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@Work: Gallery St. Thomas

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Nov. 26, 2006 — Atop the Crystal Shoppe on Main Street exists another world — a quieter, gentler space, far removed from the bustle of its downtown location.
Claire Ochoa is the creator of Gallery St. Thomas; it is her love. It is where she brings artist and collector together. The spacious 2500-square-foot gallery breathes creativity and color. Art from about 30 Caribbean artists covers the white slatted walls. (The slats make it possible to move paintings instantly, making new arrangements.)
About six years ago Ochoa moved to the Virgin Islands from Texas, where she had managed a gallery with her then-husband, an artist. She worked for St. John's Bajo el Sol Gallery for about three years before moving to St. Thomas. "They gave me my wings," she says. "The owner, Aimee Trayser, encouraged me to grow, to go out on my own."
Another break came when Alex Treml, owner of the Bela Bleu restaurant in Frenchtown, asked Ochoa to coordinate his monthly shows. Walls of the small dining spot always feature work by local artists.
"Alex was also encouraging," Ochoa says. "I'd been selling artwork online, but I wanted my own gallery, and when the Blue Turtle Gallery on Garden Street became available, I took it."
Ochoa opened the gallery in November 2003, after which she moved for about a year to the Grand Hotel downtown before finding her present location about a year ago. Her cousin, Selwyn Puig, owns the Crystal Shoppe downstairs.
Though Ochoa admits she has taken painting lessons, she says she is not an artist, nor does she wish to be. She holds artists in a special regard.
"Riding on the ferry," she says, "I look at the water, its beauty, and I wonder how in the world do you express what you see?"
She cherishes her role as a steward in bringing together artists and collectors. It is a unique talent. Her eye is always fresh, exploring new things.
"It's all about connecting," Ochoa says, "Connecting the art to the collector."
In the past three years she has learned much, Ochoa says: "I was naive in some things. For instance, in the time it takes to build support between the artist and the collector. Some collectors are informed; they don't want to know, or don't care to know, the price, the history. You have to know when to step into their circle of interest, and when to back away."
Ochoa insists she is not an "art snob." "I try to be aware, be objective," she says. "I learned that from my mother growing up. Some people have small prints, and they consider that a collection. I try to be a mature presence, connecting the collector to the artists. I listen to what people are interested in."
Along with local business, Ochoa's tourist market has grown. "I have repeat business with visitors who collect a certain artist, or are interested in a Caribbean theme," she says. "If, say, they want a certain painting which has sold, I keep note of their interest, and I correspond with them if a similar piece comes in."
The gallery is nothing if not eclectic. Filling the generous space are bold nudes, seascapes, photos with minute details of sea life or flowers, large oils of local life, watercolors, wood work, sculpture and more.
Ochoa walks over to an area devoted to the work of William Stoehr, a St. John artist who began painting a little more than two years ago after a long career as president of National Geographic's map operations. Stoehr has turned his talent to mapping nudes using slabs of vibrant color. They are alive — they almost jump off the wall.
The gallery owner knows her painters, and she knows painting. Walking over to one of the nudes, she says, "He is a bold painter." She points out a juncture in a painting where several colors connect. "Look at this," she says, "He didn't stop here and say, 'Should I put in a little more yellow?' He has the courage to do these nudes. He isn't tentative; he is committed."
A short way from Stoehr's paintings hangs the work of revered local artist David Millard — a short walk from Stoehr, but miles away in concept. Millard's watercolors have gained national recognition over a career that spanned six decades. He died in 2002, but his widow, Edith, shares his work with the community. Beginning in 1959, the Millards lived between St. Thomas, where Edith still lives, and Massachusetts. The community reveres Millard, and he taught dozens of locals over the years. His watercolors of local scenes, of flowers, are recognized for their inventive color relationships. They are beautiful.
"We had a show for David, 'The Joy of Watercolor,' in February, and it was a magical evening, a beautiful event," Ochoa says. "People who know each other, and who David has influenced, all gathered together. His son, Peter, and his wife came down from New York."
A multitude of local artists also show in Ochoa's gallery, with more than 30 on display now, including the paintings and prints of Lucinda Schutt, the massive oils of Diane Kreiner, the photography of Gary Felton, the metal sculpture of Trudi Gilliam and the oils of Gregory Samuel.
One table holds the works of St. John artists. Photographer Steve Simonsen's book, Living Art, sits beside the wooden sculptures of Avelino Samuel. Ochoa picks up one of the wooden pieces and, holding it gently, says, "I grew up with an affinity for turned wood; I learned from my father."
A corner in the front of the gallery is devoted to Haitian art from the vibrant collection of Carol Sirhakis, who has brought art from Haiti to St. Thomas for years.
Prices range from a $20 watercolor by Terri Jones to $10,000 oils. In fact, there are Christmas cards for $15 for a pack of 12 from Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of the Virgin Islands, an agency that helps abused and neglected children. The cards feature the highly original and whimsical paintings of local school children.
Ochoa looks perfectly at home in her gallery, in her element. A tall, graceful woman, she has long auburn hair curling to her shoulders. Her gracious manner puts visitors at ease in what could be an intimidating world of sophisticated work. She loves to talk about her artists, and she loves to express her gratitude for her life.
Earlier this month Ochoa and Janelle Zachman ran the New York Marathon for the first time. "It was so humbling," she says. "You see all sorts of people — the physically challenged. There was a fellow who had no legs and moved himself along on two metal, rounded sort of spring legs. There were lots of people in wheelchairs.
"We painted our legs, on one saying 'Virgin Islands' and, on the other, 'Be Grateful,'" she says. "And people cheered us along, yelling for the V.I. Then, in the Bronx, we stopped and danced with some people doing a calypso show. Nobody could believe we really stopped."
She adds, "It was so emotional. I'm still processing my feelings from it."
As she talks, Ochoa's mother, Sara Laas, busily attends to the gallery as folks walk in. She is visiting for a couple months. Otherwise, Ochoa says she has a bookkeeper, and sales associate Melissa King, who works a couple days a week, and is invaluable in getting the artwork shipped and packed for off island orders. The gallery is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. six days a week, and on Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. if there are ships in.
A couple of potential customers — boaters, by the looks of them — return to the gallery for another look at Gary Felton's panoramic photograph, "Early Morning Squall." Ochoa and her mother lean down, where the large piece rests against the wall, to show it to better advantage. Then mother and daughter step back to let the customers look on their own.
"We're going for now," one of the visitors says, but you get the distinct feeling th
ey will soon come back.
St. Thomas does not have a large art scene, but what's here is close-knit. Every month Ochoa has a show of local artists at Bela Bleu.
"They are so wonderful, the people who work there," she says. "They will call me at night if someone wants something. They all know the art, and they can speak knowledgeably about it."
Ochoa can be reached at 777-6363, or visit St. Thomas Gallery online. The gallery is located across the street from Cardow Jewelers.
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