Mention the words “Amarillo” and “art” to someone outside this area, and you’re likely to get into a conversation about public artworks like Cadillac Ranch, or maybe a reference to well-known artists with a Panhandle connection – like Georgia O’Keeffe or Harold Dow Bugbee.
But bring up art inside Amarillo, and you may find yourself learning about one of the city’s best-kept secrets: The Galleries at Sunset Center and The First Friday Art Walk, where the shining stars of the city’s growing arts community are thriving under a single roof.
Sunset Center Mall was one of the first malls in Texas when it opened in 1960 near the corner of Plains and Western. At the time, it was home to retail stores like Zales Jewelry and Hub Clothiers and became a bustling retail center in the middle of Amarillo. But as Amarillo continued expanding, the city’s prime retailers followed the population growth to the south and west. By the early 2000s, this centralized area north of Tascosa High School had become much quieter.
Local artist Ann Crouch owned the property when, in 2005, the late WTAMU art professor Hunter Ingalls approached her on behalf of some of his students. Crouch was in the middle of renovating Sunset Center to attract new retailers, but Ingalls wondered if she might spare some space as a studio for his college students. “He told me they were working in a place with inadequate heat, cooling and lighting,” she says. “He said he had nine students who just needed a good place to work.”
She decided to make that space available. As the grateful students moved in, Ann began thinking of her dozens of other artist friends – most of them were scattered across studios and galleries in the Texas Panhandle – who might benefit from a similar environment. “It was the perfect time,” she says. “We had a few businesses on the outside, and were very proud to have Hastings’ home across the street, but the rest was empty.”
A few professional artists heard about Ingalls’ students and began asking Crouch for studio space of their own. She conceded, and put the word out among the local art community that Sunset Center was available. Before long, the interior and entire east side of Sunset Center had become a sprawling art collective housing the studios and galleries of independent artists – some hailing from as far away as Guymon and Dalhart, and all taking advantage of the very affordable rates Crouch offered.
Today, the Galleries at Sunset Center is home to the Amarillo Art Institute, which has 120 members and offers classes to hundreds of adults and children; the 50-member Panhandle Art Center; and a regular roster of around three hundred artists displaying work across nearly 60 studios and galleries. These artists include sculptors, painters, potters, printmakers, and even a traditional weaver – all in the same place. “The doors are open every day,” Ann says. “Every gallery is open to the public.”
This thriving art community is most visible during the monthly First Friday Art Walk, which Crouch launched back in 2005 to draw attention to the artists working there. “We started it right at the beginning,” she says of the event, which operates from 5 to 9 p.m. the first Friday of every month, and includes live music from local musicians, plenty of wine, and a free buffet dinner at Crouch’s Sunset Art Gallery. The event hasn’t skipped a month since, other than one Friday a few years ago when a local flu outbreak put a damper on the idea of large gatherings of people.
And those gatherings are indeed large. “We used to have around three thousand people attend,” Ann says. “We tried to count at the door with a clicker. But we’ve quit doing that.” She estimates that as many as five thousand people now show up on that Friday evening, taking advantage of the community atmosphere and the opportunity to view original art and visit with the artists behind it, all of whom are available and open their studios during the Art Walk.
While Ann describes the Sunset Center artists as “an undiscovered source of talent,” she’s also quick to point out that several artists have had their works shown in galleries and collected throughout the United States. She often brings in prominent national artists to lead workshops and teach among the Sunset Center galleries.
“There’s more interest in art here than there has been in quite a long time,” she says. “I have seen some of these artists studying and growing in confidence and success just from being together, but still retaining their originality. Some have been here since day one. It’s been fun for me to watch. I’m very proud of everyone here.”
“I paint my thoughts,” says Ann Crouch, the owner and founder of the Galleries at Sunset Center. An avid painter for decades, she has spent her career exploring almost every style of visual art, from pencil drawings to wildlife and landscape paintings to portraits. “I tend to change mediums, styles and interests every five to 10 years,” she explains.
These days, she’s focusing on large abstracts in oil and acrylics, mixing bright primary colors with blacks and whites. She describes these paintings as “cheerful” and “movements of color,” and explains that she creates them to musical accompaniment late at night, using big brushes and heavy brushstrokes. “The music is a background to block everything else out,” she says. “It protects my concentration.”
She says this style of painting brings her joy as she paints, and she hopes each abstract piece creates a similar emotional response in its viewer.
In addition to her contemporary paintings, Ann’s gallery also includes a few landscapes and more realistic paintings from earlier in her career, many of which were inspired by her work as a wildlife rehabilitator – as well as by the landscapes and sunsets she observed from her studio on the rim of Palo Duro Canyon. “Whatever is happening in my life, that influences my art,” she says.
In addition to her own studio and gallery, Ann also owns the elegant Sunset Art Gallery, situated on the east side of Sunset Center near the outdoor sculpture garden. Sunset Art Gallery features the work of more established and internationally known painters and sculptors who live and work outside the region. These include the German outdoor painter Guido Frick, Santa Fe landscape artist Anita Louise West, and Denver-based pastel artist Ramon Kelley. The gallery features a certain artist every month, Ann says, not only for the benefit of Amarillo’s art lovers but also to inspire the local artists at Sunset Center. “I wanted this gallery to provide Amarillo with the art culture seen in larger cities,” she says.
Born in Columbia, Luz Angela Crawford describes her handbuilt pottery as “free-wheeling,” meaning she doesn’t rely on a pottery wheel to create her rustic pots. Rectangular, highly textured, and bright with color, her work is closer to primitive decorative sculpture than typical ceramics.
Luz has lived in Italy and Spain as well as her native Columbia, and came to the Texas Panhandle in 1999 after meeting and marrying her husband, a local podiatrist.
Her pots and wall-hangings have appeared in both local and national shows, and each is created by hand using crude, non-traditional tools. She says using these simple tools to shape clay is a way to remain connected not only to her South American roots, but also to the earth itself. “There’s a connection I feel with the dirt,” she says. “It’s part of nature. I feel close to nature when I use clay. It’s such a free medium. I feel peaceful and free while I am doing it.” Often, her pottery includes pieces of wood or small rocks in its textures.
Luz says every place she has lived tends to inform her art – including the Texas Panhandle. She has seen her style take a turn toward brighter colors since living here. “Living in this area, it’s not long before you start to get something from it,” she says.
Sentosa Gallery: Marsha Clements
“I love to paint our Texas sky,” Marsha Clements says. “Sunsets, storm clouds … there’s just nothing quite like that beautiful Texas sky.”
Marsha’s appreciation for the wide open spaces of the High Plains have resulted in a thriving career as a professional artist – one she came to later in life, after several years as an elementary school teacher and educational consultant for the Amarillo Independent School District. Opened in 2005, her studio and gallery includes her oil skyscapes, along with landscapes, still life paintings, pet portraits, florals, abstracts, and more. She names Palo Duro Canyon and the Panhandle’s farms and ranches as significant inspirations.
“I just love to paint things that are beautiful,” she explains. “I like to paint the things God has given us to see in the world, the things that give us joy.” Though she says her work fits into the category of artistic realism, she tries to use as few brushstrokes as possible to give each piece a painterly quality that leaves “just enough to the imagination,” she says.
The “Texas Outdoor Musical Drama” named Marsha its featured artist for the 2013 season – an honor shared by only one other woman in the show’s history.
Turquoise & Mesquite: Weyman Brown
Local ranchers aren’t always the biggest fans of mesquite trees. They see them as enormous weeds, sucking water out of the ground and causing damage to both cattle and grazing land. But Weyman Brown, of the studio Turquoise & Mesquite, sees these trees as art.
Actually, it’s less about the trees themselves than the occasional burl, or rootball, that can be found in a mesquite’s root system. He keeps in touch with county agents to find out when ranch owners are excavating mesquites, then heads out to the ranch in search of a rare burl. “That’s gotta be the prettiest wood you’ll see,” he says.
Weyman is a woodturner. While the mesquite wood is still wet, he takes the burl and puts it on a lathe, then goes to work grinding, sanding, and shaping the wood into a large bowl, which begins to harden as it dries. He fills the cracks and wormholes with turquoise, and then sells these smooth, finished, sculpted works of art from his gallery.
“I got old and had to have something to do,” he says of his art, which he took up a decade ago after retiring from the insurance and real estate business.
Sculptor Michael Westmoreland, of Scarab Art, describes his artistic style as eclectic. “I do just about everything,” he says. His work encompasses a wide range of subjects and materials, from classic sculpted portraiture to contemporary abstracts made of wood, glass and resin.
A former physician who began his career as a family practitioner and eventually retired as medical director for Amarillo’s Sleep Disorder Center, Michael is largely self-taught as a sculptor. “My art training is limited to two years of art in high school and one drawing class in college,” he admits. “I’ve always had good three-dimensional visualization.”
One of the aspects of sculpting that has always intrigued him is the depth of commitment it requires – “You can’t just put down your paintbrush and walk away,” he says – as well as the tactile enjoyment he gets from working with wood and clay. Most of Michael’s ideas begin with a thought, or a desire to work with one of those particular materials. “I don’t do pre-planning sketches,” he says. “I just sit down and work.”
Lately, he’s found inspiration in creating realistic busts of characters from Shakespeare’s plays, including Shylock from “The Merchant of Venice,” or “Lady Macbeth.” “I can’t think of a richer set of characters to try to capture,” he says. “I start moving clay and let the character define itself.”
An outdoor enthusiast, hunter and camper, Kenneth (Ken) Wampler’s art reflects that lifelong passion. Using watercolors and acrylics, he produces fine art depicting wildlife, birds, landscapes and flowers – along with occasional abstract paintings in which he “just lets the watercolors do their work,” Ken says. Each of these categories are on display in his working studio.
Much of Ken’s inspiration comes from camping trips in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming, as well as his childhood growing up in Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. “We didn’t have all the electronics and things back then like today,” he says. “All we had to do was watch the wildlife.” A trained professional engineer, Ken lived and worked in Houston before taking a job as an industrial engineer at Pantex in Amarillo. He taught himself to paint during his career there, finding that the creative outlet on evenings and weekends provided a relief from the more mathematical aspects of his day job. After 28 years at Pantex, he retired in 1996 to focus on his painting full time.
Ken has sold his nature watercolors and acrylics to private collectors from California to Florida, as well as in Holland and England. “Women tend to like my birds – especially the hummingbirds,” he says. “Men like the animals they might hunt, like elk or bears.”
A long-time conductor for the BNSF Railway, fine art photographer Gregory Collins is more than familiar with the local scenery. He’s been with the railroad for more than four decades and has been pursuing photography as a hobby since the 1980s – paying particular attention to landscapes as his subjects.
Several years ago, he decided to go back to school at Amarillo College, and a Fundamentals of Photography class cemented his love for the art form. He became a photography major and earned an AAS degree.
Today, Gregory’s portfolio and gallery is mostly dedicated to his landscape photography, as well as photos of classic cars, abandoned cars, and abandoned buildings. “These are things people have left behind,” he says of the old buildings and cast-aside vehicles that have become his muses. “They tell a story. What happened here? Why did they leave? If a scene grabs my attention, then I’m going to shoot it. Then hopefully it will grab someone else’s attention, too.”
As passionate as he is about photography, Gregory says he is also an avid mountain biker, spending as much time as possible in Palo Duro Canyon and other trails. He admits his bike plays a valuable role in his landscape work. “You can get a lot of shots from a bike,” he says. “You can see places you just can’t see from anywhere else.”
BB Sconyers Gallery and Studio
“I love painting so much,” BB Sconyers says. “My friends kept telling me I was kind of good at it, and I guess the rest is history.” At her studio, BB produces mixed-media modern, contemporary abstracts inspired by artists like Jackson Pollock and Carl Owens. Using high textures, bright colors, unconventional paint-mixing, and what she labels “uniform chaos,” BB finds her inspiration among multiple sources. She lists African-American literature, jazz, Gospel music, and her faith as influences – as well as the ways travel, world religions, and history intersect with community.
She’s lived in enough communities to have experienced those intersections in a variety of ways. A native of Atlanta, BB has lived all over the United States, including stints in California, Wyoming, Colorado, Massachusetts, and south Florida. Amarillo became her home when she moved here a few years ago.
From state to state, BB’s passion for painting developed organically. Wherever she has lived, she’s been an avid museum-goer. She comes from a background in marketing and training, and in Atlanta made a hobby of helping local artists market their work. After producing a poster for a digital program in a multimedia course at DeVry Institute, she found herself hooked on painting as a means of self-expression. “I love what I do,” she says.
Warp and Woof: Sally Maag
Thirty years ago, a neighbor in Parker County, Texas, asked Sally Maag to help her with a weaving project. “I fell in love with the process,” Sally says. “I learned the basic techniques from her.”
She has been improving those techniques ever since. The owner of Warp and Woof, a weaving studio, Sally is a rug weaver and designer who produces 5-by-7-foot handmade wool rugs using hand-dyed yarn. Each rug – most of which she weaves on commission – takes at least six 40-hour weeks to finish. “It may take me a week to design it, a week to dye the appropriate colors, and then four weeks to weave it,” she explains.
At home, Sally uses a propane cooker to create natural dyestuffs. Yellows come from Osage orange sawdust. Blues come from ground indigo. Once her wool has been dyed, she heads to her studio to string the parallel warp threads onto her loom. That’s when the actual weaving begins. Sally says her work is a combination of artistry and technique. “Learning how to thread the loom and operate it is more of a craft. The actual design, and making it work according to the loom, is more of an art,” she says.
She finds immense satisfaction in doing work with her hands. “Since the beginning of time, any fabric or blanket anyone had was woven,” Sally says. “My loom is fancier, but it’s still the same method. There’s a great humility in being part of that same process.”
The Object Gallery: Alex Gregory
“The most important thing about art is that it should be seen,” says Alex Gregory, the curator and managing director at Amarillo Museum of Art and the owner of The Object Gallery at Sunset Center. “I’m about promoting art and artists.” Alex and his wife, Mandy, use The Object Gallery to display the work of local artists in a variety of mediums, including his own ceramic and cast-iron sculptures, Mandy’s encaustic paintings (which use hot wax and pigments), handmade jewelry by Charlie McGilvary, glass creations by Dusty Gamble, and ceramics by Patrick Forkpa. The Object Gallery also installs works by new artists every few months. Born in Muleshoe and having grown up in Alva, Okla., Alex came to this area while earning an MFA in studio art from West Texas A&M University. In addition to the gallery and his work at AMoA, he teaches a ceramics class at the Amarillo Art Institute, and enjoys introducing students to this creative outlet. “I didn’t have that opportunity as a kid,” he says of working with clay. “But kids love to play in the mud. It’s a natural thing for people to do. I love transforming mud into something functional and useful. It remembers your marks and your fingerprints, then you fire it and it holds it there forever.”
Bois d’ Arc Press: Barbara Ward
Barbara Ward is a former art teacher and English teacher who taught at Bowie Middle School, Travis Middle School, and West Texas A&M University before formally opening her studio in 2007. She produces contemporary fine art prints – influenced by abstract impressionism – using a variety of media, including lithography, silkscreen, and intaglio techniques. She also works in drawings, watercolor and mixed media.
“My work is largely experiential,” she says. “It’s drawn from life experiences, reactions to nature and relationships. I want to explore how we connect to nature and each other.” Combining paintings, photographs, handmade objects, and other elements, she says one of her goals as an artist is “to make my experiences into visual images,” she says, conveying “how I experience the world and how I experience other people.” She began teaching art in 1976 but says she truly became serious about her art in 2000.
With both a Master of Arts in English as well as a Master of Fine Arts in printmaking from West Texas A&M, Barbara says her literary background informs her work. “Literature and art are both about the human connection,” she says. “They are directly related.”
Fine artist and graphic designer Steven Cost has a long history in the art world, beginning with graduate and undergraduate degrees he earned in commercial art and communication arts in the 1970s, culminating with an MFA in graphic design in 1988. He spent several years in the advertising industry as an art director and graphic designer, and then transitioned to the academic world. A tenured associate professor in both the graphic design department and art department at Amarillo College, he still teaches drawing, design and painting classes at AC.
That rich background in both design and education informs his abstract and representational paintings. “I’ve taught lots of different things, including realism,” he says. “But I’ve tried to be consistent in the style of my studio work. I’m definitely looking at my fine art using the eyes of a graphic designer.”
Steven’s work ranges from colorful, contemporary geometric paintings to landscapes inspired by his travels, hiking and passion for nature. Because he’s allergic to the thinners required by oil painting, he primarily turns to acrylics and watercolors to produce his pieces. Both media inform his work in specific ways. “Acrylics have such a wide range of color, and allow you to use different products to build up textures,” he says. “The effects of watercolors can spread in unexpected ways on the paper, especially using wet-on-wet techniques.”
For years, David Alan Corbin worked 12-hour shifts performing industrial metal fabrication at Amarillo’s Owens Corning plant. “That gave me plenty of time to be thinking about what else I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he said. The factory work also gave him ideas for his weekend art projects, which included photography and sculptures made out of welded steel.
Eventually, he decided it was time to turn that hobby into a career. David took an early retirement from Owens Corning in 2008 and opened Art Gecko, a studio and gallery. At Art Gecko, he sells his recycled metal sculptures, metal furnishings, custom kaleidoscopes, and photographic poster prints – along with ceramics and pottery work by his wife, Loretta.
David describes his fine art photography as spanning from “mild to wild,” depending on his mindset at the time. He began as a traditional photographer using film and a darkroom before making the switch to digital a few years ago. “It opened up new horizons,” he says of the ease with which digital tools like Photoshop allow him to manipulate images. “You can tell a whole new story.”
He says he’s constantly developing ideas for both his photographic and sculptural work, but will often focus on one medium for a month at a time. “I just go back and forth,” he says. “It’s all equal to me.”
Wolfram Art Gallery: Karen Wolfram
Amarillo painter Karen Wolfram displays her work, along with paintings by her husband, Walter, at Wolfram Art Gallery. She began painting in the mid-1980s when she studied art at Amarillo College and West Texas A&M University, where she eventually attained a Master of Fine Arts. Karen dabbled in art for decades, but family obligations kept her from a constant pursuit of it until Ann Crouch opened Sunset Center to artists. “That’s when it really became steady,” she says.
Karen’s frequent subjects include nature, animals and florals, and she varies her work between abstract art and more representational painting. She just completed a series of abstracts based on the geysers, sulfur pots and other geothermal elements of Yellowstone National Park. “These are about how the earth is changing,” she says of the paintings, which range in size from 18-by 24-inch canvases to larger four-by five-foot works. “They suggest man’s fallen state, and how he’s treated the earth.”
While she prefers working in oils, an allergy to oil paint has recently led her toward use of acrylics. She enjoys applying watercolor techniques to acrylic paint and experimenting with textures to tell stories with her painting. “All my series have stories in them,” Karen says. “They are about the universe and humanity and the relationship between them.” She explains that painting is her way of opening up a conversation about our place in the world. “That’s why I do the art. It’s my way of speaking out on these topics.”
One of the largest spaces in Sunset Center belongs to Vermillion Editions, Limited, a studio and print shop opened by West Texas A&M University in 2011 but with a history dating back several decades.
Founded in 1977 by master printmaker Steven M. Anderson in Minnesota, Vermillion Editions, Limited gained a worldwide reputation for contemporary artistic printmaking. Over the years, it published the work of artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and William Wegman. WTAMU purchased Vermillion Editions from Anderson with the hopes of making Amarillo the center of the American printmaking world, with production led by master printer Michael Raburn.
“It was a great coup for us,” says David Willard of gaining both the Vermillion name and equipment, as well as the experience brought by Raburn. The head of WT’s Department of Art, Theater and Dance, Willard says Vermillion Editions is currently producing work by acclaimed national and international artists on a variety of presses, including those for lithography, intaglio, screenprinting and two large Mailänder flatbed presses from Germany. The Vermillion space also includes a rotating gallery of work by WT art students, coordinated by Jon Revett, assistant professor of painting.
“It’s great for us to have that presence at Sunset Center,” David says. “We are grateful for the exposure. We cherish that space.”
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.