If you ask Canary Gallery Owner Libby Pantazis, creativity is vital for our everyday existence. A retired attorney, she describes her former career as filled with possibilities to solve puzzles using innovative thinking. It’s no wonder this brilliant visionary was able to curate one of the city’s must-see galleries, built from a family of unique, contemporary artists. The mission at Canary Gallery is multifaceted: provide a space celebrating both creator and creation, and encourage lovers of art to do the same.
As you stroll the bustling stretch of 2nd Avenue North — populated with many of the city’s best shops and restaurants – Canary Gallery cannot be missed. The space is landmarked with its iconic logo, created by in-house artist Victor Bokas: a sunny yellow backdrop, bearing the striking silhouette of a canary. Inside, the airy atmosphere brimming with light lends itself to showcasing art in all media, from oil painting to sculpture to digital illustration. One of the most famous elements of the gallery, according to Libby, is a gorgeous Colonial chandelier, made entirely of brass and painted the signature yellow hue. “It’s our calling card — we’re the space with the yellow chandelier,” she said, smiling. “Victor’s sister is my youngest son’s godmother, and when we talked about opening the gallery, he took off on this logo — and he knows I love yellow. I wear yellow almost every day; I even have yellow glasses and shoes!”
Many artists whose work is displayed at Canary Gallery have a personal relationship with Libby – and many were not initially based on art, but on friendships, parenting and just regular life in Birmingham. “I’ve known [these artists] in multiple arenas,” Libby said. “When I decided to open the gallery, I knew I wanted certain artists whose work I liked – and I knew the arrangement would be successful for them and for the gallery.”
Libby feels deeply that her purpose is to “introduce artists to as many people as possible.” It’s a calling she takes intentionally, and it comes before considering the gallery a retail business. For Libby, it’s important to feature varied styles and media without repetition – the result is a feast for the eyes, each piece arranged with enough space to create its own presentation and opportunity for admiration. “I don’t want 10 different impressionist painters,” she noted. “ I have 2,400 square feet, and I want someone walking into the gallery to notice how all pieces have a premium space. I never thought I would use geometry again, but I did for these angles!”
Because of the relationship she fosters with each artist and each individual work, parting with anything displayed is always a bittersweet moment for Libby. Yes, she’s thrilled the art has found a new home where it will be loved — but it’s hard to say goodbye. “When I bring the art from the gallery to the patron’s car … it’s not that I don’t want it to go — I want it shared — but I’ve enjoyed and cherished that piece,” she mused. “So I hold onto it for just another minute or two.”
We were fortunate to speak to a handful of these talented artists, whose work has been important to Canary Gallery and to countless collectors in Birmingham and beyond.
Sam and Amy Collins
Sam and Amy Collins keep their household diversely inspirational, thanks to very different artistic styles — at least after working hours. Both enjoy careers as trained medical illustrators — they even met at the Medical College of Georgia — but whereas Amy is an oil painter, Sam is a digital illustrator.
Known for her “peaceful and nostalgic” cow paintings as well as other contemporary, impressionist works, Amy enjoys painting from old photographs, citing the “honesty in an old photo,” as well as from real life — perhaps a witnessed conversation or image. “I see inspiration everywhere,” she reflected. “I paint people doing everyday things.”
Meanwhile, Sam gets his ideas from everywhere in American life. His eye-catching digital images are known for depicting advertisements, politics and cultural commentary of all types. Sam noted that he’s always loved pop art and enjoys using bright colors, drawings and both old and new photos.
“My work has a sense of story to it,” he explained. “Some have a bit of a dark side to them. But the titles and elements come out of our culture.”
Amy and Sam have known Libby for quite a while. In addition to their kids playing soccer together, Amy “painted with Libby for several years,” since both women took lessons from Barbara Evans, a local artist.
Now that the kids are older, Sam and Amy have more time to spend on their personal artistic endeavors, and Canary Gallery visitors have benefited. Amy noted that it can be “hard to reach people as an artist” but that Libby is “great at communicating with her clients.” And Canary Gallery’s reach is farther than just the ‘Ham – Sam recently sold a piece at a show in another state, to a patron who first glimpsed his art in the Magic City.
“They’d primarily seen my work at Canary Gallery,” he said.
William Rushton learned to do sight-size portrait painting as a college student, studying abroad in Florence, Italy. After a life-affirming experience there and encouragement from an instructor, he chose to come back after graduation and enroll full-time, eventually becoming an instructor himself. Sight-size painting is not done from a photograph but rather from true life, where the subject sits for the portrait.
“The only way this technique can be passed down is through apprenticeship,” William commented. “You have to watch people who are better at it than you are — it’s the best way to learn. Every year, I felt like I was picking up a concrete skill.”
Though William does not have a commissioned painting to work on each day (yet), he attends to his craft daily, typically painting from about 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. His models, mostly people he’s met around Birmingham, are essential to his routine — now that he has models, he can dedicate himself more fully. And, COVID-19 notwithstanding, he goes back to Florence quite often. As you read this article, in fact, he is likely there.
Canary Gallery, too, has been instrumental to William’s foray into being a full-time artist. He knew of the gallery already, having gone to high school with Libby’s son and living downtown near its location. Not only has he met models through the gallery, he’s sold paintings through a recent show.
“Libby is a great person to have on your side,” he remarked. “She’s a great networker. Without my show, I would have less work. These opportunities are a stepping stone to others, and they mean a lot to any artist’s career.”
While attending the Howard University College of Fine Arts, Debra Riffe “fell in love” with relief printmaking during the final class she needed to earn her bachelor’s degree in fine arts. Today, she gleans inspiration from “many different sources,” including people-watching, books, magazines and newspapers. “As my carving skills have improved, I’ve incorporated more color,” she explained. “Using more than one color is a technique referred to as reductive printmaking. The result is a multi-layered print using a single block. To date, my most ambitious print has included eight separate inks.”
Debra has a passion for Depression-era photographs as well as photographs pertaining to the Civil Rights movement, and she feels strongly that her work must give voice and identity to BIPOC individuals — a responsibility she solemnly cherishes. “I use my imagination to embellish or detail a selected subject,” she noted. “My goal is to give subjects an identity that has been lost, and for me, this is about Black identity. I elevate the status of my subjects and elevate the art of printmaking every opportunity I have.”
As you read these words, Debra is working on a project more than eight years in the making — it started when she navigated the whole city, capturing photographs which document “historic vintage neon signs, iconic landmarks and ‘ghost signs’ (faded, hand-painted advertisements on old brick walls) looming over Birmingham.” Using the photographs, she will create multiple block prints from haunting historic signage.
Displaying her art at Canary Gallery has proven fruitful for Debra – her portrait “St. Clair” was recently acquired by the Birmingham Museum of Art, and she holds her business partnership with Libby in high regard.
“Libby Pantazis IS Canary Gallery — and without her humor, empathy, intellectual humility and commitment, it would not exist,” she pointed out. “She has a vision, and I am all in.”
Growing up in Dothan, Alabama where art was scarce, Beverly Erdreich was nevertheless preparing her future, taking lessons in a garage-turned-studio with renowned watercolorist Frances Watford. “When I look back, Frances Watford was amazing — she was very committed to her art, and that’s hard to do without a community,” Beverly noted.
Later, Beverly finessed her talent with formal education. She attended Newcomb-Tulane, where she was able to immerse herself in studio art courses and earn a degree in art history. After college, she continued her education with workshops at the Art Students League of New York and the Santa Fe Art Institute, before moving to Birmingham in 1961.
Beverly’s work is varied, including abstract paintings, mixed media and even a children’s book. One series — a representation of Disasters of War by Goya — was displayed in three museums. “I blew them up larger and worked into them with pastels, pencil, and collage to emphasize that we have not made much progress, as far as war and humanity,” she explained.
For now, Beverly is taking a break from social issues in her art and is painting again, having recently shown a series at Canary Gallery. “A friend of mine had a show there, and I went to it, and I loved the gallery, so I invited Libby to my studio. She immediately offered me a show, and I immediately accepted,” she beamed.
“I think Birmingham is unusual — and I've been here 60 years — in that it’s a supportive art community,” she continued. “People want each other to do well. And I think that’s important to young artists and to all artists.”