Philadelphia’s Overbrook section is home to a place where art comes alive on the canvas.
As an artist and the owner of Philadelphia Framing and Fine Art, LaReine Nixon views her work as way to share stories with others.
“The writer writes the story and the painter tells the story. What I like is being able to have a story that I want to tell. I’m able to, in a visual way, take some sources and put it all together on a canvas and say something that has some significance. I can paint something that will make you think,” says the 54-year-old artist.
The gallery, located at 61st and Lancaster Avenue, houses Nixon’s vibrant, signature pastels in addition to paintings and sculptures by other artists.
When customers come into the gallery to browse, Nixon encourages them to purchase a piece of art that elicits a response.
“It’s the piece that you’re affected by, tugs at your heartstrings, reminds you of something, makes you feel something — that’s what you ought to buy,” she advises.
Throughout her seven years as an artist, Nixon has painted about 300 pieces and a dozen book covers.
Nixon’s favorite piece is her first published work titled, “Not for Sale.” The painting depicts a little Black girl with blond locks and bright blue eyes who is peering out from behind of the American flag. To the girl’s right is a replica of a poster advertising slaves slated to be sold. The piece is one of Nixon’s top sellers.
“The most challenging (thing) is having people understand what art is — and that it’s not decoration. It’s not an accessory like pillows and drapes. It’s consciousness. It’s history. It’s culture,” Nixon says of art.
“Whoever is telling the story through visual arts, it’s usually going to reflect the history and culture and consciousness of that person.”
During her 20 years in the art world, Nixon endured challenges as she moved her business to various locations throughout West Philadelphia.
Nixon’s foray into the art business came in 1992 after she was laid off from her job as a fundraiser for New Jersey-based nonprofit agency. With the assistance of a friend who owned a framing shop, Nixon quickly learned framing techniques. Armed with an inventory of framed prints, Nixon became an outdoor art vendor on the 52nd Street corridor.
“I averaged about $800–$900 a week selling art on a corridor where sneakers were the order of the day, but because people were exposed to the art, they bought it,” says Nixon.
Two years later, she relocated to empty lot at 49th and Market and ended up turning the site into an open-air fine art gallery.
After two years of solid sales, the 49th Street Art Gallery and Custom Framing was impacted by SEPTA’s reconstruction project of the Market-Frankford Elevated Line.
When the 10-year construction project caused the intersection near Nixon’s location to be closed off, customers couldn’t get to the gallery and sales dwindled. Nixon was in for a struggle that would leave her business on life support.
“It was just sheer determination and the will to stay put and to stay in business. I do not know how I managed. I know that for eight years it was a nightmare,” recalled the West Philadelphia native.
When things had gotten to the point where Nixon could not afford to restock her inventory, she opted to produce and sell her own work. In 2005, the self-taught artist started doing oil paintings and then switched to pastels.
“Literally, if I had not started to produce work, I would have been out of business,” she admitted.
Nixon’s efforts paid off, and she became a noted portrait artist. In 2007, she was featured in Jet magazine as the “Portrait to the Stars” after her pastel of R&B singer Gerald Levert took center stage during his memorial service.
Now Nixon is preparing to launch her newest venture — Khalil’s Place, a new restaurant named in memory of her 6-year-old foster grandson, Khalil Wimes. Wimes died in March of malnutrition and abuse.
Slated to open this summer at 43rd and Ludlow streets, Khalil’s Place will offer a healthier take on traditional breakfast and lunch offerings. Nixon looks forward to serving up what she bills as the best breakfast and lunch in Philly.
“That’s not just an advertising or marketing ploy. I really care about the food and the food supply. We’re not just opening up a restaurant to sell food to people,” Nixon added.