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When Irma Gail Hatcher moved to Conway in 1981, shortly after her husband accepted a position as president of Hendrix College, she began quilting. After a few years, she started exhibiting her quilts, and in 1999, her quilt "Conway Album (I'm not from Baltimore)" was chosen by a panel of expert quilters as one of the "100 Best American Quilts of the 20th Century." Hatcher estimates that she's made 100 quilts. She has never sold a quilt, although she's donated a few to museums. One day her six grandchildren will inherit the rest of them. Hatcher has taught quilting in 36 states, and she's authored eight books on the subject. "Ozark Oaks," a brown-and-blue piece quilt that she made decades ago, is still her favorite. "It took me a year to make it, and I think I was just thrilled to finish it. It became a part of me, like a child," she said.
At Hearne Fine Art, owner Garbo Hearne says, the art sells itself. "I'm not a salesperson," the somewhat reserved operator of the only gallery to focus on African-American in Arkansas says. "You have to want it."
But Hearne wants you to want it, and since 1988 has worked to introduce names previously little known in Little Rock's collecting circles both black and white, though the artists are famous elsewhere. Her gallery represents painters and printmakers and sculptors of national reputation, like Benny Andrews, John Biggers, Samella Lewis, Dean Mitchell and Faith Ringgold, and highlights major Arkansas talents as well, like Aj Smith, Marjorie Williams-Smith, Ariston Jacks, Larry Hampton and others. These are fine artists whose work you're unlikely to find anywhere else in Arkansas.
The El Dorado native was herself encouraged to learn about African-American art by her husband, Dr. Archie Hearne, who is a collector. Her first gallery, Pyramid Art, was on Main Street, and she sold posters at first. As she moved more deeply into fine art (she sells books and does framing as well), she moved the gallery to the Museum Center in the River Market. There, Hearne Fine Art was a destination; "I couldn't have survived the River Market [district] otherwise," she said laughing, because of the lack of parking. (Though, she added, some of her visitors came in thinking she was part of the Museum of Discovery, got a confused look on their faces and exited.)
To have a gallery devoted to artists who are African-American "sounds so crazy," Hearne said. "A whites-only gallery wouldn't be acceptable." But there is a commonality in much of the work, narratives of a life of exclusion and struggle.
Now, Hearne says, she is starting a young collectors group, and will pair its members with mentors who already know something about art and the market. "I feel like I've been able to change a lot of people's understanding" of African-American art, Hearne said. She makes buying fine art affordable, too, allowing people to buy on monthly installments.
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