The walls of ColorWheel Gallery in Tangletown are decorated with paintings, mosaics, jewelry and collages. There are vibrant reds and oranges, Prince purples and moody blues and greens. Colorful art is nothing new for ColorWheel.
For the first time in 20 years of owning ColorWheel, though, all of the art decorating the gallery was created by owner Tammy Ortegon.
Ortegon’s solo exhibit opened on May 21 with a celebration of the art. While the gallery has always had art on its walls with galleries and pop-ups of nearly 900 local artists, including some of Ortegon’s work, she had never in her decades of being an artist had her own solo gallery.
In her exhibit, *30years Reflect Back\30years Inspire Forward,* Ortegon explores being a female artist in her 50s with pieces dating back to her childhood. It’s a celebration of 2o years of ColorWheel and 30 years of Ortegon being a professional artist.
On May 31, Ortegon is giving an artist talk during an exhibit event from 4-8 p.m. at ColorWheel.
The exhibit was a long time coming after years of focusing on others as a young, single mother.
“I'm one of those people that I'm like, I follow my dreams and I take chances but I take a little time when I do it,” Ortegon said. “I want to make sure because I don't want to fail.”
The gallery is partially a tribute to her mother and grandmother, who Ortegon described as artists who didn’t have the opportunity or confidence to call themselves artists.
“My mother and my grandmother were great artists,” Ortegon said. “They were raising kids and it would have been so wrong for them to try to be an artist. They would have been selfish for a woman to do that.”
The idea that creating art was a selfish choice permeated Ortegon’s mentality for years while she hustled to put food on the table for her young kids. She put off curating her own artwork, waiting for her sons to grow up instead. To her, the solo exhibit is an act of selfishness after raising her boys into adulthood.
“Doing this art show and focusing on my artwork more is hard for me because I tend to be like, ‘Oh, you shouldn't make it all about you,’” Ortegon said. “It's those little voices that we need to just slap.”
Roots of ColorWheel
ColorWheel doesn’t have the typical white walls of an art gallery, and it’s not a big space either. There’s something new to look at in every square inch of the eclectic shop. In addition to the art on the multi-colored walls, there are earrings, soaps, clothing, books and cards for sale.
And on the other side of the partition for the main part of the shop, there’s a salon chair with a mirror and hair products lining the desk. ColorWheel is also a hair salon.
You won’t see the word “salon” advertised outside ColorWheel, nor can you book an appointment with Ortegon. She hasn’t taken a new client in a decade– over the years she’s cut and styled the children of her original clients, then their children’s children.
The salon in back might seem random inside an art gallery and shop, but it actually makes perfect sense where it is.
Ortegon started working as a hairstylist after dropping out of high school and caring for her baby. She dug materials for artwork out of the trash and sold her works on the street as well, but doing hair was her day job. She rented chairs out of other people’s salons for years before coming across the ColorWheel storefront on 46th and Grand Avenue and getting the encouragement she needed to open the salon. She dreamed of having her own salon, where she could hang her art on the walls to make it a gallery.
“I think anyone who's in any of those jobs in the arts, your actor, your dancer or your musician, you have to have a day job,” Ortegon said. “I'm very grateful that I have a day job that I can put in the same space.”
The timing made sense because the salon where she worked was closing and the location was close to her house. She didn’t drive and preferred to work close to home for reliable accessibility. The idea of running a business scared Ortegon, but the owner of her last salon helped her with the paperwork of starting ColorWheel.
The business began as a salon with a gallery aspect. She did hair for years, raising her boys into adulthood, and little by little the business shifted to reflect her priorities as an artist.
“It used to be more of a hair salon with art on the side, now it's the art and shop with hair on the side,” Ortegon said.
The name ColorWheel ties together the art and the hair.
“You have to know the science behind the color wheel as an artist or as a hairstylist, when you want to tone that yellow out of the hair, you put a bluing purple shampoo and it pulls out because it's opposite on the color wheel,” Ortegon said. “That's the same thing like with art, hair is art.”
The tenets of ColorWheel
Sustainability, accessibility and diversity are the three tenets of ColorWheel, and they’re deeply connected.
Ortegon has prioritized sustainability since opening the shop. She collects second hand items to sell instead of buying from suppliers because it’s cheaper and better for the planet to reuse instead of creating something new. She has toyed with the idea of buying goods from sustainable sellers, but hasn’t followed through because she doesn’t want to raise prices.
Preserving the planet is important to Ortegon. Nature inspires her work and lifestyle.
“I really believe that the most important thing in this life is the people and nature and how we're all connected,” she said. “And when we are not together, we're not as strong.”
She said that people used to turn their noses up at the used clothing and items because they preferred something new. That attitude has changed in recent years as thrifting has become cool for people who can afford new things.
“Poor people have been recycling way before anyone had the word for it because they had to,” Ortegon said. “You had to get used things because you didn't have the money, but then you would be put down for buying used things. Now it's cool to buy us things, but only a certain thing if you call it upcycling.”
Selling used things at lower prices maintains accessibility, which is important to Ortegon because she says the art world tends to be elitist. When she was growing up, Ortegon said that art galleries were for the wealthy and the educated and weren’t welcoming to people who didn’t satisfy those qualities.
“I just hate that elitist nonsense,” Ortegon said. “That's the other reason why I really wanted to open up a gallery where everyone is welcome. Really welcome, not just the sign, really welcomed in my space.”
She uses her gallery to highlight new artists from diverse backgrounds, providing gallery space to people who have never had a gallery. In the past, she had a show for people under age 18 and another show for people who identified as mothers. Her paintings are inspired by recent trips to Morocco and Italy, and they depict people in her real life.
A painting of 46th and Grand Avenue with her storefront includes guitarists who have performed at ColorWheel and the child of the owners of Ena, the restaurant next door. Ortegon used an old picture she had of the child biking outside the storefront as reference for the painting.
Ortegon also occasionally hosts art classes at the shop, there are local artist events quite frequently, and she holds a Prince party for Prince’s birthday each year. Her friend, who was Prince’s elementary school girlfriend, will bring along love letters from Prince and diary entries about him for the party.
Ortegon’s exhibit runs through July 8. There will be a closing celebration July 8 with free community art making. Walk in the store or visit the ColorWheel Instagram for information about the shop, the art and upcoming events. ColorWheel is located at 319 W 46th Street and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 12 - 7 p.m.