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Tiny Telephone Room' gallery proves small spaces can show great artwork

TACOMA, Wash. — Behind the mustache, he's pasty-gray, with a rifle laid beside him in his coffin. And next to him, there's a big, black, rotary-dial telephone.

Welcome to the Telephone Room, a 12-and-a-half square foot room in a Tacoma, Wash., North End home and the city's newest alternative art space, just 7 months old.

Billed by Fernandez-Llamazares and her co-gallerists Marty Gengenbach and Ellen Ito as the second-smallest gallery in the world (first place also goes to Tacoma, for its downtown Tollbooth gallery), the Telephone Room is not only a creative use of a tiny space, it's also becoming an off-the beat art party, an intimate, low-key alternative to museums and galleries. And the dead man? Made of paint, paper and canvas, he's part of the art.

"The original owner lived here until 1990," says Fernandez-Llamazares of her 1930s Dutch Colonial home. "The telephone room was part of the original design. We couldn't use it for anything else, so we had the idea for a gallery."

Originally built to give phone users privacy, the Telephone Room is about the size of a walk-in closet. With shelves and a casement window up one end and the door at the other, there's just enough room inside for one person (or two if you like intimacy). The old-fashioned black phone still rests on one wall, and the remaining space holds two medium-sized paintings, several small ones, or one room-sized installation. In July, that meant Jeremy Mangan's "Badman" — a life-size 19th-century Mexican bandit, sculpted of foam, covered in canvas and painted in shades of black and gray. Nestled in his plywood coffin, the "Badman" takes up pretty much the whole Telephone Room, and has just the effect you'd imagine a corpse in the closet would have.

Which is exactly what Fernandez-Llamazares, Gengenbach and Ito want. All three work in the local art scene (Gengenbach, Ito and formerly Fernandez-Llamazares at the Tacoma Art Museum, with Ito also an independent artist), and they know some of the best regional artists — Mangan just won the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation's annual award, and previous artist Nicholas Nyland has shown in the TAM Northwest Biennial. The three gallerists could also see big possibilities for an art space this small. Since their February debut they've featured two- and three-dimensional art, including a 16-person group show, and feel the most successful art is that which emphasizes the space.

"Having 16 artists in there was astonishing," says Ito. "I'm hoping we can continue to explore that. I'd like a site-specific installation."

But the Telephone Room isn't just about great art in a tiny space. It's also a happening event for Tacoma's art community. Monthly openings, held on the first Wednesday of the month, have the feel of a private party, happening as they do in someone's living room and backyard. Snacks are prepared in Fernandez-Llamazares' kitchen, drinks can be served (something that health department rules limit at other galleries) and there's a general camaraderie, as most of the guests are artists, friends or TAM colleagues.

Opening up her home for regular public art events doesn't seem to bother Fernandez-Llamazares.

"It involves a little more vacuuming than I'd do on my own," she smiles, "but it's fine. And it quickly became clear we wouldn't have hordes of strangers coming through." The address of the Telephone Room, being a private residence, isn't posted anywhere on the gallery's blog or marketing: Instead, those interested need to RSVP by e-mail which, says Fernandez-Llamazares, reduces the security risk.

But perhaps the thing that most separates the Telephone Room from other galleries is the art-related events. Realizing that it might take folks a long time to actually see the art filing in one at a time, the three gallerists came up with the idea of holding monthly art-making evenings, led by the artist on show. First up was Jeremy Mangan, who as well as being a painter (and, coincidentally, an exhibition preparateur at TAM) also happens to be a professional ice sculptor, working with the prestigious Okamoto Studio in New York. At the July event, Mangan led the 30 people at the party in carving beer mugs made of ice.

In Fernandez-Llamazares' back yard, adults and kids alike took up chisels and screwdrivers, whittling away the surprisingly-malleable ice into the stein-shape Mangan had already rought-cut with power tools. Those who had finished filled up with local custom brews, others drifted inside to look at the "Badman," and everyone was obviously having a great time. Future events include an August film night, a LEGO session in September (with the results going into the Telephone Room space) and a vampire/zombie party in October.

"I think it works really well," says artist and TAM preparateur James Porter, who was at the carving event. "It's the one venue in town where you really have some space, have a party."

"It's a welcome respite from the sterile environment of a museum," say Allison Hill and Jennifer Peters, both of TAM's visitor services. "It's much more interactive, open to new conversations."

Margaret Bullock, curator of special collections at TAM, was another at the ice-carving event. "I like that there's a focused, particular theme," she says. "I like how the "Badman" only just fits into the space. They've got good people thinking about it."

Finally, the narrow walls of the Telephone Room help artists push their own boundaries.

"This was something I would never have done on my own," says Mangan, who usually paints two-dimensional work and, inspired by the idea of "a dead guy in a closet," used the "Badman" to explore how his sculpting skills could translate into a painted work.

For such a small space, the Telephone Room is doing big things in Tacoma's art scene. And, says Ellen Ito, it's something that could really only happen in Tacoma: cool art, funky venue, friendly people, and well and truly under the radar. As James Porter puts it, "I don't see any of the establishment here."

View the art

What: Telephone Room gallery

When: Up now is Jessica Bender's "The Bluebird" through Aug. 31. The next event is a by-invitation artist LEGO-making evening from 5-9 p.m. Aug. 26, with an opening 5-9 p.m. Sept. 4, and a LEGO show up through Sept. 31. Other viewings are by appointment only.

Where: To reserve a spot and get the address of the event, send an e-mail to

Admission: free


Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.