Arts News: Cerbera Breaks the Conventional Gallery Mold

Philipp Eirich got into the gallery business after organizing a sold-out show during last year’s big NCECA ceramics conference in Kansas City. A member of the Eirich Machines family headquartered in southwestern Germany, Eirich began his relationship with art as a collector, amassing hundreds of works with his ceramicist wife, German-born Melanie Sherman.

The two met 18 years ago in a German expat chat room that Eirich set up as part of his job as an IT specialist (he now does web development for his own company, 3-D Rex Studios). At the time Eirich was working in Chicago and Sherman was living in South Carolina with her two small children. She joined him, they married and settled in the north Chicago suburb of Grayslake, frequently commuting 40 miles into the city.

Part of their business was with Jayson Lawfer, a widely exhibited potter who teaches at the Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago and opened the Nevica Project gallery in Chicago in 2008. Eirich and Sherman were avid patrons of Nevica, which carries a wide selection of works by leading ceramics artists in addition to painting, photography and sculpture.

In 2013, Sherman was accepted into the ceramics program at the Kansas City Art Institute and moved here; Eirich joined her in spring 2016 after months of back and forth. Through it all they continued their relationship with Lawfer; in fact, Eirich’s decision to launch his Cerbera Gallery was sparked by a visit from Lawfer in January 2016.

While touring shows in the Crossroads the two spotted an empty space at 2011 Baltimore. Learning that it was owned by Leedy-Voulkos Art Center director Stephanie Leedy, they approached her about renting it to mount a show during the NCECA conference.

The resulting exhibit, which opened March 4, 2016, featured a salon-style array of works reflecting Eirich and Sherman’s extensive connections in the Kansas City ceramics community, including local artists and student works as well as national and international artists, with a heavy emphasis on functional ceramics.

It sold out, and a project that was meant to be a one-off provided a financial cushion to continue.

That first show set the template for Cerbera’s modus operandi, offering what Eirich describes as “a fun environment” featuring affordable work in a crowded, casual setting. Dozens of cups and small objects sit on long shelves lining the gallery walls; they crowd the window sills, perch atop pedestals and stand on the floor.

Two-dimensional works, including photographs and paintings by some of Eirich’s favorite German artists, hang everywhere there isn’t shelving.

“It’s less intimidating. It keeps people returning and engaged,” he said. “It’s an extension of my living room.”

A visit to Eirich and Sherman’s loft in a converted grade school building in Shawnee Heights confirmed the accuracy of that claim. The living room is a veritable encyclopedia of KC ceramics, with works by Rain Harris, Paul Donnelly, Chris Gustin, Jessica Brandl, Lauren Mabry, Victor Babu, Cary Esser, Don Reitz, George Timock and Ken Ferguson, interspersed with pieces by Akio Takamori, Ken Price, Beatrice Wood, Michael Lucero and Jun Kaneko.

There’s a big John Balistreri sculpture in the entryway, a Laura Berman print in the master bedroom and a Peregrine Honig drawing in the bathroom. The kitchen alone displays more than a hundred ceramic cups — Sherman’s passion — and there are “400 to 500 more in the garage in boxes,” Eirich said.

At the gallery, Eirich “restocks” every four to six weeks, often with some of the works Lawfor drives down from Nevica in Chicago, as well as pieces from his and Sherman’s private collection.

In early November, Eirich was deep in the planning for a “Winter Salon,” featuring sculptural ceramics and affordable functional wares as well as two-dimensional works by artists he discovered in the Kansas City Flatfile at H&R Block Artspace. The exhibit, which opened on Black Friday and continues through the middle of this month, incorporates a specially commissioned display scheme of tiered, illuminated pyramids designed to hold cups, vases and other objects.

German-born Philipp Eirich specializes in affordable work in “a fun environment” at his Cerbera Gallery in the Crossroads Arts District. Photo by Jim Barcus.

Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson is the editor of KC Studio. She has written about the visual arts for numerous publications locally and nationally.

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