will continue to be both a physical space in the McFarland community and a website to sell diverse mediums of art. One area where Kristin believes there could be more diversity among the artists she features is in finding LGBTQ+ artists to work with.
“We don’t have a lot of queer artists right now,” she said. “We would love to work more with queer artists and make space for them to work with us. I love it when queer couples come to visit our space, but we also don’t have a very queer feel to this space. Having more queer artists would definitely be nice.”