Water and Oil mixes it up on St. Paul’s East Side

Jim and Sue Davidson
Photo courtesy of Water and Oil
Jim and Sue Davidson recently opened the WaterandOil.com art gallery in a former Dayton’s Bluff warehouse on St. Paul’s East Side.

 

It’s the kind of stuff you’d find in some highfalutin galleries or museums — skillfully executed landscapes, portraits, nudes and abstracts. But this art doesn’t hang in Minneapolis’ Uptown, either of the downtowns or even in St. Paul’s Lowertown art haven. Nope. These paintings can be found in a new gallery on Payne Avenue, way off art’s beaten path, on the capital city’s East Side.

For those who know the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood, this mixture of art and the East Side could be like… um…. well, just like, the name of the gallery: WaterandOil.com.

Another description could be “counter-intuitive.” That’s a word gallery owner Jim Davidson utters frequently — about his gallery and about keeping his businesses thriving for 25 years in one of St. Paul’s more fragile neighborhoods.

Much of the East Side has long been home to working-class families who have been struggling to recover from some hard times. Big layoffs in the 1980s and ’90s by area businesses — and the closing of such community landmarks as the Whirlpool plant and the Hamm’s/Stroh brewery — hit residents hard.

Today, many residents complain of crime and drug dealing in their neighborhoods. There are empty storefronts along the area’s main commercial street, Payne Avenue, and boarded up homes are a common sight on nearby residential streets. Many a descendent of Irish and Swedish former residents still live there, but a large swath of areas like Dayton’s Bluff are seeing an increase in newer immigrant communities. There’s a sense that this gallery, showcasing the cultural delights of “Old Europe,” is part of a larger conversation about how to create something new and better from the old — a more blended cultural and economic landscape.

Staying on the East Side is important to Davidson. “My body’s parked,” he says. Davidson, a trim man just hitting 60, was born there and grew up there. He’s a self-described “locavore.” He’s expanded the definition of the Oxford American Dictionary’s new Word of the Year to include buying locally as well as eating local products. “I do as much business as I can on the [Payne] Avenue,” says Davidson. “I eat lunch, buy construction supplies (and) carpet” from East Side businesses.

Davidson’s gallery is part of a revitalization of his neighborhood, the “gateway” to Payne Avenue, Swede Hollow and much of the East Side. Across the street from the gallery are the new Swede Hollow brownstones, which are selling for around $220,000 (new investment unheard of just a few years ago in that neighborhood). And more projects are in the works, including city efforts to make the area less commercial and more inviting by slowing aggressive traffic and changing the streetscape.

Water and Oil building
Photo courtesy of Water and Oil
The former warehouse, shown here in the 1930s, has been home to many businesses over the years, including Jim Davidson’s former import business.

 

The Water and Oil gallery takes up 7,000 square feet of a warehouse Davidson owns at Payne Avenue and Kenny Road. Over the years, he has used the building for several entrepreneurial ventures, including a wholesale import business for Scandinavian gifts. He also patented and marketed a successful storage-clip doohickey called twixit! He since has sold both companies. Davidson says he made “a little bit of money” off those businesses (Those twixit! gadgets sold big time — more than 100 million worldwide, he says).

Davidson says he stopped collecting art in the mid-1980s. But while touring antique shops in Sweden two summers ago, he came across a quantity of what he calls “unbelievably good art,” selling for almost nothing. He says the abundance of original oil and watercolors he was finding in Sweden triggered his entrepreneurial gene. “I asked my wife (Sue), ‘How would you like to retire and play with art?’ “

Of the 1,000 or so works Davidson brought back from northern Europe, about 200 are on display in his gallery at any given time. The paintings — created by artists from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark — are modern and contemporary, most dating from 20 to 150 years old.

“Americans seem bent on buying prints. They feel they can’t afford to buy real art,” says Davidson. “But we found [in the United States] framed prints selling for up to $2,500! So we decided to introduce Scandinavian art to the Midwestern market.” Davidson says he wants people to see they can buy what he unapologetically calls his “used” European art for relatively little cost.

He says one-third of the paintings cost less than $500, with another third $500 to $1,500. And the remaining third cost more. The most expensive piece tops out at $8,000.

As Davidson shows me around the gallery, one of his customers, Clark Schroeder of Stillwater, arrives. He’s rented a horse trailer to transport his art. Schroeder and his wife showed up to the gallery’s grand opening a couple of weeks ago not knowing much about the neighborhood and knowing less about the new gallery.

“We had been at a play or opera or something and all dressed up. When we got here [for the opening] there was a cop sitting out front,” says Schroeder. “I asked the officer, ‘Is it a wild atmosphere [here]?’ “

Schroeder discovered the police presence was just a precaution.

“I’ve been here 25 years and I’ve never had an issue,” says Davidson. “Never an altercation, no broken windows. It’s not quite as bad as some people think.”

Schroeder and his wife ended up paying $1,700 for a large, 4-foot by 5-foot landscape by Danish artist Carl Schwenn (1888-1973). Schroeder says the painting will hang on his 22 -foot by 14-foot wall at home.

One piece of “used” European art: $1,700.

Bringing suburban and urban art lovers to St. Paul’s East Side: priceless.

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