Professor, grad start underground art gallery

Egbert Vongmalaithong (right) and a friend explored “Body Dirt” at the Refrigerator Art Space on Nov. 9.

Inga Schunn
Contributing Writer

When thinking of an art gallery, most people might envision a large white room — but not for VCU Photography and Film graduate student Janelle Proulx and professor Dana Ollestad. Inspired by other similar projects in neighboring cities like Charlottesville, the duo decided to host one-night gallery shows in their garage.

Proulx and Ollestad named their gallery “The Refrigerator Art Space,” referencing both its size and casual atmosphere. The gallery, located at 2708 Floyd Ave., was created last year. They have hosted three shows since, the latest being “Body Dirt,” which took place on Nov. 9.

“If you’re going to have a space that’s non-institutional — in that you have complete freedom — you might as well be playful,” Ollestad said. “We want the Refrigerator Art Space to be a place where people can show work that can’t be shown anywhere else.”

The gallery focuses on day-to-day issues that viewers can connect with.

“(Our themes) have always been generated through everyday conversations,” Ollestad said. “I like that because it seems to be really timely. It’s about what’s going on right now.”

Ollestad and Proulx call for submissions using flyers, social media and registering their show on sites such as, a website advocating international communication in the emerging college arts community.

Encouraging a wide reach and worldly approach to art even in an alternative gallery setting helps students see their work as universal and transforms them into professional artists instead of just students.

“We like to deal with students because we can break from the traditional hierarchical structures of education,” Ollestad said. “We like showing student work, but not thinking of it like student work.”

For their show “Body Dirt,” the grads accepted 22 artists out of 50 submissions to exhibit their work. The pieces ranged from eight-foot-tall retiring parade floats to a tiny two-inch toothpaste pieta.

Marisa Finos, a second-year graduate student in the crafts and ceramics department, displayed one of her sculptures at “Body Dirty.” The piece is a human-sized cocoon made of tissues and rice paste.

“It stands as an object, but also as a space for someone to occupy,” Finos said. “It (fits) into the show because I’m not using any artificial materials and it deals with the figure.”

Finos, hailing from Holliston, Mass., was excited to be included in the show as she likes the idea of a more relaxing atmosphere in a gallery and its ability to help some audiences be more receptive to certain types of art work.

The show also included some undergraduate works. John Stavas, a sophomore in the film department, said his piece was inspired by Mary Shelley’s famous novel “Frankenstein.” The sculpture he presented is made of alginate, a material used by dentists to cast molds for retainers and braces. This was Stavas’s first time showing his artwork in Virginia.

“I enjoy galleries that aren’t really focused on the art, but (rather) the experience of being in a space where everyone is trying to communicate ideas,” Stavas said. “I think it’s an important process for a young artist to just be out there and put out their work.”

With so many visual art events in Richmond, the Refrigerator staff has to adjust quite a bit. “Body Dirt” was moved back twice in order to not interfere with Broad Street’s First Fridays and Gallery 1708’s InLight festival this past Friday.

“We’re always trying to be aware of what’s going on around town so people will be able to come to the event,” Proulx said.

To Proulx, the work put into each show is well worth it, because being passionate about art is what it’s all about.

“With the shows only being one night it generates community … there’s an immediacy to it, so it gets everyone together,” Proulx said.

The Refrigerator curators aren’t sure when the next show will be, but to find out more about their work and other news in the local underground art scene, visit the group’s Facebook page.

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