In the living room, a large abstract by Tom Downing is emphasized by stripes painted on the wall.
Artist Sam Gilliam and gallery owner Annie Gawlak.
African wooden bowls and a wall piece on display in the living room contrast with a vibrantly colored Sam Gilliam work to the left of the windows.
A painting by W.C. Richardson, placed behind a Rietveld chair, makes a bold statement in the entry hall.
A Gilliam painting and one of his draped canvases hang in the dining room.

Visual Literacy

Creating a fluid, ever-changing canvas in the home of artist Sam Gilliam and gallery owner Annie Gawlak

MARCH/APRIL 2010

An airy loft, filled with light and flowing spaces. A contemporary gallery, perfectly composed. A casual beach house in the city, open to nature. These distinctive visions come together with magnetic force in the Washington, DC, home of renowned abstract artist Sam Gilliam and Annie Gawlak, director and owner of G Fine Art.

This bold synthesis bridges design categories. And it suits the lifestyle of a long-term Washington art consultant and a pioneering artist, known for dissolving distinctions between painting and sculpture. Originally linked to the Washington Color School, with its characteristic fields of color and geometrics, Gilliam gained international prominence in 1968, when he cast off the rigid supports holding his paintings in place. Draping and suspending these richly color-saturated canvases in space, he moved beyond the picture plane, “beginning,” as he and Gawlak wrote in an art journal, “an advance into the theatre of life.”

Museums in Washington and worldwide have exhibited his evolving work ever since. The Corcoran Gallery of Art held a retrospective of his art in 2005. And major museums, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Tate Gallery in London, own his pieces.

At home, examples from different periods of Gilliam’s career hang along with paintings by other celebrated artists, including Sol Lewitt and Tom Downing. These powerful contemporary works provide a counterpoint to the couple’s collections of antiques, African sculpture, glass, toy trains and quilts—arranged with visual excitement and balance.

The dramatic home stage they’ve created didn’t start out that way. When the couple moved in more than a decade ago, the split-level rambler was a jumble of small rooms, its walls blocking light from tall windows. “It seemed to have no rhyme or reason,” Gawlak recalls.

They loved the setting overlooking Rock Creek Park, and the location in Crestwood convenient to Gawlak’s gallery and Gilliam’s studio in Shaw. But after considering for a year whether or not to buy the house, they remained perplexed. “It just looked so awkward and strange. Where do you start? What do you do?” Gawlak wondered.

She showed the house to architectural interior designer Mary Douglas Drysdale. The two had worked together for many years selecting art for Drysdale’s clients. Drysdale convinced the couple to take the leap. “With Mary’s help we got a sense of what it could be,” says Gawlak, describing how the designer literally showed the way when she picked up a hammer and started knocking down a wall between the dining room and bedroom.

Nearly all of the couple’s $20,000 budget was spent to complete the demolition. “We took out what we wanted to define the spaces, and unified those spaces with a single color,” says Drysdale. “Everything was done in the simplest way we could.”

Light streamed in. Wood joists overhead and plywood flooring underfoot were exposed. A coat of white paint brought cohesion to the different floor treatments and raw wood surfaces.

The process proceeded smoothly as a collaboration between three art professionals. Drysdale valued the pair’s “visual lliteracy.” They appreciated the classical order she introduced. As Gawlak recalls, “She would suggest something, Sam would jump in. As far as she wanted to push, he was willing to go. We didn’t see anything sacred about the house that we wanted to keep.”

To hold down costs, they worked with what was there and what they already had. Among the new additions: a chaise, since reupholstered, was discovered in a second-hand shop. The kitchen table started out as a door, painted silver. Gawlak is reminded of their home’s crossover appeal each Halloween, when she opens the door for children. “They say, ‘Oh, lady, you have a beautiful house!’ Or they ask, ‘Is this a museum?’ It happens every single time,” she says. On another occasion, a more senior group from the neighborhood garden club visited, and she heard, “Wow! I usually don’t like things like this!”

She believes the transformation is not entirely surprising. “That’s what artists do. We take spaces nobody else wants and make them wonderful.” She points to her gallery, G Fine Art, another turnaround, scheduled to open in a new location in March near the revitalized H Street corridor. 

Also typical of creative spirits, nothing remains static in their home. “When people get their houses decorated, it stays like that forever,” says Gawlak. “We really feel that nothing is forever. Art changes. Sometimes pieces rotate. You try moving something. It usually means five other things have to be moved. It’s a very fluid space.”

Summing up, she confirms, “We really, really enjoy this house,” but adds dispassionately, “It’s not a jewel. Some day, somebody will buy this property and tear the house down. Nothing we do is intended to improve its value. Everything is intended to please us.”

Tina Coplan is a writer in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

INTERIOR DESIGN:  Mary Douglas Drysdale, Drysdale Design Associates, Washington, DC.

Sam Gilliam was recently selected by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to create a massive public art project in the Takoma Metro Station. The 39-foot-wide installation, to be made from marble and hand-blown glass mosaic tile, is slated for completion in spring 2011.

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