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Stephen Poullas|Soap Gallery

Stephen Poullas is a photographer, and with Daniel Rauschenbach and Bill Youngman,  co-owner of the Soap Gallery in downtown Youngstown. Stephen graduated with his MBA from Case Western Reserve University in spring 2017. He and his wife Courtney are Youngstown residents.

Photo Credit: Melanie Rae Buonavolonta

This is Karen Schubert and I’m at the Soap Gallery with one of the Gallery co-owners

Stephen Poullas. Steve, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today.

Thank you! I appreciate it.

So, I know that you are a photographer and I’d like to start with that. You have some images in the show this month, there’s a show called Shutter. It’s up for a couple of months?

It’s up through the end of the month.

It’s really a stunning variety of work and I’d love for you to talk about your pieces in the show and also the show itself.

Sure. The three artists in the show are Ron Cubano, he’s got the majority of the work in the show: images from the Canfield Fair, images from around town, and some human portraits.

The other artist is Paul Grilli who does a lot of documentation work on steel mills and the history of them, preservation through photography, of showing, documenting what was there and what became of it.

I’m in the show as well. A lot of my shots are of Youngstown. I try to frame them with different types of techniques, a lot of building architecture, a lot of minimalism where I’m showing more sky than I am buildings, showing the space that could exist. I enjoy documenting our city and its progression, and hopefully, it’s renewal.

That’s a really interesting way of talking about photography, that you’re photographing things that could be there. Are you from Youngstown? Did you grow up here?

Yes. I was born and raised here, born at St. E’s, lived in Campbell, graduated from Hubbard, and I live with my wife on the South Side.

So even though you’ve moved around a little bit, this place has always been your landscape. What do you think Youngstown has, as a place, to offer an artist, or what might you see here that you wouldn’t see somewhere else? Does the light have a quality? Do the buildings have a certain texture, the landscape itself, the valleys, this really interesting natural world that’s sort of intruding into our spaces, or not?

It’s very interesting because you go up and down twenty miles of the Mahoning River, there were steel mills all across there, from Lowellville to Newcastle to all the way down by us and you can follow those railroad tracks and see echoes of what used to be there. There is still some industry there. So that’s really from an industrial perspective, if you’re looking for industrial-type of architecture, or documenting the past.

And the river’s beautiful, it runs right through it. It’s amazing to see it was once completely polluted and now it’s started to come back. In the middle of the city, the city had some great architecture because Daniel Burnham, who did the Chicago World’s Fair, designed The Federal Building, the cornices on the Wick Tower, just amazing little pieces of history and we’ve preserved a lot of it. One of my favorite moments was going into the Paramount Theater and documenting what was left there. It’s a shame we couldn’t save it and that’s true of so many places. But it’s nice to see that we’ve kept some of those bones intact.

And in the middle of the city is Mill Creek Park, that runs through it, and it’s one of the most beautiful spots. My wife is the marathon director for the Youngstown Marathon and 20 of the 26 miles are in the park. She had people come from all over the place that have never been able to run a marathon in the park. They come through downtown and back through the park. It was a challenging race but it’s beautiful.

That’s really cool. And maybe one interesting way of thinking about Youngstown is that our past is so recent. It’s not a distant past. Most of the people alive remember the past that’s now so over. And so significantly, dramatically, over.

Yes, and it’s generational. My grandfather came from Greece and was a foreman in Campbell Works. My dad tried to get into the mill by putting concrete bars into his pockets because he had a minimum weight requirement to work and he was too small. [Laughing] They eventually did hire him and a year later they closed. It’s historically significant because it was our parents’ generation. I’m thirty-four years old. I didn’t get to see the mills very much, or what was left of them, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re called the Soap Gallery. We want to not document the rust but show what it can be. And we’re a blank canvas. That’s the one nice thing about Youngstown for art is that we can do anything we want. We can tell a new story, start a new story. So that’s why we’re called Soap, because we want something that’s bright, fresh and clean. That’s us.

So you see art as a vehicle for creative reinvention, in a sense.

Absolutely. The city is almost a metaphor for—a better way for me to put it is—if your city is a house, you don’t have white walls. You want to decorate. You want to put stuff on it. You want to have a painting, a decoration of some type. And we are a piece of art on the wall of our city. We want to be as bright and vibrant, and show that art can be a business model, as well.

I want to talk about that. Let me just insert that also maybe because it’s not a big leap from an industrial city to a creative maker city, maybe that’s part of it, as well.

So I’d love to hear more about the Soap Gallery, itself. It’s a for-profit gallery, so I’d like for you to touch on that. And maybe talk about the things that you’ve learned here, what you see your mission to be, and also what you weren’t expecting.

I wasn’t expecting for us to be so diverse with what we do. When we first started, our business model was to do events and classes as our primary driver for income. So we didn’t have to be dependent on selling individual pieces to make the rent that month.

Why is that important?

Because it’s more viable. We can have a show one month that does really well and a show the next month that just doesn’t register. For some people, we have to change the mindset of what a gallery is. A lot of people in the area don’t, they think of an art gallery and they think of the Butler, which is fantastic, it’s an amazing place. We’re really privileged to have it. But to be able to walk into an art gallery and purchase a piece off the wall—

You wouldn’t walk into the Butler and say “How much is that Winslow Homer?” [Laughing]

Yes, I’d like the Abraham Lincoln, please. I was surprised how much community awareness there was, lack of awareness, there was. People still, to this day, will walk in and say, we love your museum. It’s not a museum! You can actually buy the stuff. So that’s been a little bit of a challenge to change the mindset.

We’re not just a place to purchase art. We’re an events center. We’re a community place. We do yoga, we do classes, we do workshops. I’m going to do a street photography workshop where we walk around downtown. You can bring your camera phone, it doesn’t matter. We’re a concert space, we’re a space for performing arts, it’s a place to sit and appreciate the art. And not just observe but also participate.

I know also that it’s not easy finding a venue where an event can take place. So it is really nice to have this. It’s a beautiful floor plan, just this really open space. The acoustics are fantastic, and it’s just really beautiful for photography, and the light is tremendous. Were you in on first discovering this gem of a building?

Yes. One of my close friends is Becky Keck who runs SMARTS, which coincidentally is across the street from us, wonderful neighbor, and she recommended that I speak with Rich Mills who owns the building and actually lives on the fourth floor. And the way that it was set up when we walked in, it was the Purple Cat. There were offices, there was carpet, and there was a drop ceiling covering this tin ceiling. We ripped it all out and pulled out probably a thousand nails out of the floor and made it into what it is.

It really is gorgeous. So it’s been going well? You just finished up your third year?

Second year.

Into your third year? And you feel like you’re on pretty solid footing? Are people still discovering you? People walk in and say, I’ve never been here?

Yes. I had a girl walk in five minutes ago, who said, someone told me that I’m in one of these pictures with my boyfriend, and it was a thrill for her. People are still discovering us, people walk in, what is this place? And we like to introduce him.

In part because we have that big moat around the city, it’s hard to row across, but once you get here it’s pretty amazing. [Laughing]

Talk about the different shows that you’ve had. How do people find you and what’s your aesthetic driver?

We’ve had a motorcycle show in here with actual motorcycles sitting on the floor and four hundred photographs on the walls. We had, Eric Alleman’s one of my favorite artists in the area, does really non-traditional work, he covered up two of our walls completely in prints and sold a lot of them. Whatever he didn’t sell, we went out on the loading dock and he burned the rest [Laughing] as inspiration to make new work. We’ll do anything artistic. There’s a sculpture artist named Tony Armeni who’s here quite a bit. I think you know him.

I’ve heard of him.

So anything artistic we love to do. We’ve had house shows, poetry readings, we had a national recording artist in, who, we had maybe twenty-five people but it was intimate and you got to listen to all of his words and you concentrate on what he was trying to say. It was a lot different than if it took place in a bar. We had the Highland Fling last night with scotch tasting and opera singers, and anything that’s artistic we love to do.

I was here last night. The musicians were working without mics. Obviously they didn’t need mics because they’re so good at projecting, but beyond that, the music, just, you could just feel it in your body. The sound quality in here is incredible. But I don’t understand why that is because I don’t understand how sound works in spaces. But it’s just a big empty box. Do you have a sense of why—?

I think it’s the tin ceiling and the wood floors absorb some of the sound. We actually had Forty-Eight Hours in here, called me from New York and wanted to record an interview.

Oh my gosh!

And then when Derek Webb came through he said, I want to live here. I said, well, there’s a couch in the back… [Laughing] He wants to come and record an album. It’s nothing we did on purpose, we’re just fortune enough that it happened this way.

We also have a loading dock outside and we’ve had a bunch of concerts out there. The parking lot slopes down and we’re able to fit people down there, we shut down the street and we had J.D. Eicher and a songfest, a little summer music festival with three different bands and we had about three hundred people and it was great. We love doing stuff like that.

Such a wide variety of styles and genres. That’s really cool. So you’re a co-owner with two other people? Dan Rauschenbach and Bill Youngman, and how does that work? The co-ownership?

We all take turns working the gallery. If we have a really good month we’ll get paid. [Laughing] And we take turns coming up with ideas for what can be the next month’s show. In planning that stuff, I handle most of the business stuff, the accounting, the stuff that I went to school for. Dan handles a lot more of the artistic connections and different artists that we can bring through. Bill is a lot of the behind-the-scenes, the nitty gritty stuff that nobody appreciates enough.

But I will say that once I became more involved with it, and not just paying the bills, but washing the floor and doing all that other stuff, it became more of a passion for me, and not just, this is a business, but this is a reflection of who I am.

So you just got an MBA and I was going to ask you how your work and your art and the gallery all overlap. So you’re running the books. Do you see any ways that your art and your work here kind of move into your business life?

I’m fortunate enough to work a full-time job with a great company that allows me to do stuff here on the weekends. My company paid for me to go get my MBA. So I travel to a lot of our factories throughout the country and get to see a lot of the industrial— it’s a steel mill. We make steel products. So I get to see all that. And it’s an interesting thread—it’s kind of funny that I work for a steel company [Laughing]. I enjoy helping—I do I.T. project management work and it’s a little abstract and it fits my creativity, where, o.k., let’s go put an iPad on a crane and figure out how to make it work. And I get to try to put together all those pieces so I get to use my creativity on the business side and then how it works here is anything that we can come up with that’s creative, we want to do. So that’s kind of abstract, too.

I know you have some little kids keeping you busy. How are they involved with the arts? How do you bring the arts into your home?

We love to do paint nights together where we all just sit around and paint a little bit. They love coming to all of our events. When I do a photography class, my seven-year-old son will come with us and bring his film camera. They have a greater sense of appreciation. They love Daniel. Daniel is the best person you can ever have with kids. He’s great.

They’ll be attending some SMARTS programs across the street. Their grandfather is a pianist so they are exposed to—my daughter Gracie goes to bed every night listening to his music. So they’re very involved. It’s probably pretty cool for them to have a parent that’s an owner of an art gallery, you get to see all this different stuff.

Yeah. I was thinking that one day and your kids were here, what a fun place to grow up. The grandfather who plays the piano, he’s the one from Greece?

No, that’s my wife’s father, from Newcastle.

I was going to ask if you, since your grandparents were from Greece, or at least your grandfather, did you grow up hearing music, and did you grow up with the literary arts and festivals and foods—?

All of that, for sure. I was actually fortunate enough to go to Greece last summer, as part of my international study tour with school. I got to go with my classmates, and so we did a week in Spain and a week in Greece, and it was one of my most favorite experiences.

I’d heard the language so much growing up. I learned some basic words, I was speaking them in Greek and they were trying to figure out, wait a minute, [Laughing] and I’m not that Greek but I picked it up real good, mainly a lot of the food words and things of that nature. It was great to be in that culture. It’s a great way to grow up.

So if people want to find out what’s going on at the The Soap, if they’re artists and they would like to contact you about having a show or something like that, how do they find you?

Sure. So we’re physically located at 117 S. Champion St. in downtown. We’re on the same street as the YMCA, but going toward the Covelli Center. Our hours are Tuesday through Saturday 11-6 and open later for special events and classes. All of our events are listed on our Facebook page. Our website has a contact form for submissions if you’re an artist and you’d like to show or host a private event.

Steve, thank you so very much.


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