While the walls at the Gallery at Round Top are a feast for the eyes, the gallery’s focal point is a plushly upholstered bench situated just to the right of the door. The bench is where Lucy, a King Charles Cavalier and Coton De Telear mix and the queen of public relations, presides over her realm. For perspective, the braided leather bench designated for two-legged patrons is about one-third the size of hers.
She is a friendly monarch descending from her throne every time the door rattles and greeting each visitor with a wagging tail. Head pats, ear scratches and belly rubs are the admission price. Unlike most queens, Lucy rolls on the floor and licks her guests’ fingers.
Lucy is generous with her affection. On the day of my visit, she shared her bench with me as I conducted this interview. She spent the afternoon nestled in the small of my back leaving only to pad around the gallery and check on other guests.
She handles her job with aplomb. Recently, a young family with three small children stopped in the gallery. The parents issued the standard warning to their brood: “Don’t touch anything.”
The parents didn’t take Lucy and the power of belly rubs into account. As the children and Lucy began to play on the floor, Karen Vernon, a nationally recognized artist and gallery co-owner, took a set of bronze turtles from one of the display cases and put them in the children’s hands. She then gave them an impromptu lesson in the art of bronze casting.
“Art shouldn’t be intimidating,” Vernon said. “The gallery was created with the hope that it would become the heart and soul of the community, a beautiful gathering place where people can connect with each other and the power of creativity.”
The children left knowing fine art was accessible.
And Lucy got her own song.
When the visiting father remarked on Lucy’s impeccable behavior, Vernon noted that she has “gallery manners during the day, but turns into Lucifer at night.”
The off-hand comment struck a chord with the dad who is a singer and song writer. Several weeks later a recording of “Lucy-Furr” arrived at the gallery. A YouTube video is planned.
“Inspiration comes in all places and in all forms,” Vernon said. “We just want to plant the seeds.”
A Color-rich World
People respond to Lucy and the inviting color-rich world created by Vernon and her husband Ken Muenzenmayer, is a nationally recognized artist as well. They opened the Gallery at Round Top in April 2006 and its sister gallery Comforts in September 2006.
“The galleries have provided a good transition for us,” said Vernon who, along with Muenzenmayer, spent three decades on the national open-air art show circuit before putting down roots in Brenham. “Each space is different. The gallery is a classic like vanilla with a splash of Grand Marnier. Comforts is more playful and multi-layered like chocolate fudge with raspberries.”
Comforts, whichis housed in the farmhouse once occupied by noted Houston philanthropist and long-time Round Top resident Ima Hogg, has several rooms and multi-layered displays creating a “treasure hunt for the senses.” Its collections include paintings, pottery, housewares, fabric art, jewelry and even a line of handcrafted soap.
The Gallery at Round Top encompasses a single room displaying paintings, jewelry, bronze work and pottery. The artwork travels seamlessly between the two spaces “finding a new voice in each venue.” The work is rearranged almost constantly to keep the feel fresh and appealing.
“People come back because there is always something new to see and discover,” Vernon said. “The artistic process isn’t static, so its display and marketing shouldn’t be either.”
Muenzenmayer said, “We have two criteria for representing an artist. First, we have to respect the work. It has to elicit an emotional response in us and be something that we would proudly hang in our own home or be included in our own collection. Second, we have to respect and enjoy the artist as a person. We don’t represent anyone we wouldn’t enjoy having over for dinner.”
Vernon and Muenzenmayer know all of the artists they represent and personally select the pieces for their galleries.
“With us, people don’t just get the art, they get the story behind the art,” Muenzenmayer said. “Art is personal, so we deliver it with a personal connection.”
Lessons from the Road
For more than 30 years, Vernon and Muenzenmayer earned their living and places in respected galleries and collections around the world as part of America’s open-air art scene.
“In spite of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and everything else we experienced doing street festivals, we got to see the power of art first hand,” Vernon said. “We attended festivals that routinely drew 100,000 to one million people. Their interest demonstrated just how critical art is. Otherwise, why would so many people turn out?”
Their route took them through Florida, Texas and the Midwest with the timing of shows being dictated by seasonal weather. While the actual marketing and production schedule varied, generally the couple alternated between a month of selling and a month of highly focused painting.
“On the road, I painted what I knew would sell because I was making a living,” Muenzenmayer said. “I knew I was finished with a painting when it was time to load the trailer.”
Muenzenmayer noted that in those days his paintings were more spontaneous. One time, as he was traveling through Florida, he created a series featuring cows on the beach. He intended it as a joke, but the public responded, and they became big sellers. Much to his chagrin, he became known as the “guy who paints those cows,” a moniker he is still living down.
With the gallery though, Muenzenmayer, who works exclusively in acrylics, has the luxury of being more deliberate and “painting what I want with an awareness of what will sell,” he said.
The galleries are open four days a week leaving the couple time to paint. At any given point, each may have six paintings in different stages. They serve as each other’s critic and consultant giving constructive suggestions to help one another get past any creative sticking points.
“We trust each other’s eye enough to incorporate suggested changes,” Muenzenmayer said. “When it comes to making a painting better, we reinforce each other’s experiences and instincts and work together to make a piece the best it can be.”
Vernon, who is now painting because she “wants to not because she has to” said her gallery-based work reflects “more joy” than work produced under the rigors of the road. She creates using watercolors, pastels and oil paints.
The artwork featured in the galleries reflects the couple’s understanding of their clientele and Round Top. The art is colorful, traditional, representational work as opposed to contemporary minimalism.
“It seems that contemporary art is not what speaks to people while they’re in Round Top, even if that is what they collect as part of their urban lives,” Vernon said. “When they’re in the country, they seem to be traditionalists. They buy things that reflect the atmosphere here.”
[pullquote width=”300″ float=”left”]It seems that contemporary art is not what speaks to people while they’re in Round Top, even if that is what they collect as part of their urban lives. When they’re in the country, they seem to be traditionalists. They buy things that reflect the atmosphere here.[/pullquote]
After years of “chasing the sun,” finding inspiration in new locations and their fellow artists, the couple now finds inspiration in the diverse beauty of Fayette County and the surrounding region.
To illustrate her point, she noted a striking painting of a sunset, which was inspired by her view on their drive home from the gallery on Dec. 21, 2012, the day the Mayan calendar ended.
“Ken and I joked that if the world was ending it was going out with a beautiful Texas bang,” she said.
While knowing the landscape of the region is important, understanding the landscape of the marketplace is critical.
“Making a living from art isn’t easy, but if you don’t recognize what people respond to, it can be impossible,” Muenzenmayer said. “Karen has shown me that artists can be as creative in our marketing as we are in our work, which is one reason we’ve been able to keep the galleries open. Our life on the road and the necessity of connecting with potential buyers taught us how to create an easy rapport with people. ”
Easy rapport leads to long-term relationships that have influenced them as artists and as business owners. A couple in Miami had purchased Muenzenmayer’s work over the course of many years amassing a collection of more than two dozen pieces in their home and becoming treasured friends as well as clients. The last time Muenzenmayer and Vernon saw them, they were guests in the clients’ Miami home. Sadly, the wife was suffering from terminal liver cancer.
“As we were leaving, she took my hand and said, ‘Thank you for making my life more beautiful,’” Muenzenmayer said, his eyes filling at the memory. “That moment explains why I paint.”
On more than one occasion, people have been moved to tears by a piece of either Muenzenmayer or Vernon’s artwork. One time a young couple entered Vernon’s booth where the young woman was overcome by one of Vernon’s works.
As the story unfolded, the young woman’s mother had collected Vernon’s work for a long time, so there was an intense emotional connection behind her desire to own an original. The young woman and her then boyfriend were in law school, and the $4,500 painting was far beyond their shoestring budget. Yet, the young woman returned to savor the painting on five different occasions.
On the last visit, Vernon’s artistic sensibility overrode her business sense prompting her to ask the young woman how much money she had on her. Vernon accepted a tiny down payment because the mother in her couldn’t send the young woman away with no money for emergencies. They agreed the young woman could make a minimal payment at the first of each month until the balance was paid off.
“On the surface, it wasn’t a wise business decision, but it was a good personal decision,” Vernon said.
Each month, like clockwork, Vernon received the payment. After several years, she got a call from the boyfriend turned fiancé. The couple had graduated from law school and were about to be married. He wanted to pay off the remaining balance and have the painting waiting in their bridal suite as a wedding gift.
“It’s lovely to make enough money to have a lifestyle and a career from art, but it’s the gift of joy, memories and legacy that make art special,” Vernon said. “That’s why we’re here.”
The couple moved to Miami for three years where Vernon managed a large gallery. Missing Texas, they decided to return. They made their way to Round Top when artist friends living in Shelby suggested opening a gallery.
“When we were on the outdoor circuit, our friends were artists,” Vernon said. “When we opened the galleries, we established a whole different social life and have become part of the community.”
Her vision of the gallery as a community gathering spot appears to have come to fruition. On the day I was there, a steady stream of people came through the door: artists delivering new work, visitors searching out beauty and information, art students with material lists in hand, business people coming to discuss future plans and locals popping by to share the latest news.
Recently, someone called Vernon an “old-timer” referring to her longevity in the community. Her eyes twinkled at the thought.
“We paint because we breathe,” Vernon said. “We run the galleries because the human spirit needs it.”