Rene Wiley Studio & Gallery
Jun 01, 2019 09:47AM
When Hurricane Ike struck Galveston Island in September 2008, it uprooted trees, homes, businesses and lives. When the winds died down, and the storm surge retreated back into the Gulf of Mexico, lives were forever changed.
For Galveston artist Rene' Wiley and her husband Ben Wiley, the Category 2 storm altered their lives in a way they hadn’t expected.
A relatively successful artist at the time, Wiley sold upwards of 500 paintings a year. She loved to paint. She loved to create. It was in her DNA - her mother, the late- Janet Clugston-Ressling, also was an artist - and Ben knew what his wife had accomplished had barely tapped her talent.
With her studio heavily damaged by the hurricane, Ben Wiley saw an opportunity for change, and an opportunity to expand his wife’s joy of expression through art.
Through friends, he heard that a storefront at 2128 Postoffice St. in the island’s downtown arts district was available. He wanted to lease the space and open a gallery and studio, where they could showcase Rene' Wiley’s work, where she could teach classes, and where they could play a more active role in ArtWalk. This self-guided tour of Galveston’s thriving art scene held every eight weeks promotes the creative energy of the island and provides a great opportunity to explore the many arts venues in Galveston.
He crunched the numbers. “I thought at the very least it would pay for itself,” Ben Wiley says.
“But Rene’ was very reluctant to have a gallery, and we discussed it back and forth. She was in several galleries, including one here in Galveston; she did not want to have a place she had to go every day; she has no interest in business; and she’s actually quite shy and unassuming and did not feel comfortable interacting with the public. She just wanted to paint.”
But he convinced her - and on June 8, the Rene' Wiley Studio & Gallery celebrates its 10th anniversary with a party to coincide with ArtWalk.
“Rene' has been an ArtWalk staple and is an anchor for all of the activity happening along Postoffice Street,” says Dennis Nance, curator of Galveston Arts Center, 2127 Strand.
“Their business is a family affair, with her daughters Rachel and Samantha also being working artists. Her work and the artists she represents are appealing to visitors looking for work that reflects Galveston and the coastal environment.”
In addition to showcasing Wiley’s oil paintings and canvas giclée prints, and the work of the couple’s two daughters - Rachel Wiley-Janota (mixed-media paintings and canvas giclée prints, and photography) and Samantha Wiley (commission oil portraits, and photography) - the gallery also represents a collection of fine art from several local artists.
These include James Phillips (wood sculpture), Brenda J, Bunten Schlosser (hand-dyed mosaic textile tapestry), Dale Hooks (hand-turned wood bowls, acrylic abstract painting), and Bill Meek (glass sculptures).
Ben Wiley runs the gallery and handles the logistics of installing the art, the behind-the-scenes work that goes into running a successful business, and is a constant presence on site.
“I work very hard to make customers feel welcome and to help them find what they are looking for. It seems to be working,” says Wiley, a former fishing guide, who left the cockpit to manage the gallery.
“The saying at our house is ‘Mom does not want to run a business, and Dad - me - can’t paint.’ So we have a strong division of labor, and Rene' can just do what she loves to do. Paint.”
The couple recently moved off Galveston Island to nearby Hitchcock to be closer to their grandchildren, Jackson, 3, and 1-month-old Charlie by daughter Rachel; 6-year-old Neva by daughter Samantha; and Henry, 7, Mary, 5; Teddy, 3; and Constance, 1, by daughter Sarah (Wiley) Thomas.
The empty-nesters live in a 900-square-foot farmhouse on two acres, where Wiley spends much of her time in a 500-square-foot studio, surrounded by green grass and large, leafy trees, which Wiley - a self-proclaimed introvert - says both suits her sensibilities and fuels her inspiration.
“It feels very private and close to nature,” she says. “I have room to plant any tree, shrub or plant, and I want them all! There are so many birds, which are one of my favorite subjects. I am perfectly happy working alone in my studio all day. I would much rather paint than go to a party.”
A prolific artist, Wiley’s work embodies the beauty of Galveston Island, from its stunning Victorian architecture of the East End, to the Gulf of Mexico, wetlands, harbors, beaches, and marine life. Her signature style is the use of bold harmonious colors, geometric patterns of light, form and shadow, and thick swabs of paint and bold brushstrokes to create texture, which makes the painting seem as if it’s alive, much like the work of the Post-Impressionists Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne.
Wiley, who has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, first realized there was an audience for her artist vision when her children were young.
“I was hand painting T-shirt outfits when my kids were very small and was surprised how well they sold. It was becoming a successful business, but I felt I was going in the wrong direction, so I just stopped. Ben thought I had lost my mind,” the artist says.
She and her mother took a one-week workshop with a painter from Taos, New Mexico - Ray Vinella, “and I knew I was on the right path. After that experience, I spent all day, everyday working in my studio, mostly on paintings no one ever saw, because I had to find my way first.”
When she first began working with oils, Wiley says she was most inspired by impressionism, “however, I have let one painting of mine lead to the next. … I wasn’t sure I could make a living, but I found gallery representation easier to find than I had thought it would be, and that inspired me to keep at it. I just worked and worked every day while the kids were at school and then I worked some more. I was moderately successful and sold well in several galleries.”
She found inspiration all around her - particularly the work of renowned California artist John Asaro (1937-2017), a brilliant colorist known for his use of a palette knife and sumptuous, flowing brushwork to create his light-filled paintings of the female figure, and his penchant of mixing clove oil into his paints to encourage the paints to dry more slowly.
“John Asaro was one of those painters whose work I felt emotionally connected to,” she says. “I was fortunate enough to take a workshop with Mr. Asaro.”
Wiley credits Vinella, Asaro, and other painters - including Darlene Wall, Nancy Busch, Kent Wallis, Connie Connolly, and her late-mother - for helping her evolve as an artist and to be rooted in artistic honestly.
“Because my mother had an excellent art background, I depended on her sincere critiques of my work, something I believe every artist needs. She also gave great technical support. Her advice that has resonated is ‘always look honestly and critically at your own work.’” she says.
“Style comes from honesty, you doing your work, the world filtered through your heart and mind. You learn what to keep and what to discard and, hopefully, a style unique to you evolves. When asked, Ben just calls my style ‘Rene’ Wiley’s.’”
Galveston artist J.A. Soukup, who is known for his dynamic maritime landscapes, calls Wiley “the islands most successful artist. Her art is upbeat, colorful, and lends to the island spirit, which is probably the reason for its popularity,” Soukup says.
“She uses loose brushwork to produce impressionistic Galveston scenes, with occasional random brushstrokes of some complimentary color. This is her trademark style. Rene' adheres tightly to her style and subject matter, and in doing so, she has something in common with the world's most successful artists - consistency. Along with years of hard work, these things may be the keys to her success.”
Collector Cary Russell and his husband Douglas Lloyd first visited the Rene' Wiley Studio & Gallery in 2016. The couple now own seven Wiley originals.
“The first time we went to the gallery, Douglas and I decided to start purchasing her original paintings instead of buying each other Christmas gifts, birthday gifts, anniversary gifts, etcetera,” says Russell, a perioperative registered nurse at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Cypress, Texas.
“That way, we know over the years what we bought each other rather than doing the guessing game of, ‘Honey, what did I buy you for your birthday last year or Christmas?’”
Russell says they are both drawn to “the energy” that emanates from Wiley’s work. “Douglas and I consider it a joy and privilege to collect such beautiful art.”
The first original Wiley they purchased - a 40-inch by 50-inch canvas titled "Two to One" - was purchased on January 2, 2016. Since then, they’ve acquired "Stalking Scarlet Ibis" (30-inch by 48-inch), "The Color Scarlett" (36-inch by 48-inch), "View from the Galvez" (30-inch by 30-inch), "Mates in the Mix" (30-inch by 30-inch), "Stalking" (20-inch by 16-inch), and "Vigilant" (20-inch by 12-inch).
“Now we walk through our house, which many of our friends call the Houston Rene' Wiley Gallery, and we know exactly what we bought each other as gifts.”
Harry and Francis St. John, who live two blocks from the gallery on Postoffice, own eight Wiley originals.
“Her paintings are both fun and calming. Her birds are graceful, as they are in real life,” Harry St. John says.
“She depicts the motion of flight very well. All of her works draw the viewer to them. Never do we take her paintings for granted. We love those the most. Three of her bird paintings are hung in a row at a height of 11 feet on a kitchen wall. They look striking in flight on that wall.”
The gallery, he says, “is the best of the best in our art district. Rene' is always working to vary her Galveston subjects that she gives to our community. We love all her work, and Ben does a great job showing it all off.”
Like the St. Johns, Claire Wilkins is drawn to Wiley’s use of color and light, and the feeling she gets when she gazes at Wiley’s work - but she is most attracted to the images themselves and what they represent.
“My husband and I bought our home in Galveston right before Hurricane Ike; we moved in about three months later,” Wilkins says.
“I would walk daily throughout the deserted downtown area and located her gallery, noting when it would open. I went back one day and discovered it closed, so I window-shopped. I was about to leave when Rene' came walking up from lunch with her friend. That day, I purchased my very first Rene' Wiley, the original ‘Balinese Reflected’."
Today, the couple owns seven of her pieces, including "Arch de Tremont," a scene of the Mitchell Mardi Gras arch, “and still wet when I bought it.”
Longtime Wiley friends Cynthia and John Smith are among the couple’s most ardent fans. The Smiths own six original oil paintings and several giclée pieces.
It was John Smith who helped Ben Wiley find the space that now is home to the popular gallery.
“I visit a lot of galleries, and I used to see Rene’s paintings in only one gallery, and a limited amount there,” John Smith says. “Ben told me that the sales were limited, and I thought, ‘he has to be kidding.’ He and I talked about a gallery and what he could do with one.”
Though he helped located the site for the Rene' Wiley Studio & Gallery, the vision - and the subsequent success - Smith says, goes to the artist’s inherent talent and her husband’s belief in that talent. “Ben is a natural salesperson and the drive to create a space for her falls to him.”
Cynthia Smith says even if the Wileys weren’t friends, they’d be collectors.
“John and I love her style and technique. We love that - depending on the way the light hits the paintings and distance you are from it - you get an entirely different perspective,” she says. “Rene’s art warms my heart and brings a smile to my face.”
"We love Galveston, and her art is an incredible representation of this island. Anyone who crosses the causeway can describe the feeling of relaxation and the release of stress as you near,” Smith says. “Her paintings remind you of this place, its charms, and gives you the same feeling as being here.”
Soukup says where professional success is elusive for most artists, Rene' Wiley has - like a Texas wildcatter drilling for oil - tapped into a gusher that benefits both the artist and the community.
“This is the business of selling something that no one truly needs, and so the line between success and failure can be perilously fragile. That being the case, support from others is invaluable to the struggling artist, even by the smallest measure,” Soukup says.
“Rene' has had the good fortune of having her family's support and involvement during her journey as a professional artist. Consequently, Galveston has benefited tremendously.“
The Wiley family has worked hard towards providing high quality art, through a first-class art gallery, he says. “Without the Wileys and their combined efforts, there would be a gaping void in Galveston's art scene.”