Phyllis Weston relished bringing together art and people from all backgrounds. A classic lady and a modern woman, the gallerist and arts advocate died Dec. 6 at age 94.Weston founded Closson’s downtown gallery in 1964. In 40 years as director, she gave many prominent artists their starts. Weston also helped found what’s now Enjoy the Arts, was a Cincinnati Opera trustee and was behind Cincinnati Ballet’s founding.In her 80s, Weston realized the dream of running her own space. Phyllis Weston-Annie Bolling Gallery opened in 2006 and became the Phyllis Weston Gallery in 2010. The tiny dynamo was a constant presence, showcasing a new generation of Cincinnati artists.Throughout her storied life — she once had a screen test with Orson Welles — “Phyllis from Galion, Ohio” exuded small-town warmth. “I just love people,” she’d say. Some share what they loved about her.John Ruthven, “the 20th Century Audubon” – He had his first major show around 1967 at Closson’s. “I was the new kid on the block and given the back gallery on the third floor,” he says. All 25 paintings sold. Through Weston, Ruthven met maritime artist John Stobart and others who’d influence his life. “She had that talent of putting people together at the right time and place.”Annie Bolling, former business partner – “Though there were decades between us, I always felt that I was talking to a close friend or a sister. She was very kind and liberal. She’d not let technology get away from her. She was one hell of a saleswoman. She’d say, ‘Do something you love in life and never retire, because when you retire, it all goes south.’ ”Max Unterhaslberger, artist – When Unterhaslberger was in high school, Weston gave him her gallery’s basement for a studio. “Phyllis was the toughest, most resilient and driven person I’ve ever met,” the 22-year-old says. He witnessed her take only weeks to recover from a cracked pelvis and pneumonia when she was 91. “Without Phyllis, I would not be who I am today. Phyllis was the Art Baroness of Cincinnati, with a network that would make any YP cringe.”Holly Schapker, artist – “She believed in me before I did,” Schapker says. The day they met at Closson’s, Weston kept fielding phone calls, finally explaining, “I must be the one person in the city who knew Princess Diana.” It was right after Diana’s death. Schapker painted in Weston’s East Walnut Hills backyard, and never knew who’d appear. She says the experiences made her feel like John Singer Sargent, who painted in the homes of elegant people.Bill Seitz, former gallery director at The Carnegie – Seitz started at Closson’s as a framer in the late ’80s. He says Weston was a trusting mentor. “A lot of time was spent just watching her,” he says. “When I got to Malton Gallery, I thought, ‘OK, I have the eye. I’m doing it now.’ I never had to look for a job beyond Closson’s. That pays tribute to Phyllis and just those couple of years.” Throughout Seitz’s career, Weston kept in touch. “I always felt special, even though she made it feel that way to everyone.”Weston embraced youth and emerging artists.Courtney Huber, Phyllis Weston Gallery director – Huber helped Weston write her Great Living Cincinnatian speech. “I’ll admit, I was very intimidated,” she says. “The nerves wore off about the second day, when Phyllis brought me a slice of chess pie. She was every bit a little girl in spirit.”
Cate Becker, former Phyllis Weston Gallery director – “Now and then she would let slip a story, that if it were anyone else, would be unbelievable,” she says. “Like the time she came roaring into the gallery, The New York Times in hand, smacking it down and announcing, ‘Did you see this?! I gave Francis Bacon a show in the early ’80s and I could have bought that triptych for $7,000. I am furious with myself.’ The article was about Bacon’s triptych selling at Christie’s for $138 million.”Sara Vance Waddell, collector, arts patron – Vance Waddell was pointed toward Weston when she started collecting about 20 years ago. Soon BFFs, they pondered why they didn’t run a gallery together. “She was the most contemporary, with-it chick I ever knew,” she says. “She molded me. The Queen City’s crown has been crushed.”
PHYLLIS WESTON GALLERY will continue to operate at 2005 1/2 Madison Road, O’Bryonville. More info: phyllisweston.com.