Written by Laura M. Oliver
When you see the gallery’s exterior it is obvious they have lovingly invested in their new building; the brick and paneling is painted a beautiful off-white color, creating a stark contrast to their older red brick neighbors. As you look through the front window an easel is set up with a mostly finished painting so passersby can see work being done. Jorge is an artist. He paints in many mediums, does art restoration and works with antiques. There is always something to see through that window.
Jorge and Carla Suarez opened Agora Art Studio in November of 2013 and they picked the neighborhood on purpose. Although they met and married in Spain, he eventually wanted to return to the United States. She wanted to be near the ocean. Fearing the seismic dangers of the West Coast, they began their U.S tour in New York. “We headed south but when we got to North Carolina we knew we went too far.” So they decided on Hampton Roads. “We just felt it was the right place.”
The couple is modeling their gallery after one they saw in Liverpool years ago, while on holiday. It was just a small shop displaying only a few dozen rotating pieces but the innovative idea to the Suarez was the studios. In addition to the display areas, the gallery rented studios to several local artists. By bringing multiple artists to a single location to both create and market their art, the gallery its self was a wellspring of creative energy which drew in the community. And that is precisely what they hope to replicate at Agora.
When you walk inside the music floats softly above the beautiful paintings, Peruvian ceramics and custom jewelry. In the back renovations are underway for multiple spaces for studio spaces, workshops, demonstrations and classes. Jorge’s goal is to eventually have “the artists who rent space here to show their work in the gallery.”
“We want this place to be very busy,” Carla says. I laughed and told her I think all small businesses would like that. She went on to explain that more than anything they are trying to grow a community. They want their studio to be a place where artists come to work and inspire each other; a place where ideas can flow freely and creativity knows no limits.
Their community involvement plans are also admirable. They just had a local art competition–the winner was a Portsmouth painter named Thomas Mc Laughlin and his work will be hanging in the studio until June 6th. They are working with the city to do a retrospective on South Norfolk. They have also reached out to the Chesapeake Public Schools to begin an annual high school art competition.
Their desire is to draw in people in the neighborhood who might otherwise miss it. Students who might have potential, but lack resources and regular people who think art is only for the wealthy. “When people come into our gallery we have to look at the soul of the people. They are exactly the same as us.” So they bought and are building their dream, in a strip mall, between a barbershop and a hair salon, in Chesapeake Virginia.