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Sapien Gallery Connects Kansas City Artists to the World

'An Organic Event'

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Above image credit: Co-curator RJ Junger stands in the foyer inside Sapien Gallery. (Park Zebley | Flatland)

Even before crossing the threshold of Sapien Gallery, co-curator RJ Junger already is explaining how deeply this space is influenced and built by a community of artists.

Junger points to detailing above the front door that encircles the building: smooth, rectangular panels that break up the gray outer walls with a pop of light purple. Junger explains that these panels were custom made by a local artist in order to bring the space’s exterior closer to its interior.

Sapien Gallery is a gallery and artspace project run by and for artists of any medium in Kansas City and beyond. Curated by RJ Junger and Miriamne Marlowe, the space is located at 1331 Erie St. in North Kansas City. Sitting squarely in the middle of an industrial park, the space doesn’t seem like a conventional gathering place for artists, but that’s exactly the disruption that Junger says they are aiming for.

“I think Kansas City needs like some kind of like experimental, interesting space going on,” Junger says. “There is no donor, and there is no backlash, so it’s an organic event.”

The gallery’s latest group exhibition, Cyborg Environmentalism, highlights works predominantly by artists from outside of Kansas City. Artists sent their work to be viewed not because of the prestige of the gallery, but because of their relationship with it and its founders.

Entry to the gallery space inside the Sapien space.
Entry to the gallery space inside the Sapien space. Shown here is a piece titled “She’s one of the elite. She’s my oilfield wife.” by Connor Dolan, part of the Cyborg Environmentalism exhibition. (Courtesy | Beeh Beckvar)

Junger notes that this relationship between artists is the focus of the gallery’s new exhibition, titled Mycelium Phone, which opened April 9.

“The artist that made the piece in the front foyer, she runs a gallery in Ecuador and Guayaquil,” Junger says. “I ended up going down there and hanging out with them and having little talks about gallery spaces and art, things like that, and creating this gallery trade.”

The new exhibition features works curated by Juniin Gallery, a gallery located in Ecuador. During the exhibition’s opening, a livestream showed a parallel gallery opening in Juniin Gallery, displaying the works by Kansas City artists that have been curated by Sapien.

In preparation for the event, the two galleries paired artists and their unfinished works to elaborate on and complete each other’s pieces from across the world. Junger hopes that this type of collaborative art making integrated into a gallery showcase will further connect artists outside of their typical social spheres.

“If you want to see cool things happen, you kind of have to make them happen,” Junger says. “Taking on an ambitious project, but making it in bite-sized portions, and enough to satiate my own desires, but not so much that I’m getting stressed out or having all these expectations … I think it’s really great and should be a more acceptable model for art spaces. Especially because I’m not getting paid to do this. I can take this method of rogue organizing wherever I go with me.”

Flyer announcing the opening of Mycelium Phone, Sapien Gallery’s current exhibition.
Flyer announcing the opening of Mycelium Phone, Sapien Gallery’s current exhibition. (Contributed)

Sapien Gallery describes itself as a place to “enhance the creative experience of makers and thinkers it interacts with” on a global scale. Connecting artists is integral to the artistry on display within the gallery.

Junger explains: “It is more of a space to cultivate these thoughts that I’ve had between connections … being like, ‘You, and you, do you realize that your work is in conversation and you should meet up and collaborate, or create this larger space to talk about ideas?’ The group shows are more about the ideas that connect those things together and potentially connecting artists from different parts of the country or different parts of the world in conversation.”

The gallery’s cozy kitchen is off to the side with paint cans in the sink. The kitchen is for artists who have moved into the studio rooms within the Sapien space.

“It’s less sterile here because it is a DIY space,” Junger says. “It’s more of like a thought experiment.”

Providing comfortable, inviting studio spaces is one way that Sapien Gallery supports local artists that are open to playing off of each other and collaborating on pieces globally. The gallery project currently hosts the residencies of four local artists.

“Creating those spaces and connections for people to kind of level up and make new connections and build their path towards their desired lifestyle, or their desired job, or their desired exhibition … It’s more of a philosophy of life,” Junger says. “Thinking about what I want to do, and what sort of conversations I want to be having. If things are within reason and within my control and capability, with a little bit of elbow grease, I think that’s more DIY, that’s more underground, the ‘salt of the earth’ that people are looking for.”

Junger believes that bringing artists and the community together through approachable, interactive gallery exhibits is crucial to developing connections between art and community.

“It is an all white walled gallery space, but the subtleties are coming out to play,” Junger says. “We’ve had a couple DJs come through. Before an opening, sometimes we’ll…get a disco ball hanging and mood lighting and have them play throughout the whole thing. Trying to create a larger audience for the work or a larger conversation between leisure and desire … and the sterility of (gallery spaces).”

Junger hopes that by continuing these collaborative events Sapien Gallery will foster conversation between artists and community members about the role that art plays in our lives.

“I love talking to people and they’re like, ‘Oh well I’m not an artist, I got my degree in physics’ or something, and that’s like no, that’s awesome and should be a part of the expanded part of the conversation. I try to do studio visits with everyone who shows at the gallery and have kind of an expanded conversation of: ‘What’s your life like? What’s happening with the work? What do you think of the theme?’ ”

After all, it’s the type of conversation that Sapien was founded through.

“For me that question was, ‘What does it mean to be an artist right now?’ and ‘What does it mean to be a thinker and a person in a community?’ Junger says. “All these questions about how I make this work, what is meaningful, and what is fake.”

Sapien Gallery and Mycelium Phone exhibition currently is only open by request. Visitors can message the curators on the gallery’s Instagram page for availability.

Park Zebley is a journalism student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a reporting intern at Kansas City PBS.

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