A guest looks at artwork hung on gallery walls. Photo by Scott Ball.
A guest looks at artwork hung on gallery walls. Photo by Scott Ball.

Cinnabar, a contemporary art gallery located in the Blue Star Arts Complex, celebrates its two year anniversary this September.

Owner Susan Heard has exhibited around 40 artists during Cinnabar’s existence.. Her most recent show, “The Thin Line,” contains works by seven women artists and is curated by a powerful figure in the art world, Pamela Auchincloss. Auchincloss has spent the last 10 years organizing and circulating museum exhibitions, and, in 2012, founded an international collective of 11 women curators.

“The Thin Line” contains sculpture, prints, paintings, mixed media and video by artists including Agnes Martin, Louise Bourgeois, Catherine Lee, Kate Shepherd, Linda Fleming, Beth Campbell, and Anne Deleporte.

“It’s interesting and sophisticated,” Heard said of the show. “And the bonus on top is that it’s about women.”

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Heard recently described the underrepresentation of women artists in her column featured in Out In SA. She has made a conscious decision to show more women artists. For example, when looking at 30 studios, she would make sure that half of them belong to women.

“I love it when people call me Cinnabar,” said the charismatic Heard.

Susan Heard. Courtesy image.
Susan Heard. Courtesy image.

It’s easy to see how people might make this mistake. She appears to be the physical persona of her gallery — unpredictable and surprising but always fashionable. Around every six months, Heard dyes her hair a different color, and right now, its scarlet hue hints at her gallery’s name. She’s wearing a wrap dress and the linear pattern echoes the theme of the show she’s about to open. On her right hand, she wears a captivating pearl and silver ring. The pearl forms the body of an octopus, while its silver arms curve down and around her finger; its eyes are tiny red jewels.

Heard is also a jeweler, and the ring is one of her pieces. She’s had a jewelry company since 2001 named Cinnabar, and when she opened the gallery, she stuck with the name. Meaning “dragon’s blood” in Chinese, cinnabar is a brilliant, translucent red mineral that contains enough mercury to make it toxic.

As a small business owner, she’s benefitted from important mentors, namely Catherine Lee, a world-famous artist whose work is collected in museums like the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.

“I have grown so much in the last two years,” Heard said. Speaking to the new class at the Southwest School of Art, Heard told them to find mentors. But, “good mentors won’t actually tell you what to do. They just make a variety of suggestions and you figure it out on your own.

“One of my favorite parts about this work is, you have this moment of sharing something, passing it through,” Heard said. “It gives me more excitement selling it to someone else than buying it for myself, like finding a really pretty shell in the ocean. I’m not going to take it home and put it in my box. I’m going to throw it back into the ocean.”

The entrance to Cinnabar Art Gallery, located in the Blue Star Arts Complex. Photo by Scott Ball.
The entrance to Cinnabar Art Gallery, located in the Blue Star Arts Complex. Photo by Scott Ball.

She takes a flexible, reasonable approach to the business aspects of the gallery, and stresses that what’s most important to her is that she loves her work, and the quality of life that it allows. She currently represents seven artists and takes the job seriously, looking for the “right fit.” That means she wants to help provide the artists with other shows, museum exhibitions and other opportunities.

The very design of her space echoes a jeweler’s aesthetic. Her approach to designing the gallery space is similar to creating the setting for a gem. A wall separates a small, chic sitting area from the larger gallery space. Inside the small room, Heard shows minerals, jewelry and more art. This allows viewers to take in the small-scale work in a different context from the larger scale work. Her jeweler’s bench is just behind the door, filled with findings that she wants to cast, like the skin shed from an iguana, and a seed pod found in the Hill Country.

The interior of Cinnabar Gallery. Courtesy photo.
The interior of Cinnabar Gallery. Courtesy photo.

In the two years that she has been here, she’s learned the way the light works in the space throughout different times of the day. Walking over to the wall of windows on the southern end of the room, Heard describes the way the light begins to glow as the sun sets. Nearby, a sculpture by Beth Campbell hangs in the middle of the space so that the sunlight plays a chorus of shadow lines on the floor.

When asked to describe her gallery’s aesthetic, Heard said, “I want you to not expect me. If you expect to see something from me, then I’m not doing my job.”

The content of her shows had ranged from minimal and contemporary to figurative.

“I always want you to come here to see what I have because you don’t know what I have,” she said.

*Featured/top image: A guest looks at artwork hung on gallery walls. Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Wendy Weil Atwell is a writer living in San Antonio, Texas. She received her MA in Art History and Criticism from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2002. Atwell is the author of The River Spectacular...