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​​Bridge Street Art & Gifts Cooperative – a labor of love

All co-op members share rent, expenses, workload and other responsibilities

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February 19, 2024

CHIPPEWA FALLS – Bridge Street Art & Gifts Cooperative’s (304 N. Bridge St.) journey to creating a destination for locally-made art and gifts has not been an easy one.

But much like many of the cooperative members’ artwork, it’s been a labor of love.

“The gallery is about getting people in to check out our art and our passion for the craft,” Alexandria Mooney Jones, a cooperative member, said. “We are all artists who have come together to form an outlet for creativity.”

How it all started

In fall 2015, local businessman Steve Rasmus contacted the Valley Art Association (VAA) about hosting a pop-up shop of art for the holiday season and 15 artists responded.

After Christmas came and went with great success, Mooney Jones said a number of the artists who participated in the pop-up shop entertained the idea of keeping the spot.

Before long, she said a board was created, bylaws were written and member responsibilities were established to form a cooperative. 

“Everyone agreed to the terms to share rent, expenses, workload and other responsibilities,” she said. “It was truly a cooperative effort.”

Though admittedly, Mooney Jones said it was a “by-the-seat-of-your-pants” approach to starting a business.

Fortunately, she said the landlord kept the rent low to encourage something beautiful downtown in the site of a former check-cashing store and the co-op’s members stepped up.

That meant purchasing and installing display shelves, lighting, desks, ladders, stools, shovels, a microwave, a refrigerator, tables, chairs, card racks, portfolios and more.

But, Kris Crowe, former co-op member and former president of VAA, said the mission drove them.

“Our guiding purpose was to create art for the community and a community for artists,” Crowe said.

Mooney Jones said in fall 2017, Rasmus remodeled the storefront to restore it to its former glory when it was a downtown hotel – which put the gallery out of commission for a year, but the gallery bounced back.

Today, 12 artists feature their artistic wares at Bridge Street Art & Gifts, which underwent a rebranding to this name last spring.

Not only was the former name – Valley Art Gallery – often confused with the VAA’s, but Mooney Jones said the term “gallery” didn’t make the co-op as approachable as its members wanted it to be. 

“We thought the word gallery was intimidating, and we wanted it to be clear we offered art that could be given as gifts,” she said.

Mooney Jones said Bridge Street is a nod to the street on which the co-op is located, and the logo reflects the water that is a fundamental part of the Chippewa Valley.

The co-op structure, versus a traditional gallery set-up, Mooney Jones said, helps keep the commission fee at an affordable level – which then allows artists to keep the price of their work affordable.

“Here, customers are directly supporting the artists without a huge chunk of the sale going to someone else,” she said.

A peek inside

The co-op features work from a variety of artists in its 777-square-feet space, including:

  • Mooney Jones creates artwork with the unusual medium of fireworks and also works in fused glass, paint, mosaics, encaustic and mixed media. 
  • Kathy Cernohous creates stained glass, doing projects as large as church windows. 
  • Sharon Weeks, under the name Collections by Sharlow, is a photographer of ferns, landscapes, etc. 
  • Karen Clark, with Inspire Studio, is a glass artist and landscape photographer, working with both traditional processes and blending alcohol ink with both glass and photos to create mixed media pieces.
  • Lynn Maslowski, under the name Totally Wired, creates unique jewelry with artisan beads, sterling, leather and torch-fired copper.
  • Sandra Churness uses wax and dye on cotton fabric to create batiks that are framed or matted, as well as on notecards.
  • Mary Decker is a fiber artist who crochets purses, vessels, bottle cozies and more, embellishing them with needle-felted pictures, embroidery and beading.
  • Barb Lowe creates acrylic and oil paintings, as well as gourd vases and flowers using a wood burner and various dyes.
  • Jeanne Styczinski is an acrylic artist who paints over newsprint with brightly-colored paint and then uses everyday objects to design patterns and/or textures to give her painted paper a unique look. She uses those papers to collage the illustrations in her children’s picture books, greeting cards and other art.
  • Jean Arneson creates original oil paintings, prints and cards featuring local scenes and hand-painted wine glasses.
  • Barb Hand’s efforts to cut, shape and polish rocks she and her husband found in the Southwest led her to learn beading, wire wrapping and weaving of the stones or cabochons. She also makes pine needle baskets.
  • Karen Bejin’s main medium is watercolor with nature being a big influence in her work. Many of her paintings include trees, flowers and/or landscapes as well as occasional abstracts or abstract expressionism thrown in.

“People often come in and are pleasantly surprised with what they find as they’re not sure what to expect,” Mooney Jones said. “They often find far more than they thought they would. There’s a trend of people appreciating great craftsmanship.”

Artwork is featured in each artist’s designated areas of the space, as well as throughout the store in common areas where a variety of artists’ complementary work is featured together. 

“With that, customers can see how two pieces can complement each other and may buy art from multiple artists because the pieces look so good together,” Mooney Jones said.

She said the co-op’s setup encourages browsing with a nice flow upon entry that often takes customers along the feature table up front and then throughout the gallery.

“We rotate what’s on the feature table frequently, so that’s where people gravitate first when they come in, but then they meander,” she said.

As part of the co-op agreement, Mooney Jones said all artists have responsibilities around the gallery, and that includes working several shifts every month.

Part of that role, she said, requires them to know each other’s artwork in depth so they can answer customers’ questions about their peers’ artwork with ease – and that includes storytelling.

“We can tell stories about how we create the artwork, as people want to know the story behind items,” she said. “For example, (Hand) puts a lot of work into her pine needle baskets that include speaking to where she gets the pine needles, boiling them in glycerine and the process she uses to make the baskets.”

Uptick in traffic

Mooney Jones said the co-op has seen an increase in traffic since the rebranding and thanks to word of mouth.

“I’m hoping people discover us when they buy a gift for someone else and think of us when they want something for themselves as well,” she said.

A few of the artists, Mooney Jones said, also host classes – whether on-site or elsewhere – and that’s something the co-op hopes to conduct more.

In addition, Mooney Jones said the co-op’s consistently sold-out Art Camp for Kids will return this summer from July 22-25 for kids ages six to 15.

“Last summer, we partnered with Irvine Park for our first Art Camp, and it was a huge hit,” she said.

Sign-up will be conducted through the local parks and recreation department.

Most weeks, Mooney Jones said the co-op is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays – though it does host winter hours around the Christmas holiday and a few other times a year.

Mooney Jones said the artists anticipate a boost in traffic as Mother’s Day approaches, as that’s a big holiday for store sales, given the appeal of the cards and other artwork for moms.

“When it’s springtime and everybody starts to thaw out, things start to pick up,” she said.

That momentum, Mooney Jones said, only continues with summer when tourists pop into the co-op as they head north to Minnesota or south to Illinois.

Word of mouth, she said, has also boosted the number of locals only now discovering what the co-op has to offer.

“We get a lot of explorers in our location, and it’s incredible how many locals come in and say they didn’t have any idea we were here,” she said. “People can find everything from small gifts, such as ornaments to high-end fine oil paintings. There’s a value in finding things that are handmade, one-of-a-kind and didn’t come from China.”

Through the years, Mooney Jones said the artwork has changed as the co-op’s members have changed – but said the co-op’s members continue to step up to do what needs to be done with and around the gallery to sustain it for the community.

“My aunt is an artist and she said something I have never forgotten – she said, ‘how important it is to be a part of a community, especially as an artist…,’” she said. “This is our community as artists and it’s also an asset for the community.”

For more on Bridge Street Art & Gifts Cooperative, check out its Facebook page.

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