Life in Our Foothills – March 2024 – Heartwood Gallery – The Heart of the Arts in Saluda

Published 3:10 pm Wednesday, March 27, 2024

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Heartwood is defined as the older wood at the center of a tree that’s more durable than the surrounding sapwood, so it’s fitting that a gallery that’s been the artistic centerpiece of downtown Saluda for nearly four decades bears the same name. 

“I just wanted something that would just become its own meaning and stand the test of time,” says Heartwood Gallery owner Shelley DeKay, who credits her husband Tom with coming up with the gallery’s name.

The DeKays moved to Saluda from Colorado in 1985. Tom was a home builder and Shelley a weaver.

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“I wanted to do something that was conducive to a creative life and also raising my family and so I thought I would open a weaving studio,” says DeKay. “I came downtown and rented a space for a hundred bucks and hung up a sign that said I was a weaver and Heartwood was my weaving studio in the beginning.”

DeKay says at the time Saluda was an up-and-coming arts and crafts community with a blacksmith, potters and woodworker and their studios and galleries. The country was also experiencing a boom in the American craft genre.

“People opening their own businesses, trying to figure out how to make a living and raise their families and have a good life without the corporate stuff, with more of a back to the land, use your hands, stay connected to the community sort of thing,” says DeKay. “There was a nice blend in those decades of people who had been born and raised here and had businesses here for decades and then those of us who were coming in and finding empty buildings and making studios, making art, making businesses.”

The year after opening her original gallery DeKay moved around the corner to a space that had opened on Main Street. She made and sold clothing, placements, rugs and hammocks which supported the gallery for about four years until she started bringing in the work of other artists and craftspeople.

“I found a couple of potters I liked and would bring them in and I found a couple of jewelers I liked and would bring them in and so the gallery just sort of took over the weaving business. It had a life of its own and I hung on and followed it,” says DeKay

DeKay ultimately tired of making and selling her own work and decided to just sell the work of others. She took out her looms and in 1989 brought in a business partner named Barbara Seiler.

“She had a great eye and she was a follower of American craft so that’s what she brought to the table,” says DeKay.

For 20 years DeKay and Seiler visited national shows of American craft all over the country looking for work to show back at Heartwood Gallery. In 1990, she bought the building she was in and expanded the gallery to create the space it is today at 21 East Main Street.

“We have focused on American craft and only American craft and the best we can find, handcrafted, across the country and we try to represent all genres, so we have glass, ceramics, fiber, some two-dimensional work,” says DeKay in describing Heartwood Gallery today. “We have a lot of metal in the garden art department now that’s sort have gotten big and all levels of jewelry.”

DeKay says the work is created by American studio artists all over the country, many working out of their homes. 

“They wholesale to me so they can stay home and be part of their community, raise their kids and make whatever it is they make,” she says. “The things that people are making with their hands, there’s a real connection there. It’s genuine and it’s good. It’s a good life.”

Some of the most enduring and popular artwork the gallery has carried over the years include bronze candlesticks made by California artist Gregg Hessel, sand cast bronze bells by Maine’s Richard Fisher of US Bells, blown glass from Vermont’s Janet Zug, artistic tiles from Michigan’s brother and sister team at Motawi Tile Works and handmade wooden clocks from Iowa’s John and Jane Schlabaugh, who incorporate Motawi tiles into some of their clocks. 

Traveling to national shows has mostly given way to virtual shows where DeKay and gallery manager Meghan Krenek go online to shop for works to display in the gallery. 

“There are still a few wholesale shows, but they are drying up in favor of the virtual markets. COVID pushed that,” says DeKay.

She misses attending shows and being able to see artists and their families who over the decades have become friends, but she loves the personal relationships she has developed with her customers. 

“We’ve been able to build a nice customer base, from the locals who live here, from the people who just have summer homes and come up a few times a year to people who might be on the way to somewhere else and know to stop,” says DeKay, who relishes being a part of the community’s rich history. “I’ve been on Main Street in Saluda for a long time now, but I think I would still not be considered an old-timer around here.”