Designer Neita Fran Ward seems to wear many hats – entrepreneur, educator and entertainer – but one thing she does not claim to be is an artist.
Some might disagree after visiting her Valerosa Designs and Gallery, a unique art showcase in the heart of Bergfeld Center.
The gallery in many respects seems as unique as the artwork it displays, from custom jewelry crafted by an expert Navaho artist to sculptures and blown glass designed in the hills of Arkansas.
“All of the art is original, there are no copies,” she said. “All of the artists, except for three, are local artists.”
The East Texas native holds a degree in fine art and channels her creativity into interior design, using her gallery as an enormous canvas – everything is artfully arranged to enhance colors, textures and space.
Even the floor is unique - it’s actually concrete, stained to resemble hammered copper and match the inlays of her display cabinets.
“I want this gallery to be a work of art,” she said with a grin.
NATIVE AMERICAN ORIGINALS
Mrs. Ward, who serves as president of the Bergfeld Merchants Association, appears driven to promote the creative genius of others, lending seemingly endless energy to promote the art community.
She’s owned galleries for more than 20 years, including New Mexico, where she discovered a passion for southwestern jewelry and the artisans that create it.
Her gallery in Tyler, 108 E. 8th St., opened two years ago and carries a wide variety of custom creations, featuring old world craftsmanship.
“I design the jewelry and a Navaho silver smith makes it,” she said. “All my stones are real stones, handpicked.”
Apparently a chance meeting with Navajo jewelry maker Brian Billie set the stage for their business partnership, which dates back to 2001.
She supplies the ideas and materials, and he transforms them into reality.
“He does it the old way,” she said, of his practice of shaping intricate silver designs using an old tree stump.
The rare jewelry enjoys a following of both national and international collectors, she said, adding, “What I hear from people most of the time is, ‘This is what I would expect to see in a big city, some place like San Francisco or New Orleans.’”
That’s the whole idea - to bring one-of-a-kind creations to East Texas, she said.
But it’s not been easy.
LEARNING ABOUT ART
Mrs. Ward dips occasionally into her personal funds to keep things rolling, believing the efforts will help support established artists and encourage emerging ones.
Spend any time in the gallery and it is evident nothing is positioned by accident.
“I’m very visual,” she said. “I see things from a big perspective.”
That philosophy also applies to the people she chooses to surround herself with – artists, entertainers and educators.
Her husband is a school superintendent and she’s a former elementary school librarian, who continues to use art to stimulate understanding.
“I love, love, love watching a child read a book,” she said. “When they get that ah-ha moment, I love it. That’s why I chose to be a children’s librarian.”
As a full time gallery owner, she continues to stay involved in arts education.
She is a champion of the new Born to Read program at The University of Texas at Tyler, which encourages expectant parents to read to their children while they are still in utero, and shares that message in speaking engagements.
Valerosa Designs and Gallery recently sourced dozens of pieces of artwork for display in the university’s new pharmacy college.
And local listeners of KTBB 97.5 benefit from a Saturday morning radio show Mrs. Ward channels, Art Connections of East Texas, which highlights the work of artists, musicians and designers.
“I had a radio show in New Mexico for seven years,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why not have one here, too?’ We try to elevate the importance of art in people’s lives … my lofty goal is to elevate art and artists.”
The designer’s efforts are not going unnoticed, it seems.
“This place … it’s brought a brightness to Bergfeld,” said gallery visitor and art enthusiast Barbara Shtofman, who serves on the board of trustees for the Tyler Museum of Art. “With the cooperation with UT Tyler, it’s an honor for local artists to be so visible. It’s wonderful.”
Some artists whose work is on display in Mrs. Ward’s gallery agree with the assessment.
“If we can get the people in Tyler to realize this is here, there are some really fine pieces in here, without the drive to Dallas,” said award-winning artist David Ackerson. “I really hope we can get the notoriety that this gallery deserves … come, look, visit and talk with the artists.”
Artist Gaylon Dingler, whose celebrated realism paintings hang throughout Texas and beyond, said it’s nice to have quality so close to home.
“It’s such a good gallery, I think,” he said. “You could go to Dallas or you can come here. As for Texas, there are a lot of galleries … this is a good one.”
For more information about the gallery and local artist activities, visit valerosadesigns.com or artconnectionetx.org.