Bringing a fresh take on art to the streets of Hinsdale and making its way up onto the walls of local residents, shops, and collectors alike, Catherine Ponakala, owner of Virgil Catherine Gallery, is serving this town with a whole new look and vibe. For over two years, Virgil Catherine Gallery has been captivating the eyes of locals with handpicked curations from emerging artists all across the globe.
Armed with a master’s degree in social work, Ponakala ran her own business in the practice for 10 years. As a social worker, she often experienced the darkness that came with the job but offset it with the lighter things in life. “I think the balance of the sadness and tragedy I saw as a social worker was balanced by my love of art,” she says.
Ponakala, who has been a Hinsdalean for almost 20 years, eventually sold off her business after her third child to focus on family. Years later when Covid lockdowns were first instituted, the mother of five found there was a large movement of city dwellers moving to Hinsdale, which also brought about younger families. Having always been active in the art world, many of Ponakala’s friends happened to be artists and she soon found herself as a gateway to local art collectors and enthusiasts seeking pieces that may be more difficult to find in the suburbs.
At the same time, Guy Stanley Philoche, a Haitian-American artist featured in numerous magazines and television shows, reached out to Ponakala. “Right before Covid, he had a sold-out show in NYC and then the city shut down as we all did,” she says. “He called me to tell me he was going to use the money he made to purchase works from emerging artists and from there it blew up.”
After assisting private clients for some time, Ponakala decided it was time to open a brick-and-mortar space. Enter Virgil Catherine Gallery.
When the gallery first opened, many of the artists featured were from the Philoche collection which set the reputation high for the gallery. “Now many artists seek the gallery out and ask to be part of the gallery which I am really proud of.” Currently, Ponakala represents a variety of artists who are in a multitude of mediums from oils, mixed media, acrylic, and sculpture. “The gallery represents artists from as far away as Madrid to local artists,” she says. “I want people to walk in and find something that really resonates with them and the only way to do that is to have variety.”
The gallery was once on Washington Street set across from its current location it stands in today. This initial space was larger but spread across three rooms lacking natural light in the middle and back rooms. “The new space is long and all the works can be encompassed in one room which really brings the pieces together in a cohesive way,” she says. “I like to say they are all together telling each other stories.”
Walking past the space, not only will you be greeted with the friendly faces of Catherine as well as Deyen Missbrenner, there’s an edgy feel that gives Hinsdale some legit street cred in the art community. But it just doesn’t stop there. Ponakala is all about the community having served in different roles from walking dogs at the Hinsdale Humane Society to actively participating in charities, and even serving as PTO president at Oak Elementary School.“That support extends to seeing retailers in town be successful and to shop local,” she says. Additionally, Ponakala has made it a community affair supporting fellow retailers often co-marketing events. “Many of them have also been gracious enough to display our works to reach a border audience and for that, I’m really thankful,” she says.
Taking it onto the online community, one visit to their Instagram page, and the addiction begins. “Our Instagram certainly doesn’t follow the more traditional gallery trek,” she says. “I try to make it fun, to say ‘anyone can be an art collector,’ and the process doesn’t need to be off-putting or intimidating.” Find the latest works and what the gallery is up to, all set to upbeat, fun music. “I try to be inclusive in the process and give people a look behind the scenes through our social media.”
Virgil Catherine Gallery holds three artist receptions a year. “Our artists fly in from everywhere and really spend time getting to know the collectors, visiting their homes, and just being out in the community,” she says. “The gallery has also co-hosted The Influence of Art on the Home panels with the Dawn McKenna Group in our collector’s homes which really accents how art, design, and architecture define a space and a home.” The gallery’s most recent event was its first Cocktail and Collectors dinner which was a way for the artists and collectors to meet and mingle.
Ponakala tells their clients art doesn’t need to match the home, but rather be an outer expression of them and their home should tell their story. Connecting artists with collectors, Ponakala is that conduit to their story. “The artist begins the story and the collector finishes it, each bringing their unique experiences to the table,” she says. “There is nothing better than hearing a collector tell you why a certain work resonates with them.”
The connection between the artists and their collectors is really key to the experience of the gallery. “People want to have that connection to what hangs in their home and that is what the gallery provides.”
Virgil Catherine Gallery, 50 S. Washington in Hinsdale. virgilcatherinegallery.com.