Smile Politely

Promoting culture at the Heartland Gallery

I wanted to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book. — James Joyce, on writing Ulysses

If I’ve learned anything in the last six months, it’s that life doesn’t care about your plan. You can plot and prepare to your heart’s content, but life is sometimes going to go awry. Your magical to-do list (the one that’s going to lead to your precious and misguided vision of perfection) is going to change drastically, and it can be more than a little unsettling. When life goes haywire, you have two choices: Fight against it, or change with it.

Sometimes the best thing to do is just swim with the current. See what happens. Accept the change and reap the benefits of the unexpected. Other times, you need to build yourself a raft and row that thing against the flow of bullshit that’s coming your way. A big part of growing as a human being is recognizing when you need to float and when you need to flail.

A couple of weeks ago, I pulled up to Heartland Gallery in Downtown Urbana for their Bloomsday Celebration event. This particular day celebrates James Joyce and is highlighted by reenactments of the events in his novel, Ulysses. I had been to Heartland dozens of times, mingling at the opening night receptions for the Station Theatre, but I had never been able to attend the other events that Jan and John Chandler, the owners, had organized. This Bloomsday (eve) would feature a live reading of selections from Ulysses by local actors Gary Ambler, Joi Hoffsomer, and Seamus Reilly. I was interested, excited, and … disappointed to see that the lights were out when I arrived (an hour early) for the big day.

Downtown Urbana is quite the cluster fuck at the moment. For several weeks now, local businesses and the patient masses have had to contend with detours, construction blockades, temporary four-way stops, and perilous looking pits. On this particular day, The Courier Café, The Cinema Art Gallery, Heel to Toe, and several other downtown businesses were affected by a power outage. Heartland Gallery was without lights and had no phone service. When I walked into the space, Jan Chandler greeted me with a watery smile, explaining that the power line had been cut during construction. She didn’t know when it would be back on — if ever — and she wasn’t sure what to do with all of the food that was warming in the mini fridge in back.

I’m a problem solver. I don’t roll over when times get tough for me or anybody unfortunate enough to be in my overbearing wake. I pulled out my phone, called Gary and Joi, told them the situation, and asked them to get to the shop as soon as possible so we could figure out what to do next. As other patrons and friends arrived, Jan explained the problem and bemoaned her ruined event. Over the next hour, everyone happily decided that this was not the end of our good time. People chipped in, moved tables and chairs outside, laid out the food and wine, arranged books, and settled in for an impromptu literary picnic. Jan invited people to try the Bloomsday feast that she had provided for the impending readings. We complied with hesitation and, then, growing fervor. 

What followed was a delightful afternoon filled with rich history, light rain, warm laughter, and Irish accents. Joi Hoffsommer was lovely and refreshing, as always, and Gary Ambler was funny in an uncomplicated way I’ve grown to admire very much over the years. Seamus Reilly, a native Irishman, delivered hysterically funny monologues and served as the historian of the group. We ate gorgonzola sandwiches, fruit, olives, and fig jam. We stuffed ourselves with finger foods and information. When a sprinkling rain threatened our lively group, the proprietor of The Cinema Gallery invited us to continue under the awning out front. So we picked up the table, cloth and all, and moved the party down the way.

I learned more about James Joyce that day than I previously knew about Ireland as a whole (my father’s side of the family is enthusiastic and proud in its Irish heritage). I knew there was no way I would be able to retain all of Reilly’s historical tidbits, so I scheduled a follow-up visit to Heartland with Jan Chandler.

Currently on display at Heartland Gallery is a wonderful exhibit of writers from Dublin. Jan Chandler has an extensive collection of Irish literature, as well as photographs and art work depicting authors’ homes and inspirations. Many of Jan’s own digital photographs are on display. They depict sights ranging from a statue of Oscar Wilde and Trinity College to storefronts, castles, and cemeteries. The day I visited Jan at Heartland Gallery, she was showing The Dead, a movie based on James Joyce’s work. She knows an impressive amount of information about this film — and the others in the sizeable collection on hand. There are jigsaw puzzles, mini busts of Dublin writers, multiple editions of Ullyses, prints of Chandler’s photos, audio books, and various guide books.

Jan and I talked about her shop for a while, and I realized right away that her knowledge base is not only extensive, but ever-growing. 

Smile Politely: You travel to Ireland — I know that. How many times…?

Jan Chandler: I go once a year, in January. Sometimes I meet up with my artists on another trip.

[Chandler tells me, between customers, that she goes in January to attend a craft trade fair. June and September are good times to visit as well.]

SP: You have a lot of books on display here for the exhibit, but you have others, right?

Chandler: I lend books from my limited collection. I just jot down a note with the person’s name and they can take it to read at home. Most people don’t know that!

SP: You’re not really just selling sweaters and keepsakes made in Ireland. I mean, you really educate people about the artists and the place. It’s like a museum…

Chandler: Exactly! That’s what I’ve always wanted, since the very beginning. I’d like to sell things, sure, but I just want to promote the culture.  

[Again, while Jan spoke with another visitor, I looked at some of the incredible pieces displayed through the gallery. The subject turned to another event she held at Heartland with music and readings.]

SP: When was the other reading?

Chandler: That was June 20. It was a solstice event with the C-U Story Telling Guild. I don’t like speaking in public as myself. I can do acting but…

SP: I’m the same way.

Chandler: I get nervous as myself. I have more of a background in performing arts than visual arts.

SP: Really. That’s surprising. You know so much about these pieces…

I cannot possibly catalog everything Jan and I talked about in that 90 minutes. She has collected and displayed a rather impressive treasure trove of Irish keepsakes, jewelry, clothing, paper goods, and art. We stayed primarily in the back part of the shop/museum, and I still learned a wealth of information about the process of creating Giclée prints, the connection between Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, and Irish weather patterns. I will definitely visit again, and not just as a customer. As far as museums go, this one is the best. Personal tours, gorgeous displays of colorful art, and beautiful books you can take home? Yes, please. 

More Articles