Along part of Broadway in Kingston, there are clusters of dark and empty storefronts. The district is far from desolate – the commercial strip abuts occupied residences and connects Uptown to Downtown – but in comparison to the more thriving parts of Kingston, it appears somewhat neglected. Nestled in this strip, close to a pupuseria and across from a Mobil station, an unexpected bright-yellow strip adorns a window that reads “(P)optimism Shoppe.”
The gallery space is operated by artist and innovator G. Riley Johndonnell (a/k/a Uncle Riley), who, along with his business partner Whitny Sobala, is attempting to organize an optimistic art movement. Against the uniform gray of the walls, floor and furniture of the front room, clusters of vibrant yellow artworks pop. Currently, on either side of the room, 100 yellow-painted wooden circles are displayed on shelves like dinner plates, and a sculpture by Poughkeepsie artist boogieREZ occupies a back wall. This is the public gallery where Uncle Riley displays the most current crop of community art. Branching off from a hallway in the back, there’s the INT-O Yellow Gallery, which holds a number of works created by artists working with the movement’s signature color, as well as rooms for Johndonnell’s own workspace and gallery.
Johndonnell describes the (P)optimism Shoppe as a “pop-up experiment: part gallery, part studio and part laboratory.” He signed a short-term lease on the space and moved in at the beginning of September, expecting to use it as a “beta test” for spreading the word about UMEWE initiatives. With backgrounds in branding and marketing, Johndonnell and Sobala are never short a name for something. Their b-corp, UMEWE, is a “social benefit collaborative” that Johndonnell says acts as an “organizing and protecting entity” for their numerous projects. International Optimism Yellow (INT-O Yellow) is the paint color that they created with Pantone to be used by the optimistic artists in their movement, while Happy Spots are what Sobala calls “round yellow markers of hope and happiness”: public works of art intended to act as indicators of a community striving for positivity and connectedness.
The 100 wooden circles in the shop are Happy Spots midway to their destination. They, along with the shelves that hold them, were cut by a senior citizen in Kingston, who was thrilled to be involved. “Very few people think to ask seniors to participate,” he told Johndonnell. As part of the “Pollination” project, students at Kingston High School each painted a flower of their own design on one of the circles, then wrote a suggestion on the back for how Kingston can make Midtown a brighter place. Many of them share common ideas: fix the sidewalks, repair the buildings, improve transportation. Soon, Johndonnell will be meeting again with PUGG (Pop-Up Gallery Group), the high school’s work-based program who collaborated on the project and distributed the circles to the students, and whom he met through Laura Giordano of the Kingston Arts Commission. After compiling a list of the suggestions to send to the mayor’s office, they will determine a surprise location on the Midtown corridor for their artwork to bloom, brightening the neighborhood with a cheery burst of yellow in winter.
“They see their ideas and they know that their ideas are being heard,” says Johndonnell of the students. “They’ve done something and it’s not just talk.” Johndonnell says that one of the hardest things has been proving to the local community that he’s not all talk; nor is he an outsider looking to transform their neighborhood without their input. When he set up shop in the Midtown corridor, it was with the intent of being central to a space that he thought was vital, but neglected. Since then, he’s been working to build trust with “the people who have roots here.” According to Johndonnell, there’s a reasonable wariness among people who have come to “associate beautification with gentrification.” When many efforts to improve a neighborhood exclude the people who already live there, some may be disinclined to trust the intentions of a Californian who arrived in the Hudson Valley via New York City.
So far, though, in the less than three months since the shop opened, Johndonnell has been surprised by the connections that he has been able to make in the community. “One of the things that I didn’t account for was how this would touch people on a personal level,” he says. While he initially anticipated more involvement from working artists, he has found the creative and collaborative spirit of the more general Kingston community to be the driving force in bringing the Optimism movement to fruition. Johndonnell says that he or Sobala will often see someone standing outside, intently reading the materials in the window that explain UMEWE’s missions. They’ve invited them in and found that many people feel comfortable enough to share personal stories of hardship. The shop’s visitors have grappled with lost loved ones and lost housing, but they all feel curious and many inspired by the shop’s message of hope.
To the UMEWE co-founders, Optimism is its own art movement. “Yellow isn’t always the most popular color [in art],” says Johndonnell. While Optimistic art is gaining ground, he says, the isolation and financial difficulty of being a working artist can contribute to feelings of pessimism. In the hopes of supporting the individual artists while also serving the greater good, 50 percent of the profits from any artwork sold go to the artist, while the remaining 50 percent go to fund depression and suicide prevention, as well as future UMEWE projects.
Right now, the biggest project for Johndonnell is ensuring that he can maintain a physical presence in Midtown. The “beta test” space has proven effective, so it’s time to seek a more permanent arrangement. Once the space is secured, Sobala and Johndonnell hope to look into creating more Happy Spots in Midtown. He has already received approval from one building-owner to repair a wall and paint a mural there, and the partners would like to create a Happy Spot with a practical purpose – like a sculpture that provides wi-fi or a bench capable of heating itself.
“The nature of anything that’s collaborative is that it changes with the context,” he says. So far, he has worked locally with artists including Eugene Stetz, I am 2nd (a/k/a Joseph Lalima), Tyler Borchert and Dan Green, as well as organizations like O+. In the near future, he’d like to partner with seniors’ groups, mental health facilities and local government. But, says Johndonnell, it’s really up to the community to determine where things go from here. “As an artist, I can only have a certain amount of intent,” says Johndonnell. “And then I have to just let it kind of become.”
The (P)optimism Shoppe, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday/Monday by appointment, 622 Broadway, Kingston; www.intoyellow.com.