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Roots Up uproots

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Russell and Leslie in the new space.
  • Russell and Leslie in the new space.

THEY SAY that when it rains, it pours.

For Roots Up Gallery, it’s been a pretty rainy summer.

Owner Leslie Lovell says she was becoming unhappy with the property and its maintenance. Minor structural damage from Hurricane Matthew was never repaired, she says, and there were rumors that the rent would go up.

“We knew something was going on, so I finally just called him and said, ‘I don’t have time to second-guess,’” recalls Lovell.

At the same time, co-owner and Lovell’s husband Francis Allen’s health was declining. In August, he went into hospice care.

“We just couldn’t be left high and dry during such an emotional time,” says Lovell softly.

Lovell and her business partner, Russell Kueker, decided to start the search for a new location. Kueker took over gallery operations while Lovell was at home with Allen, who passed away Aug. 30.

The clouds started to clear when Lovell and Kueker found the property at 412-C Whitaker St. Behind James Hogan, the location in the Downtown Design District was the right move at the right time. Lovell signed the lease the next day.

A major part of Roots Up’s charm was its living room-style setup, but the new space is set up more like a traditional gallery, complete with a skylight and a 40-foot wall. The layout allows Lovell and Kueker to try new things with the artwork, something they’d been dreaming of for a while.

“We can do a larger show and still have room for our collections,” notes Kueker.

“Betty Nathan was an artist in Savannah for many years. She was very prolific in her works, collage painting, and we’re working to get two to three hundred pieces. We’d been thinking, where can we do this? We’re gonna have to find another gallery—our biggest wall over there was 9 feet.”

“I’ve never felt like there are any limitations as to who we could show or represent,” says Lovell. “There are a lot more crossovers that can happen than we realized when we started out.”

“She likes to cram a lot of things together,” laughs Kueker.

Lovell and Allen opened Roots Up over three years ago, right after they got married. Allen’s love of folk art started when he saw the Howard Finster-designed cover for REM’s album Reckoning. A UGA student in the 1980s, Allen was friends with a lot of Athens musicians and was inspired by Finster’s work. That connection fostered a love of art with soul.

“Francis had always talked about doing public art, always thought that art should be approachable and you shouldn’t need a dictionary to go in and talk about it,” Lovell recalls.

“That was always something that struck him. The types of art I was always drawn to when we were traveling were always a little more rustic, self-taught artists. It has a soul, in my opinion.”

Allen’s legacy carries over into the new space.

“I do feel Francis with me, with everything that’s in here,” Lovell says, gesturing at the artwork yet to be hung. “We searched for everything together, fought over buying some things. He’s very much in the gallery; his spirit is strong.”

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In the gallery, Allen is reincarnated into a stuffed deer head, one of the “knock-down drag-outs” he and Lovell had over what to include. He wanted the deer, she didn’t. He won the battle, and Francis will hang at the front of the gallery.

Roots Up will open its doors on Sept. 27, and their fall schedule is yet to be determined, but for now, Lovell and Kueker are just happy to be settling in.

“When we went through that, all the heart and soul was yanked out of that place. It was hard to walk in there,” says Lovell tearfully. “At the end of the day, I do believe that when something closes, something else opens.”

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