Art galleries often take on the personality of their proprietors, so it’s no accident that the SDG Center in the small riverside town of Clifton, Tenn., is a place of creativity, community-building, and welcoming spirit.
On a typical day of operation, the Center can host as many as 50 participants for free art and music lessons, while also offering a modest library, family-oriented games, a study area, and a cozy nook where visitors can enjoy good coffee and conversation. That environment reflects the values of sisters Gabriëlle and Michaëlle van Kleef, who (with support from their parents Amanda and Laurens) are realizing a vision of creating a community arts center that, as its website states, “gives young and old alike an encouraging environment to get creative.”
The sisters are both musicians; they sing and play together in their band Grafted Culture, with the band’s earnings providing some of the support for the Center. Gabriëlle is also a painter and portraitist, and Michaëlle a writer. Born in the Netherlands, the two discovered their mutual love of music during the family’s 3-1/2 years of missionary work in Papua New Guinea prior to their move to Tennessee in 2014; the mission experience also gave Gabriëlle her first taste of being an art educator, when she led informal drawing classes with children.
“It has been a dream of our whole family to start a center like this since we moved to the US,” explains Gabriëlle. “It developed slowly; we initially had another building that wasn’t working out, but in November of 2019 we found this one.” The storefront has about 400 square feet of space that’s been enhanced with elegant alcoves along its walls, built by Laurens van Kleefs with hardwoods sourced from his Tropical Timbers importing business.
The addition of Original Gallery System hanging equipment with integrated lighting makes it possible for each alcove to serve a distinct function. Most are used for display of work done at the Center, and for Gabriëlle’s paintings and portraits, while others are dedicated to specific student uses, including a still life area, where small objects can be arranged and lit in a variety of ways.
A Valentine exhibition in early 2020 was the Center’s first major event. “All the kids made pieces for people they loved, and we hung them so that they could see their art under proper lighting for the first time,” recalls Gabriëlle.
Their mother Amanda notes that on another occasion, “we had a student hang their painting under the gallery lighting to see what it looked like, and the first thing we all noticed was that the grid lines they’d put on the canvas as a reference were showing through from underneath the paint! It was a wonderful teaching opportunity.”
Or, as Gabriëlle puts it, having professional-quality display capabilities “encourages people working here to seek knowledge that’s also at a more-professional level.”
The Center is currently open one day per week, during which the sisters are kept busy with back-to-back 30-minute small-group lessons in painting, guitar, and piano. “We’ll see up to 50 people on a busy day; last week two new families came in with four kids. We’re very blessed with support,” says Michaëlle.
Like virtually every art facility, the SDG Center has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the van Kleef sisters have found that the situation has sparked more interest in and need for their services. “Now more than ever people need art; they can’t visit friends and family, and a lot are sick,” says Michaëlle. “Having a safe place to create and work through your feelings, and see your art hung up has been very fulfilling. It’s been a bad time, but it’s also helped people deal with the situation.”
Looking ahead, the van Kleefs are hoping to open on Saturday evenings for family game nights, and also start offering 3D art classes. “We’re getting ready for working with clay and other materials, so that everyone is able to find a type of art that helps them express themselves,” says Gabriëlle. “And we’re looking forward to displaying 3D works – the Gallery System lighting will work very well for that.”