In 1982, Linda Southam, a single mother with a 12-year-old daughter, took a risk with her crazy dream and opened an art gallery.
She claims that a big part of her success was the luck of finding a place with affordable rent. But none of the odds against her could match her passion, let alone her work ethic. Being a single mother, she learned to make things happen all on her own. The gallery was no different. Knowing her story, it is clear that what she saw as “luck” was truly fate ― it was meant to be.
Growing up, she watched her father run an old western store selling handcrafted saddles, some of which are displayed in a western museum.
“He had to carve into the leather, so he had to have an artistic mind,” she said. “[If] you carve into an expensive piece of leather, you had better be accurate.”
That inspired her to take art classes in college; drawing, etching, ceramics, all of them. At 19-years-old, she began to paint.
She worked for the government, got married, and made one of her many works of art; little Kimberly Southam. Soon she was a single mother with Kimberly, 5, and her focus turned to art. She took private classes and immersed herself in a community of local artists and got a job at a gallery.
“I started working part time and I found out that I really loved selling the paintings, and I was good at it,” Southam said. “You’ve got to love it, you’ve got to extend that to your customer and you’ve got to get them excited.”
That experience would be vital a few years later when the gallery was in debt. She knew she had to move on to make it work, but she didn’t want to go back to working for the government.
“You fall in love with it. The more you’re around it, the more you want to do it,” she said. Thus, Southam Gallery of Fine Arts was born.
She found the perfect place: natural light beamed through large windows, it was just the right size, and it was affordable. “Being lucky with that was a big part of my success,” she said.
It’s been endless hard work since then. Linda, and then 12-year-old Kimberly, put the gallery together on their own; they even took care of maintenance as part of a deal with the landlord.
“We had to do it all, we did not have money to go buy the help,” she said. “You can’t fall apart because something happens. You get used to it and take it in stride.”
At the grand opening in December 1982, Linda was still getting ready when Kimberly stepped in to help. She was young and shy, but nonetheless took the initiative to go out and greet the people, just like her mom would.
Linda was influenced by psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers, who is known for spearheading conversations about mental health, feminism and failure since the 1960s.
She said she learned that those who will be successful in a small business can think both positively and negatively, because, “If you can foresee some of the things that are going to go wrong, then you’re prepared for the things that turn out bad and you can weather the storm.”
Dr. Brothers said “all of us can ― and surely will at times ― fail. Other vulnerabilities, like being embarrassed or risking love, can be terrifying, too. I think we should follow a simple rule: if we can take the worst, take the risk.”
Southam Gallery is one of the longest running galleries in Salt Lake City.
“It’s in your blood,” Linda said. “We didn’t necessarily intend to do it for 40 years.”
She sold top reputable artists’ work, and she had an eye for good art, inspired by other artists at exhibits where she would collect artwork for the gallery.
“It’s exciting because you see, oh, this is gonna be a successful show … because these were darn good. It’s a thrilling thing if you love art,” she said.
Eventually, she added her own art in the gallery. One day, a woman walked in with two others but parted ways, walking straight to the back of the room where one of Linda’s pieces was on display.
“I thought she was going to say something about the piece hanging below mine. She said, ‘I want that one there.’ She was from Paris, and that was one of my gallery paintings,” Linda said.
That was the first piece of her own work that Linda sold. “It’s just fun to think that it’s in Paris, with all the history of Paris,” she said.
Her art was chosen over many other pieces by well-known artists like Richard Boyer, who has painted since age seven.
“People can say that everybody’s equal, but not in the arts,” she said. “The bar is really set high. I’m happy to go up against people that are painting every day.”
The women established rapport with every customer over the years, finding the right piece for each by understanding their taste, and explaining why an artist does something a certain way. Customers returned and created a following, some regulars bought tens, even hundreds of paintings. The duo’s differing ideas created the harmonious aesthetic that makes the entire gallery a work of art in itself.
“She (Kimberly) looks at it differently,” Linda said. “She’s got the historical knowledge, all the great painters through the ages, and I’ve got my knowledge of what’s more modern”
Now, Kimberly has a degree in art history and has taken over the gallery while Linda paints.
“It’s even hard for me to give it up, I still want to go out and talk to a customer,” she said. “I would walk in my gallery when I first started it … I just love the feeling of ‘I’m in control of this,’ I like that this is my baby.”
Her latest piece is a massive display of how she is empowered by independence and driven by success. Recently, they relocated to Cottonwood Heights and were presented with new challenges: finding a new customer base and bringing back those that visited the gallery downtown, in an area where traffic moves by quickly.
“One day I’m just kind of getting irritated with the whole thing,” she said. “I thought, what do I need to put in the window to make traffic stop?”
Naturally, she decided to do “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh, large enough to fill the space of the windows. The canvas is 80” wide.They’re throwing a party on his birthday, March 30th, serving french hors d’oeuvres and celebrating art.
“I enjoy getting dressed up a little and going down to the gallery. The idea of retiring doesn’t do anything for me. If I’m not going to be at the gallery, I would be working on the gallery at home,” she said.
While Linda’s Starry Night is not the same, it emulates the aura of Van Gogh’s. She loves that about art ― that there are infinitely many creative ways to communicate one feeling, one idea.
“As I painted it,” she said, “I feel like I know him better now.”
Dr. Joyce Brothers wrote: “The marvelous thing about human beings is that we are perpetually reaching for the stars. The more we have, the more we want. And for this reason, we never have it all.”
Linda’s crazy dreams come true because she creates her own reality.
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