Fit to print

For less than they might spend on a Dodge Neon, folks are toting home Picassos — depicting frumpy-butted, splatter-headed women — from a tiny gallery in sleepy Banner Elk.

Affordable original works by a modern master? Impossible, you say? Well, naysayer — say again.

Etchings, woodcuts and hand-colored lithographs by Picasso, Chagall, Braque and Matisse are now available for a mere pittance — or what pass for one in this collectible-crazy world. Why dream of having the millions to buy a masterpiece when you can empty the bank account and own a piece of genius for a mere $600 and up?

Stepping out of the shadow of Grandfather Mountain and into The Art Cellar, I am almost as shocked to be confronting the supernatural dancers of Chagall as I am by how casually the gallery seems to regard its treasures. In a big-city museum, on the other hand, you’d be shadowed by a security guard and separated from the works by two inches of Plexiglas.

“I sleep upstairs,” reveals gallery-owner Pamela McKay, in a typically laid-back Western North Carolina way.

How did she get these works here, anyway? After all, while there are any number of high-quality galleries in the area, when it comes to exhibits by the masters, this is still somewhat off the beaten track. Last year, McKay says, she worked with an art dealer in Beverly Hills to bring in classic works by Renoir and Pissarro. That show was successful, and she’s been working ever since to arrange this exhibit — which features 40 prints — through a dealer in New York.

“Typically, this caliber of artwork is only seen in museums and major private collections,” she notes.

Part of the reason McKay could get these works — and why they’re so cheap — is that too many people dismiss the value of etchings and lithographs.

“There is such a negative attitude, in this day and age, about prints,” she explains. “People don’t want lithographs because they don’t realize the works are originals. People come in and tell me these aren’t originals — they must be fake.”

Prints, of course, aren’t one-of-a-kind treasures that paintings are. But the works in this show — produced as posters and as artwork in books — are limited editions (between 50 and 200 were made). Most are signed in pencil by the artist; others have the signature spelled backward, and some aren’t signed at all — but you can see on the back the French text of the book they were taken from.

Owning one of the only 50 copies on earth of a beautiful thing generated by the hands of a world-renowned artist is still impressive, though. In fact, when the prints first started arriving, McKay and her staff tiptoed around them in white gloves.

“It was kind of spooky having them here,” says assistant Maggie McVeigh. But continually loitering in the presence of greatness hardens even the most sensitive art lover. Now, gallery staff move around in fairly relaxed fashion — that is, until someone new comes in and is astounded by the assembled treasures.

In some ways, however, a museum atmosphere does reign in The Art Cellar: Typically, loads of people mosey through, stopping and gaping with no intention whatsoever of buying one of the three prints from Picasso’s “Suite 347,” a collection he made between 1966 and 1968. (Each clocks in at $26,000.)

“There was a local man who came in with his two children and spent two hours,” McKay recalls, smiling at the cultural service she’s providing.

“He will probably never be able to afford to own one, but he came in to introduce his children to the masters,” she adds.

The exhibit’s significance has forced McKay to drop her businesswoman hat, at times, and don that of a curator. She talks about the art-history lessons she gave a 6-year-old boy who wandered into the gallery one day.

“I tried to spend as much time with him as I would with someone who was paying for one,” she insists.

Don’t misunderstand — some folks do actually buy these prints. This reporter watched a student from nearby Appalachian State University drop a couple grand on a Braque.

“I’m scared to take it out,” she said of her investment/treasure.

Meanwhile, a 40-something gentleman dressed in a sort of Ralph Lauren-flavored cowboy ensemble went on and on about how he’d better wait till his wife got back from Paris before buying a Picasso. Many Picassos grace the gallery, and most, to this Philistine, looked surprisingly different from what I expected — i.e., the dramatic spatial distortions of cubism. Among the several colorful and jolly clown prints is an amazingly simple and divine-looking “Don Quixote.”

But Picasso isn’t the only star here. Folks flock to the Chagalls as well, and revel in a whimsical print from his series The Story of Exodus. These works conjure images of Chagall’s Jewish childhood in Russia, McVeigh assures me. To me, each one seemed to evoke the feeling of riding a Ferris wheel for the first time — height, color and shocking brilliance. And all the while, this reporter was slowly falling in love with Matisse’s simple outlines of women from the Lesser Antilles — particularly a girl with chin cupped in hand, accosting the world with serious bedroom eyes.

I am lost, and — it must be confessed — when McKay crazily leaves me alone in the back to photograph a print called “Portraits,” I snatch this opportunity to run my fingers down the portrait’s border.

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