June 1, 2008 — Seated behind a desk piled high with papers, invoices, a book or two and a towering sculpture in need of repair, Jane Coombes can't give an outright description of how a teacher/writer and a musician/chef wound up with an art gallery.
Perhaps it was karma. Coombes doesn't know she's just happy to have been part of the art community for two decades as the force behind Mango Tango Gallery.
Nearly 30 years ago, Coombes was in between teaching assignments and starting on doctoral work in English at the University of Texas at El Paso when she decided to take a year off and travel. Her boyfriend, Smoky Pratt, decided that was a fine idea, and the two reached these shores in 1981, wide-eyed and open to new adventures.
Pratt was a musician, but also a professional chef. Coombes was an English teacher. She wound up at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, later at the then College of the Virgin Islands, and Pratt started behind the range at the Quarterdeck (now Hook, Line and Sinker) in Frenchtown.
After about seven years, cooking and teaching, the seeds for the gallery blossomed after Coombes began traveling.
"Prinair had a $1,500 annual fare to travel all islands," she says. "I'd travel on weekends and bring back things for friends, like Larimar stones from the Dominican Republic, and then I began exhibiting at art fairs like Tillett's."
It was in fact the late Rhoda Tillett who inspired Coombes to start a gallery. "Rhoda said, 'why don't you do this for a living? You have cool things people like.'"
Coombes says, "When Smoky and I couldn't decide on whether to open a gallery or a restaurant — we flipped a coin. We opened our first gallery in 1988 where the Shipwreck is now in the Havensight Al Cohen's Mall," she says. "I never realized I'd have to give up teaching. It's my only regret."
Once you build it they will come, rang true with the gallery. "Every one of our artists, I've sought out. I still do," she says. "We started a framing business there, too. I had never realized how wildly successful that would be. Melvin Carty, our framer, has been with us 17 years."
In 1994, they made the move to the much larger space at Al Cohen's Raphune Hill site. The 2,700 square foot gallery overflows with original paintings, sculpture, woodturning, quilts, limited and open edition prints, a framing area, and museum reproduction furniture, which they began stocking in 1995.
"At the other location, I'd never see 99 percent of my buyers again," Coombes says. "That's not my idea of selling art. We don't want buyers; we want collectors. When we introduce an artist to you, it's the beginning of a relationship. We hope you will follow that artist on his or her journey."
Coombes says framing is a beacon into the community. "With framing you meet everybody. People come in to frame a family picture, and they get exposed to the art at the same time," she says.
Coombes takes a personal interest in each of their artists. "We've been promoting our artists with shows, and advertising for almost 20 years now," she says. "They give us exclusivity and total commitment to creating great art, and in return we give them exhibition space, marketing power, and encouragement to take risks." A novel feature to the openings is music by Smoky with his blues and rock band, 2 Blue Shoes.
A major sadness, Coombes says, is the reticence of many local artists to display in galleries. "We have wonderful artists, but they exhibit to family and friends only. They don't see it as a way to make a living — it's a pastime. There's so many nobody knows about. An artist has to have a community around him, to see what other artists are doing."
Internationally recognized artist Don Dahlke has possibly the longest relationship with the gallery. "When he moved from St. Croix years ago, he lived with us and cooked for us, too," Coombes says. Dahlke's signature Caribbean doorways are on exhibit now at Raphune Hill.
Last year they opened the Seaside Gallery at Yacht Haven Grande. Currently the gallery's exhibits include paintings by Kathy Carlson and Patty Tacquard, ceramics by Alison Davis and Merryn MacDonald and wood sculpture by Holland Van Gores.
The next Seaside Gallery show is June 6 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. featuring paintings by W. B. Thompson, Brian Murphy, a new St. John artist, Kristen Maize and ceramics by Mandy Thody.
The gallery can be reached at 777-3060 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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