The idea for the Tiny Gallery — a sidewalk showcase in the Norwood Park neighborhood of North Asheville — goes back a decade. In 2010, multimedia artist Margaret Cogswell was a resident artist at Penland School of Craft. There, she and her friend Mark Boyd conceptualized what she calls “a way to have an impromptu show in unexpected places.” Six doors held together by hinges and a framed roof made up the original Tiny Gallery, which was installed in locales such as “outside on the grass, on a porch, inside an art center and in a parking lot.”
Four doors from that inaugural portable structure are included in the new Tiny Gallery, which Cogswell resurrected during the COVID-19 quarantine. “Until the shutdown, I sold my work through two galleries and commissions,” she says. Her primary focus has been crafting papier-mâché animals and painting. “Like many others, my income came to an abrupt halt — workshops were canceled, galleries closed. It was scary and liberating at the same time,” she says.
Cogswell is quick to acknowledge her privilege: Her husband’s job has continued throughout the quarantine, alleviating some of the couple’s financial stress. “Early on, I was ricocheting between being so grateful at least one of us had a job and being so sad about the state of affairs,” she says. To deal with both emotions, she turned to artwork: “When you feel helpless, you try to do something that makes you feel more empowered. That’s where I go. … I feel like I’m bringing my best self to something, and that’s the most I can do.”
She adds, “Anyone who creates things — artists, at least — we’re working things out through our brains and our hands. … If I can put out something that’s positive, [then] maybe I’ve done a little something.” At the same time, she continues, “The only relevance [my work] has is to affirm that we are human and that kindness is important.”
In terms of social justice issues, especially those of racial justice being discussed on local and national levels, Cogswell admits the thought process can be overwhelming. “We’re in a time of reckoning,” she says.
But, even as the Tiny Gallery approaches creativity from a micro level, it also explores sociopolitical concepts, such as recycling and reuniting materials, and eschewing the purchase of new items in the creation process. For Cogswell, the personal is also political. “I made a list of what I believe in,” she says in her artist statement. Ideas that went into the latest iteration of the Tiny Gallery include “simple pleasures, small everyday moments; smiles and laughter are worthy goals; continuing to learn, stretch, challenge and ask questions; observing and listening; adding to the positive energy in the world; trusting the voice in my head.”
Cogswell’s initial goals for the gallery were that she would pursue whatever she felt like making and that the space would serve as a place for her to engage directly with people through her work. For her, the process of creating is more interesting than the final product, and the opportunities from COVID-19 and quarantine to think about creativity over commercial success was a huge gift. “To grow and to push yourself, you have to keep taking chances,” she says.
Originally, Cogswell envisioned the Tiny Gallery to be more like Little Free Libraries — the neighborhood book exchanges, usually in the form of cute, handcrafted, public bookshelves in front yards and other accessible spots. The nonprofit organization behind the book-sharing effort recently registered its 100,000th library. The similarity Cogswell imagined between her invention and the popular literary installations was that “it wouldn’t have a lock on it. It would have my work in it or other work, and people could look at it at their leisure.”
While Little Free Libraries offer books for free or trade, Cogswell’s gallery presents a retail possibility. “I’m going to try the honor system model for a while and see what happens,” she says. “The gallery will be open during the day with work available to view whenever. If people are interested in buying, there will be info posted on how to purchase through Venmo or such. I might lose a few pieces along the way, but I think it’s worth it all the way around.”
And the element of surprise is key. “Walking by, [people will] discover it, and they can have an unexpected experience,” Cogswell says. A neighborhood opening show took place on July 11, and more events are in the works.
“I think it would be a cool idea if other people wanted to do it, or other people wanted me to help them do it,” Cogswell says of the evolution of the Tiny Gallery. “But I didn’t have a grand plan, other than I wanted to build one, and I needed to [take] some action during this time.”
The Tiny Gallery is located at 32 Woodward Ave. Learn more at mcogswell.com.