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Outpost Gallery: Art as community; community as art

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Squeezed into a small storefront along Third Street downtown is a new gallery.

But it isn’t a typical gallery. And it plans to display more than what’s typically considered art.

The Outpost gallery, located right next to Hardt’s Music and Audio, is owned by Matthew Fluharty, who moved to Winona with his family about two years ago. He arrived with the goal of starting the gallery and expanding an already existing organization, Art of the Rural, which seeks to celebrate and document rural American culture while starting conversations on the topic.

Fluharty sees art a little differently than it’s typically viewed. Rather than seeing art as only photos, paintings and so forth, he thinks of the community itself and how people interact with each other as art. Even businesses and places where the community comes together are forms of art, Fluharty said.

For example, the Mississippi Thunder Speedway is a piece of art in how it brings the community together.

The energy of the place, the excitement, the culture it has created all come together as a form of art — or rather an expression of rural culture.

“The Speedway is just as relevant — or more — than paintings,” Fluharty said as his eyes lit up enthusiastically from behind his dark-framed glasses.

Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, the topic of urban and rural culture and how they intersect from a contemporary and historical standpoint has been Fluharty’s focus since 2013. In that year he and others started a project called The American Bottom Project, which examined life in East St. Louis — both historically and what it is now.

Then in 2015 on his way home to Missouri from the Twin Cities, Fluharty made a stop in Winona. As he drove through downtown he was amazed at its vibrant energy and the richness of a culture fueled by industry, music, theater, arts, festivals and much more.

“How can it be possible that all this is in this size of town?” he said as he recalled his amazement.

And to top it off, he said, Winona has prime view of the Mississippi River.

“Winona has the best view of the river in all the Midwest,” he said.

After relaying his excitement to his wife and colleagues, Fluharty took a leap of faith and moved them to Winona to create a headquarters for the organization and to create the gallery to explore, display and engage the community and its culture through collaborative projects and much more.

In short, to “bring folks together,” he said.

First gallery event

For the gallery’s first event, Fluharty teamed up with Jon Swanson — the curator at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum — to feature a project Swanson has just finished called “Winona Characters,” a portrait photography series of headshots of Winonans from all walks of life. The project’s opening reception is Friday at the gallery.

From musicians, artists, lawyers, computer programmers, professors and students to bartenders, nonprofit organizers, activists, fitness enthusiasts, business owners and veterans, the project encompasses a wide range of Winona’s characters done in beautiful, crisp, black and white photography.

“This is really going to be a cool slice of life of Winona,” Swanson said during a recent interview.

Swanson — whose background includes archeology and underwater photography and who created his first darkroom at the age of 10— said the project idea kind of fell in his lap and snowballed into a much bigger project than he originally expected.

Swanson has been known to photograph the nightlife scene in Winona and other places, especially of musicians onstage. At a certain point requests started coming in to take portraits, which is an area of photography he’s not familiar with. Swanson, who is used to taking candid shots of life, said it’s hard to get used to directing a shot by having a person stand a certain way or move according to his instructions.

“It’s actually very uncomfortable for me,” he said.

So to push himself outside his comfort zone, Swanson decided to pursue the project by first just taking shots of people he knew.

That became comfortable enough, so he took a step further and opened it up to the community by inviting anyone who was interested to meet up for a professionally taken portrait done with a camera lens that Swanson said is unequivocally the best lens in the world.

He was hoping for just 40 people to volunteer, but by the time he stopped taking names he was over 100.

“I’m very humbled by the overwhelming response,” he said with a bright smile. “This just really tumbled down hill and snowballed in a way I didn’t imagine.”

His next hope is to turn the Winona portraits into a coffee table book after the show at the Outpost — which will run from May 5 through June 4 — is finished.

Although only 40 portraits will be displayed in frames at the gallery, all the photos taken will run continuously on a drop down screen.

And as a way to tie the project back into the mission of the gallery — to bring the community together in different ways — each framed photo will include a little section about the person written by them, including something they believe most people don’t know, Swanson said, some of which have turned out to be very personal. That way when those who see the photos run into the photographed individuals it might be a way to start conversations, to network, to connect as a community.

“It sparks this connection and community conversation,” Swanson said. “Really we’re all characters and we all have something to say.”

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