Timing has definitely been kind to me, I have been allowed the time to acquire, hold on to, and pull together an exhibit, and show and sell. I try to acquire pieces so they are attainable…

James Cherf

Owner, By James Galleries

Today we chatted with long time resident and art lover James Cherf of by James Galleries and Custom Framing, we talked about his origins in the arts, getting his start, the availability of major works in the area from Dr. Seuss, Dali, Picasso, Miro and other contemporary artists and how he has served the community from the beginning.

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James Cherf 01:18
My name is James Cherf. I was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin. My family, I have been residents in the city of La Crosse for forever. And how did I get in the arts. I started working for an art gallery and photography studio when I was in high school. And I loved it. And I had two very wonderful art teachers that I took summer school from as well as high school that was the late John Mattel and the late Verne Olson. And they were very fostering and very encouraging and definitely challenged their students, not only in the creation and appreciation of artwork, but also in all aspects of life and critical thinking. I worked for, like I said, this business through high school and through college. I went to UWL, as most students do, went out and got a real job after I graduated and discovered that I really missed the arts. And that’s what encouraged me to reach out to some of my former customers and see what their thoughts were and they felt there was a need. And they even named my business for me, which has been an awkward name, but it’s growing on me. And the rest is history. When I opened up By James, we were at a location on Fourth Street in the Rivoli building. From the very start, I had the goal of elevating people’s appreciation of the arts, to bring things that people say ah you can’t get that in La Crosse, to La Crosse. And I also routinely featured local artists. As time marched on, I found there were more and more venues for the local producers of artwork and to duplicate that, when there’s so much more out there, I felt was best left to more grassroots or well established galleries.

Brent Hanifl 03:26
So speaking of that, you have acquired kind of a mass of different, you know, well known contemporary artists. What was that process? Like? How do you just I mean, you’ve been around for 30 plus years with your business. How does that happen?

James Cherf 03:38
Well, you know, just like a musician, just like a sports athlete, just like an actor or actress, artists don’t get a very widespread reputation if they don’t have someone to represent them. In the case of living, breathing artists that you can pinch and slap. They have agents just like people who are in the performing arts. And in the case of artists who typically are no longer living or they are an echelon, they have brokers. And so throughout the years, I have fostered relationships with artists, agents and artists brokers, and that has allowed me to, to have access to quite a variety of well known artists and to be able to acquire those, just like so many things, whether it’s vintage fashion, or antiques and collectibles. I buy inventory when it’s available, not when I’m specifically looking for it. So it’s also timing and that’s where having been in business for 30 years, timing has definitely been kind to me. I’ve been allowed the time to acquire hold on to and then pulled together and exhibit and show and sell.

Brent Hanifl 05:02
So people can actually come down to your gallery and you know, actually take a look at Dr. Seuss, Dolly, Picasso’s to name a few of them and actually potentially purchase them as well?

James Cherf 05:13
Absolutely, absolutely. I try to acquire pieces so that they’re attainable. And, you know, it’s pretty darn cool. A number of years ago, I had a new resident to the city of La Crosse come into my gallery and at that time, we had an exhibit of Rembrandt etchings of which we just recently closed out a show of Rembrandt etchings. And she couldn’t believe that this community that she thought she was moving into a, you know, third world country, she was surprised that such things were available here. And you know, she was even more enthralled that she could take these pieces home. And you know, I hear that story all the time. Also, La Crosse is a wonderful destination. We have a lot of people who come to La Crosse. I have clients from all over who come to La Crosse and bring back their treasures. I’m sure some of the makeup some very colorful stories as to how they acquire them and that’s their prerogative and what the heck it’s kind of fun to have this story.

Brent Hanifl 06:16
Do you have any Egon Chalets? Because that’s something I’m, that artist I’m passionate about.

James Cherf 06:21
I do not.

Brent Hanifl 06:22
Just that was more of a personal thing. I’ve just been a fan of that for a while.

James Cherf 06:27
But that’s a-okay. So you know, you’ve been around for a while you’ve been lifelong residents, you serve the community, you know, many different capacities, you know, related to art too. Is there any particular you know, either local artists or any particular art advancements that you think La Crosse is currently doing or in process and doing particularly proud of? Oh well. Alrighty, I’ll answer your first question, which is are there local artists that I’m enthralled with? To be fair, we have musicians, we have performing artists, we have people who by default, what they do is artistic in nature. Val Shoot comes to mind, the architect. I’m only going to focus on two dimensional artists who create things that you can hang on your wall. That’s the most fair way I can answer that question. Through the years I’ve have shown and featured local artists; Marian Being now deceased, Valerie Berman, now deceased, Marian Egan, not deceased, Dale and Betty Kendrick, now deceased. I featured Peggy Bumgarner twice. She’s world famous except in her own backyard. She has an affiliate downtown, she has artists come in from all over the globe to study under her. She’s one of the if not the preeminent female portrait artist. When she was featured on the cover of the Artists Magazine, we had a great retrospective of her work. We also had her do a live demonstration in our gallery painting then Mayor John Menninger in his top hat, that was fun. Artists that are local artists that I enjoy. You may or may not see much of their artwork out there include Linae Early Bird and Kim Hamer. Artists that you do see out there that I love and enjoy include John Erickson, he has a show coming up in Winona in about a month’s time. And then of course, that dynamic force Mike Martino and Phyllis, who I knew as Phyllis Walliser before she became Phyllis Martino, they’re exceptional, and many, many others. I hate to list because I could go on forever and still miss a ton of them. It’s all great. I think the one thing that is remarkable in the last 40 years in this community and I started working in downtown La Crosse in 1980, 41 years ago when downtown was still a regional shopping mall. And I saw it go from being the regional shopping mall to a ghost town to slowly crawling out of the big black of this and becoming what it is now. In fact, there were no vacant storefronts downtown a few years ago then covid hit and guess what? It’s bouncing back pretty well. I’m excited about our downtown. But the one thing that I’ve seen is from our local artists to, to having clubs and their endeavors being things they traded among colleagues and friends to actually creating artwork for the populace, making it available and accessible and stretching their abilities, creating better and better and better quality artwork out there. You could say art is subjective, but there is a difference and we have some very talented fine quality people out there creating artwork.

Brent Hanifl 10:02
Yeah, it’s really interesting. I mean, as someone who grew up here, in my wild youth, I would say I didn’t appreciate the people that actually lived here. And now after interviewing well over 225, individual people and bands, it’s really exciting to see the high, you know, the highly original work that people are putting out. So kind of switching gears, you’re a framing shop as well. Try to buy local work when I go to exhibits and things like that. What should people know about framing, you know, take that kind of next step to wrap those 2d pieces in?

James Cherf 10:33
You can have the neatest shirt, but if you don’t have a pair of pants, you’re not always welcome. And in the case of artwork, that’s very analogous, if you’ve created a piece of artwork that somebody should care about, well, it should be presented in such a way that respects the artwork and, and the consumer. Some artists regard framing as an afterthought, which is unfortunate. I’ve been blessed with artists who realize that it’s integral if the presentation they choose may not fit the taste of the consumer, it can always be changed, but they realize that the complete package, the complete presentation, needs to be of equal, if not better quality.

Brent Hanifl 11:25
Yeah, it’s something that people you know, like you said, it’s kind of an afterthought, when you should definitely be kind of spending that energy on it just for the presentation purpose of it. You know, you’ve also served the community in many different capacities, I believe city council and other different groups. Seems like you’re a busy guy, I’ve known about you, it’s great to talk to you for the first time here. What’s next for you? What’s on your path? What are you excited for, I guess, getting out of COVID, and everything like that?

James Cherf 11:52
All right. My civic involvement started long before the Common Council, I was the past vice president and president of the Pump House when it was struggling mightily. And we got that turned around, even though I’m a public person, pretty private, and actually kind of shy. And I know that’s hard to believe. I play an extrovert on TV, championed and quietly raised money for lots of causes and individuals and continued to do so I’ve never really set out to attack and find my next venture, they always seem to find me. And often, I’m just as surprised as everyone around me by what the next thing is, I have a couple things in the works right now. It’s a little too early to talk about them, they are not arts related, I have a very full and diverse life. But I’m excited about them and eventually they will come to fruition and just like so many things in life, you know, some things flourish, and some don’t. And you say I’m the better for it. I’ve learned something and move on to the next thing that needs your attention.

Brent Hanifl 13:05
You know, in terms of you know, I just recently saw that you’re participating First Friday. So that’s a new event that people can go to traditionally and you know, other communities. So now people can walk around First Friday and check out the Open Studios and galleries are going to be participating in that quite a bit coming up.

James Cherf 13:20
Well, yes, I’m gonna take over the microphone for a moment here and say that Robin and I had, Robin Moses, former DMI director, the co owner of River City Gallery, she and I had talked for quite some time about her passion for the arts her her having formerly worked for print gallery and Eau Claire, and I was very excited and supportive of her opening the pop up which became Riverside River City Gallery, and I popped in out of a courtesy to tell her that after a near three year hiatus, our gallery was finally reopening our gallery. Unfortunately, that location that we had previously been at was in the way of progress and we had little choice but to close up and allow the demolition of that building for big utility project. I’m glad I didn’t rush to replace location because it would have been closed for over a year. Thank you covid. Now is the time stopped in and we talked about things she was doing things she would like to do. She had just had a First Friday reception. Definitely, you know, I feel is an arts community we need to support everyone. You know, I encouraged her to include everyone they can choose not to participate. But you know, the tattoo parlors are just as much if not more of an artistic venture than an art gallery. I think we had some pretty exciting participation. I’m sure that some places will participate more often than others. I’m not sure if the First Friday will continue to be a monthly thing or if it will develop into a quarterly thing because we’d hate to have a participant burnout but you know, we’re gonna monitor that and definitely I want to be part of it. I think it’s very exciting. I missed the days when, with the Pump House’s blessing, we had Artwalk back in the 90s.

Brent Hanifl 15:15
I mean, I participated in it. I didn’t make it to your place, unfortunately. But hopefully this next month we will. I thought it was great. Our families definitely took the kids all that are 10 years old, they’re respectful.

James Cherf 15:26
And did you bring them home after you brought them?

Brent Hanifl 15:28
They’re respectful, they didn’t pull anything off the walls, didn’t break anything.

James Cherf 15:31

Brent Hanifl 15:32
They probably ate a few too many cookies that were set up, but that’s okay. So if people want to find out more about your business been around for a while, but it’s just newly kind of opened again, what’s the best avenue for people to go to?

James Cherf 15:43
Well, our frame shop since COVID has been exclusively open by appointment 608-785-2637. For those who don’t have a pen, it’s 608-78-James. That probably will continue on that way indefinitely. No one accidentally stops into frame something’s it’s a destination venture. As far as the art gallery we’re starting out slow with Friday and Saturday hours. Right now we’re operating noon till four on Fridays and noon till three on Saturdays and outside of that by appointment, some people are still skittish because of COVID and and we accommodate them with appointments those who are more brave they can walk in. I am switching over to at least one or two exhibits a month. The Dr. Seuss artwork is a permanent exhibit. The exhibit for is forever changing depending on what pieces we have in inventory. There always be a feature of local or not local have big name artists. We also have other artists that are regional artists that will be cycling through a lot of times. One exhibit is what fosters the next. Unlike a lot of galleries around here, we purchase our inventory. We don’t hang the artwork and use the artist’s efforts as inventory until it sells and then they get paid. All our artists get paid up front and so I’ve quite a collection of artwork that’s waiting to find its forever haul.

Amy Gabay 17:29
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