Chelbi Wade: Let’s Hear it for South Main
People always ask. Chelbi Wade always explains. It’s about her first name. Where did it come from? Is that what her parents named her or has she created it? And how do you pronounce it?
In reverse order, her art studio is the Shell and Bee Studio and “shell bee” works to pronounce her name; yes, that is what her parents named her; all three girls in her family have the same initials, CAW, as their mother Catherine A. Wade.
“It rarely ever gets spelled right,” Chelbi admits.
Chelbi is the guiding force behind SoMA, South of Main Art Collective, in Deep River, which is hosting the River Valley Artists new show, Our Towns. The show, which runs though Sunday, March 27, features art depicting Essex, Deep River, and Chester drawn from the work of some 25 river valley artists. SoMA itself opened last June.
Community was what Chelbi had in mind with the SoMA collective. There are three other artists with studios on the premises, Linalynn Schmelzer of River Valley Dance Project, Jeni Gray-Roberts of RiverFire Glass, and Erin Gordon of Wellness Room Deep River.
“I thought of the gallery as a sanctuary where artists could work together and support each other,” she says.
Chelbi already had a small space, some 350 square feet, in the building before she opened SoMA. The building itself also houses Ashleigh’s Garden.
Chelbi opened the smaller space just days before the COVID lockdown in 2020. She says that the lockdown, rather than a discouragement, gave her the resolve to open the bigger gallery when space became available in the same building.
“I figured if I could survive the pandemic lockdown, I could survive anything,” she says.
Last spring, the thrift shop that was once also in the same building moved.
“Honestly, everything just came together. The space was available; it was right—brick, concrete, lots of glass windows.”
Now SoMA has some 4,000 square feet with both individual studios and common space. Caitlyn Concasia of CMC Signs in Deep River did the murals that now decorate the outside bay windows.
Redoing the building became a job for the entire Wade family, with Chelbi’s parents helping out. Chelbi says keeping busy is part of how the Wade family lives. Her mother and father owned the now-closed Wade’s Country Store on Route 80 in Deep River and her mother is also the nurse manager at the Middlesex Health Shoreline Medical Center.
Renovations started at the beginning of last May. Among the tasks Chelbi anticipated was replacing some old carpet. Then, she says, at 3 o’clock one morning, another solution came to her.
“I thought to myself, ‘Why carpeting?’ I realized I could just remove it and have the concrete floor. This was an art studio; the floor would be much easier to clean for art,” she says.
Chelbi has kept the small studio she started out with as a place for toddlers’ art classes. She also is conducting workshops on wreath making, calligraphy, and candle making for adults in the larger studio.
Chelbi’s vision expands beyond her studio to Deep River itself. She has worked with the town’s Economic Development Commission and the Deep River Merchants association to promote awareness of what the town has to offer, particularly on the south end of Main Street, which is also State Route 154, where SoMA, as its name makes clear, is located.
“I’m working with the local merchants to get more interest in this side of town,” she says. “There is charm here; it is not appreciated.”
She is particularly eager for people to know there is art in the south part of town.
“It will bring people to this side,” she says.
In the midst of starting SoMA, Chelbi also had a daughter, now three months old. It was neither an easy pregnancy and her daughter Luci’s health was so precarious when she was born that Chelbi and her husband, Joshua Knowlton, spent more than a month living at the Ronald McDonald House in New Haven. It offers living quarters for the parent of children with serious medical issues treated at local hospitals.
Now, Luci is home and Chelbi is coming back to the studio one day a week.
“The gallery really keeps me on track,” she says. “People think it’s easy working in the arts, but you need to be your own P.R. person, bookkeeper, secretary, receptionist, and all the other roles that it takes to keep a business afloat. There isn’t much money in the arts, but there is a great sense of community.”
Chelbi, who now lives in Deep River, grew up in Westbrook.
“Everyone I knew was doing sports; all I wanted to do was draw,” she recalls.
She remembers the now-closed Tracy Art Center.
“It was so sad when it shut down—devastating,” she says.
She graduated from Mercy High School in Middletown in 2010 and from Montserrat College of Art in Massachusetts. She also has certification from Northeast Montessori Institute and has taught in Montessori settings. She said what she particularly liked about the Montessori method was its emphasis on arts education.
As an artist, Chelbi particularly likes interdisciplinary projects, among them printmaking, not multiple copies but individual prints, using woodblock, silk screen, and even mixed fabric.
“It’s about recycle and reuse,” she says.
Chelbi painted with River Valley Artists over the summer, and her own contribution to the present show will be a picture of The Nest Coffee Shop in Deep River. The Nest gives young adults with emotional and intellectual challenges a supportive work environment so they can master the skills they will need for other kinds of employment.
“I feel like The Nest is equality, that’s the sense of community I look for,” she says.
River Valley Artists presents Our Towns through to Sunday, March 27 at SoMA–South of Main Art Collective, 500 Main Street, Suite 5 Deep River. A mimosa reception will be held Sunday, Feb. 27 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information, visit www.somadeepriver.com.