THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Art uncorks evenings of seeing, savoring, spending

Margaret Bieniek studies works at Gallery ellO. Margaret Bieniek studies works at Gallery ellO. (David Lyon for the boston globe)
By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / October 19, 2008
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Kim Ferreira sat behind the desk at her Three Graces Gallery (105 Market St., 603-436-1988) and surveyed the art clustered on the walls. "I was still hanging pieces at 5:30," she admitted. "There are 35 artists in the show, and some have six pieces."

She had pounded the final nail and straightened the last frame just in time for Art 'Round Town, the coordinated openings at six Portsmouth galleries that take place on the first Friday evening of every month. Clearly it was worth the effort. "We get a great turnout," she said. "Often you can hardly move in here."

As gallery-hoppers sipped wine and closely studied the small paintings, photographs, and prints, Ferreira's boyfriend, Bob Marino, circulated through the crowd. "This building was a former counting house for the harbor," he explained, pointing out a safe embedded in one wall and a trap door in the wide wooden floorboards. Marino met Ferreira, an artist who opened her gallery in May 2004, when he stopped in to have some artwork framed. "I think she thought my taste was a little conservative," he said, but the relationship blossomed nonetheless.

While we can't guarantee that you'll find true love, Art 'Round Town does deliver an entertaining evening of socializing - and lots of inexpensive wine. Even the city streets take on an upbeat, artistic vibe. As we left Three Graces, an artist was cajoling passersby to twirl a hula hoop on their hips as she snapped photos. Elsewhere, we listened to street musicians and watched a sidewalk artist working on black and white drawings of local street scenes.

You might also get a chance to observe art-in-progress at Piscataqua Fine Arts (23 Ceres St., 207-337-1651), the printmaking studio and gallery opened by artist Don Gorvett about a year and a half ago. "People walk in here and say it smells like ink," said Sean Hurley, the gallery manager and one of four artists who regularly print their work on two large etching presses. "Ignore the mess," Hurley cheerfully told visitors. "It's hard to balance a working studio and a gallery." A few of his finely detailed etchings hung behind the counter, where visitors crowded around a tray of cheese and crackers. But most of the wall space is covered with Gorvett's vigorous reduction woodcut prints of coastal scenes. The gallery, an 1850s warehouse steps from the tugboat docks, figures in a number of the images.

Three Graces and Piscataqua sit on the harbor edge of the Market Square shopping district, Portsmouth's successful tourist-haven makeover of more than a decade ago. Kennedy Studios Gallery & Custom Framing (41 Market St., 603-436-7007), which features local artists in its frame shop, also shares the Market Square bustle.

But in time-honored fashion, artists are helping to reclaim one of the city's down-on-its-luck districts: historic State and Daniel streets, which fell into neglect when skinny Memorial Bridge was superseded by the Interstate 95 span connecting New Hampshire and Maine. Gallery ellO (110 State St., 603-433-9110) opened within sight of the old bridge in September 2007. "This end of town is going through a renaissance," said Glenn Dilando, one of the four artist co-owners. "People are discovering us."

The gallery, with its "100 percent free speech environment" sign on the door, "encapsulated art magazine" vending machine in one corner, and unframed prints hanging from clips on the walls, just joined the Art 'Round Town event. "We have that outsider vibe about us," says Byrdy Dilando, Glenn's sister and another co-owner. "It's nice to work with the other galleries. Everybody is doing something different."

The gallery emphasizes young and undiscovered artists, such as Margaret Bieniek, who had turned out for the event in red-and-black tiger-stripe tights and a jersey with more colors than a well-used palette. She'll have a piece in an upcoming exhibition. "This is a nice place for young people to hang out," she said.

The more established New Hampshire Art Association's Robert Lincoln Levy Gallery (136 State St., 603-431-4230) is just a few doors down from ellO. The large space is divided into three galleries and usually features the work of member artists. "We have 450 members in New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts," said Billie Tooley, executive director.

Portsmouth serves as a small-city locus for these widely scattered artists. "I love coming here for the open galleries," said Sarah J. Sims, who was exhibiting her acrylic paintings of bright biomorphic forms. "I live in Loudon and even in Concord we don't have anything like this. It's wonderful. My pieces don't fit in a lot of New Hampshire settings."

Since Deb Thompson opened nahcotta gallery (110 Congress St., 603-433-1705) eight years ago, she's been building a market for abstract work, featuring both local and national artists. She's also watched her street, which was once Portsmouth's main shopping drag, rebound. "It was just coming back when I opened," she said, listing the variety of shops and restaurants filling once empty storefronts.

In fact, we were disappointed that many of Portsmouth's more interesting shops didn't stay open on gallery night. Restaurants, on the other hand, were hopping. "It's become a tradition in the community," said Thompson. "Check out what's happening in the galleries, and then go out to dinner."

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

If You Go

Art 'Round Town

artroundtown.org

The first Friday of every month from 5-8 p.m. Check the website for information on participating galleries and coming exhibitions.

Where to eat

Victory

96 State St.

603-766-0960

96statestreet.com

After gallery openings, Deb Thompson often heads to the bar to sample small plates such as an artichoke and goat cheese fondue, a farmstead cheese plate, or hand-cut french fries with aioli. Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday 5-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday till 10 (or later). Small plates $5-$13.50, dinner entrees $21-$32.

Muddy River Smokehouse

21 Congress St.

603-430-9582

muddyriver.com

Artist Sarah J. Sims is an aficionado of the fried pickles, but many of the locals come for the St. Louis-style ribs. Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday till 10:30. Sandwiches and barbecue platters $8.99-$15.99.

Flatbread Company

138 Congress St.

603-436-7888

flatbreadcompany.com

Bob Marino likes the atmosphere and the pizzas, made with organic wheat and baked in a wood-fired oven. Daily from 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Pizzas $8.25-$18.75.

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