Help through art: LeSo helping East Toledo fight blightWritten by Tom Konecny | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The winds of change are blowing through East Toledo, with newcomer LeSo Art Gallery providing a strong, fresh breeze.
Having been open for barely two years, LeSo has not only helped revitalize a neighborhood’s love of art, but has inspired others to work together — city officials, artists, musicians, businesses, and more — to kick-start efforts designed at making the East Side, Toledo’s new cool spot.
“We have done 20 shows in two years, which is roughly one a month,” said Brad Scherzer, LeSo’s assistant director. “We already have a reputation for being one of the more active galleries in Toledo.”
LeSo makes its home in a 111-year-old fully restored building on Starr Avenue with a rich history. Its owners — Amber LeFever and Adam Soboleski, whose last names combine to give LeSo its name, and also live upstairs — commissioned Toledo native and artist Matt Taylor to paint its east exterior wall with a bold, intricate mural that instantly achieved local iconic status.
“We kind of landed in East Toledo by chance, but we consider ourselves extremely lucky,” said LeFever, who lives above the gallery with Soboleski. “Everyone in the neighborhood is so giving and accepting and loving. The East Toledo community is everything to us.”
LeSo deals mostly with emerging artists, and those who do not necessarily have a national reputation. The gallery has also worked with the college ranks, inviting graduate level students and professors to display their work. Their shows vary, but the pair believes in nontraditional, shorter, month-long runs to keep the displays ever-changing and original.
Their East Toledo neighborhood has embraced their work and mission, but the people behind LeSo realize it’s just as much about what goes on outside their walls as inside.
“I grew up in Waterville, and understood that East Toledo was singled out as a place that’s more rough,” Scherzer said. “It was perceived as not being in a safe area. Adam and Amber found this building on their own, and they’re not from the area.
“They looked for a building they could afford, and made it happen. It wasn’t necessarily a choice made on a specific area; it was based on their need. We’ve been really working to change that, and a lot of people now identify on Main Street as a positive influence in the arts community.”
A learning center is also part of the gallery’s mission, where classes for youth and adults take place. Their goal is simply to get people engaged with the arts as they’re looking at art. Both LeFever and Scherzer are art school teachers by day, so their work comes naturally.
LeSo is consistently listed as one of the signs of East Toledo’s rebirth. Their association with other partners in the East Toledo Creative Corridor has spawned a new free arts and music festival, titled “The Main Even,” planned for Sept. 13.
“East Toledo is a live music hub for Toledo,” Scherzer said. “It’s probably the most consistent live music in the area. So, we’re basically trying to tap into what’s already there and announce it a little more grander.”
Its combination of music and arts may remind visitors of Bowling Green’s successful Black Swamp Arts Festival, which is no coincidence given the BGSU diplomas belonging to all of LeSo’s staff.
“It’s a lot like the Black Swamp. We want to keep the class of the art up and have a refined gallery experience,” Scherzer said. “We want to engage people with an open concert and really access the East Toledo area. It’s not what people necessarily have in their minds when they think of East Toledo. It’s a lot more walkable and accessible. It’s a good community.”
LeSo also generated an outreach project where 18 trash cans, eight benches and eight planters along Main Street were repainted by local artists. A total of 18 public murals are also being completed, some by local 8th grade students, which will be used on boarded up windows of buildings. The entire project is through a partnership with the East Toledo Family Center, East Toledo Club, local business owners and Owens-Illinois employee volunteers. LeSo also received strong support from City Councilman Mike Craig.
“Last year I went to conference in Columbus and attended seminars on neighborhood economic development,” Craig said. “They were talking about a guy from Canton, and how he used art and music to revitalize downtown Canton.
So I came back all excited and wanted to talk to LeSo. They were all enthusiastic. We sat down and started talking about how to change the business climate, how to revitalize Main Street.”
Craig has been especially impressed how LeSo’s staff has had an immediate regard for their neighborhood despite no direct ties to the east side.
“They’re not the ones going around, ‘how can you help us do this?,’ Craig said. “They’re really self-sufficient. They just figure out what we need to do to get it done. They just care. They want where they’re living to be a nice place, and they’re willing to put in the hard work to make it that way. That’s why I was drawn to what they were doing, and I think everybody’s excited.”
Craig isn’t the only one who is excited. Both businesses and residents have also been quick to recognize the positive work LeSo offers besides just art.
“We receive positive feedback constantly,” Scherzer said. “The neighbors have been extremely supportive, and help us out however they can. A lot of people recognize who we are and identify it as a positive business in the area.”
So far, plans seem to be coming to fruition with a spruced up Main Street, a supportive business community and an arts and music festival all at once. Craig believes these signs, combined with citizens who want to see their neighborhood flourish, mean that East Toledo is gaining momentum.
“We want it to be a nice place for people to come, spend some time, spend some money, and I hope when other people see them spending their time there that they’ll look to open businesses there and keep it that way,” Craig said. “If you get enough of those types of businesses there, you’ll get more restaurants, more entertainment venues, and they may be active every night instead of just the weekend.”
For now, all the success may be due to the fact that LeSo is approaching it by putting others and its community first.
“We’re just doing it to do it,” Scherzer said. “We’re not necessarily in it for the profit. We’re in it for the community, to help other artists. We’re creating a solid area of art for the public, and to try and raise the profile. The gallery itself is a labor of love. We all pitch in our money and our time.”
“We want to do it, we’re passionate about it,” LeFever said.
LeSo Art Gallery is located at 1527 Starr Avenue in East Toledo, and is open Saturday and Sundays from noon-4 p.m. during show exhibitions. More information is available at lesogallery.com. Information on The Main Event can be found at easttoledocc.com.