When the Democratic National Convention comes to Charlotte next September, "the exposure will be one of the best things that ever happened to us," said John Foster.
"We think that Charlotte is great," and the week in the national and international spotlight will let others in on the secret. John and his wife, A.J. (for Alethia James) are already reaping the benefits.
Artwork from Foster's Frame & Art Gallery decorates the 17,500-square-foot headquarters of the Democratic National Convention Committee in uptown Charlotte; it's a showcase for their 11-year-old Huntersville-based business that serves a diverse group of artists and customers.
The Fosters chose 26 works to feature, 11 by local artist Nellie Ashford, who depicts her childhood in Mecklenburg County and uses bits of fabric she has saved in many of her works. John Foster has worked with Ashford for years and said "We probably talk three or four times a week."
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During a recent tour of convention headquarters, Ashford took visitors through memories of rural life and the segregated four-room school of the 1940s and '50s that inspired her. Ashford has been an official artist of the CIAA in Charlotte, and is working on a poster for the 100th anniversary of the annual tournament next year.
Painter David Fulton, 31, who moved to Charlotte from Virginia, also showed off his abstract work and a portrait of President Obama during the recent media walk-through.
The gallery is one of four, and the only black-owned, chosen to display at the DNCC office. Convention CEO Steve Kerrigan said it was logical that the décor of the office, at 400 S. Tryon, would take its cue from the surrounding museums of the Levine Center for the Arts. Works on display are for sale, except for "Sailing the Red Mark" by Edna Barker, which Kerrigan bought for his office at Foster's because it reminded him of coast scenes from his native New England.
Besides the staff, expected to grow to 200, visitors in town on convention business can view the work and contact the galleries to make a purchase.
At their gallery, the Fosters welcome the chance to promote regional talent - including J. Stacy Utley, who grew up in Raleigh, and William Mangum of Greensboro (his image of an Outer Banks lighthouse is a John Foster favorite) - as well as national artists such as P. Buckley Moss, out of Virginia, and Charles Bibbs of California, whose distinctive work often features African American cultural themes. John Foster estimated that prices range from about $400 to just over $5,000, "something for everyone," he said, from oils to watercolors to mixed media.
"I always had a love for art, a love for collecting," said John Foster. He and A.J. started with glassware, antiques and figurines, with some pieces dating back to the late 1800's. The couple, who have been married for 31 years, started with shopping trips to the north Georgia mountains when both lived in Atlanta, where they met.
He would like to introduce others to the joy of collecting, and not just because it's a good investment. "I tell my customers to ask themselves, 'Does that piece do something to me?'" The Fosters have shared their love with their son, 28, and 15-year-old daughter. "She's grown up meeting many national artists," said her dad.
About 70 percent of the gallery's work is in custom and special-event framing, said John Foster, for companies such as Wachovia/Wells Fargo, NASCAR and TIAA-CREF financial services.
For the Carolina Panthers, Foster said his gallery framed a collection of season tickets, each signed by a player, to be presented to suite owners. "We have made great strides getting into some doors," he said, though there have been obstacles the couple said they've had to overcome as African American small-business owners.
"You learn a lot about yourself," said A.J. Foster, including how to "be innovative and be creative."