Above: A bright yellow door tells visitors they’ve come to the right place if they seek to explore the wonders of the slightly mysterious Yellow Door Gallery.
Writer: Brianne Sanchez
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
“Enter through the yellow door.” The emailed invitation to the Yellow Door Gallery is instructive by necessity.
A first-time visitor might double check the gallery’s Wakonda Drive address after parking in front of a white midcentury ranch in a quiet neighborhood on Des Moines’ south side. But this is the place, and during public hours—Yellow Door hosts weekly Sunday afternoon open houses, monthly special events and occasional salons—there’s no need to ring the doorbell.
“Is this a gallery or someone’s house or both?” Bev Ellis says as she arrives, gripping a clipboard providing details about the works on exhibition. She had first heard about Yellow Door earlier that week at a microgrant dinner hosted by artists for artists, and stopped by on a Friday evening in June to catch the end of “Finding Distance,” a show by the artists Gyan Shrosbree and Jim Shrosbree, an adult daughter and father from Fairfield.
“I live here on the south side and I thought, ‘What?
There’s a gallery here?’ I teach children art and I like to come to these to get inspired,” Ellis says once inside, delighted by the feather detail on a sculpture in the exhibition.
Yellow Door Gallery is also a room in the residence of Emily Susanin Kessinger and Mason Kessinger, newlyweds who chose to carve out 500 or so square feet in their 2,250-square-foot home for art and conversation. It flows directly into the kitchen, where visitors can leave donations for artists and maybe grab a glass of wine before meandering and mingling among the pieces and people.
Emily, 27, returned to her hometown last September, bringing with her an enthusiasm about playing a role in Des Moines’ arts and culture scene. She attended Roosevelt High School before moving to Colorado in 2007 to study business and, five years later, to Chicago. She and Mason met while both were working for auction houses—Emily for her uncle at Susanin’s Auctioneers & Appraisers and Mason for Wright, where he continues to work remotely. Looking for a change of pace, she and Mason packed up for Des Moines, a city they believed had hit its stride. Mason, 36, is from Hillsboro, Illinois, and was happy to stay in the Midwest.
Barefoot and wearing a pink shift that jibes with the clean lines of the house, Emily transitions seamlessly from her day job as a project manager at the Iowa Center for Economic Success to gallery night host. Des Moines’ art community “is pretty deeply connected and small, and as an outsider sort of looking in, I started a list of artists I like,” Emily says. Connecting with one person led to more introductions, and soon after, in January 2017, Yellow Door Gallery held its first event, featuring Des Moines artists Andy Davis and Ben Gardner.
“I want to [exhibit] artists that are truly full-time, professional artists,” says Emily, who adds that she seeks artists who are “contemporary and pushing boundaries and doing something different than a landscape framed in gilded wood.”
The Kessingers got the idea of hosting salons when Mason built a website for a friend in Washington, D.C., who curates events designed to give residents “a non-pretentious dose of the amazing creative talent that surrounds them,” as the website (littlesalondc.com) puts it.
“Emily and I have always been gallery rats,” Mason says. “I don’t think we ever would have predicted we’d have one in our home, though.”
Hemmed in by their Chicago apartment’s small footprint, the two put the salon idea on hold until they moved into their Des Moines home. “I’d never really been to a salon before,” Emily says. “I’d never been to a house concert.”
But the home’s open floor plan and clean, white walls (the previous owner was an art collector) made it easy to envision installations and events.
Their first salon featured music by the husband and wife duo In Rooms, a poetry reading by Anna Meister and a home-brewed sour beer by Marcus Walsh, in addition to the Gardner and Davis art exhibition.
“It’s kind of awesome to engage your friends when they’re doing such cool things,” Emily says.
She emcees the evenings, and although her demeanor isn’t super-serious, she wants the salons to be more than a show-and-tell. Every salon features people doing creative work in a number of different formats—from cooking and painting to writing and performing music—and their passion for the craft creates a kind of organic crossover as attendees devote their attention to each in turn.
“Having salons and events in my space, I’m hoping that instead of people just looking at art and saying it’s good, they have some higher-level dialogue about how the art makes them feel,” Emily says.
Jonathan deLima, an actor who has attended several events at Yellow Door Gallery, says he appreciates the atmosphere, adding that he hopes the scope of participating artists grows more culturally and ethnically diverse.
“By keeping the number of people at the salons limited, you can move freely around the space and interact,” he says.
“It’s exciting and refreshing to see a house used like this.”
Already, the gallery is gaining a following. The email list boasts several hundred subscribers, and events draw a mix of repeat attendees from artist circles, buyers, and passers-through who heard about the gallery through word of mouth or flyers Emily has left at the Fleur Cinema & Cafe. Yellow Door hosted a June event for the Des Moines Art Center’s “Salon 4700” group and a live reading of a play, signaling a growing list of featured art forms and events.
“Alternative art spaces have been around since the early 1900s,” says Laurel Farrin, an associate professor at the University of Iowa School of Art who is a longtime friend of the Shrosbree family and had come to see their exhibition at Yellow Door Gallery. “And curators love to see artists who are showing what they want to show and not what the market will bear or what people want in a decorative way.”
The ability to show in a residence appealed to Gyan Shrosbree, too. “We both love hanging [works] in relation to the architecture of the space,” Gyan says. “I also think it could be interesting—kind of educational—for the viewer to see work like this in a domestic space versus a traditional gallery.”
A small sculpture of Jim Shrosbree’s is centered on the dining table, where one might expect to find a bowl of fruit.
The main gallery wall has abstract art hung at widely varying levels, versus the typical prints and family portraits that are common in other homes. But, unlike a museum, the art doesn’t have placards accompanying each piece, explaining the titles and inspiration. Visitors must match the works with a printed gallery guide and engage the artists to learn more.
As the evening light descends, the scene in the gallery shifts and more people arrive, drawn to the Yellow Door experience.