Not Sheep Gallery says goodbye with closing exhibit ‘Letters to the World’

Caren Petersen recounts three years of ups and downs at the politically minded Short North gallery, which will end its run with an October exhibition

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Caren Petersen at her Short North art space, Not Sheep Gallery, on Tuesday, Sept. 28, with work by Izumi Yokoyama. The gallery will close at the end of October.

In the fall of 2016, Caren Petersen had open-heart surgery to correct a birth defect, and the day she came home from the hospital, Donald Trump was elected president. This new political reality, combined with the recent health scare, changed the way she envisioned her future. 

“My husband asked me what I would do if I only had 10 years left to live, which was the case,” Petersen said, explaining that doctors used a heart valve from a pig in the surgery, and the fix was temporary. “They said, ‘You have eight to 12 years to live unless you want to replace it again.’ … It was a wake-up call, and it makes you think that we're all on this Earth for a limited time. So I thought about all the issues that were important to me.” 

Petersen knew she wanted to focus her time and energy on homelessness, racism, environmental awareness and other social justice issues, but she also kept coming back to her interest in art. Previously, Petersen ran contemporary art space Muse Gallery before converting the business into a fine-art consulting firm and pop-up gallery. She thought about the artists she worked with there, and all the boundary-pushing, politically minded art they’d made over the years, some of which couldn’t find a home in local galleries and collections.

“I finally thought, you know what? I'm really good at art. And these artists have been producing this work forever. They just couldn't show it,” she said. “If this is really what my passion is, I want to give them a platform to be able to express those ideas.” 

So in the fall of 2018, Petersen signed a three-year lease at 17 W. Russell St. in the Short North and opened Not Sheep Gallery with an accompanying tagline: “Rogue Art. No Apologies.” “The goal wasn't really to affect any long-term change or to think that I was going to influence anybody beyond seeing an opposing point of view and maybe thinking about it,” Petersen said. “The result, though, was interesting. I had people who were visibly mad and ready to argue with me when they came in.” 

All along, Petersen intended to keep the gallery open for only three years, and now that time has come. “Letters to the World,” Not Sheep Gallery’s final show, opens Friday, Oct. 1, and runs through the end of the month. The exhibition is a fitting send-off, featuring multiple artists reacting to Petersen’s prompt: “What would you — as an artist, a concerned citizen, a political activist, a woman or a member of a marginalized community — say to the world if it were your last statement?”

Fiber art by Kathryn Shinko in "Letters of the World"

The answers arrived in various forms and mediums, including artist Kathryn Shinko’s cross-stitched video game stills depicting cries for help. Char Norman created nature-themed fiber art, explaining in a statement that “during the past year [I] turned away from the horrors of the world and turned inward, walking the forests and making small tributes to the woods. These are my letters to the world.”

More:‘Altered Perceptions’ and the art of nature

While three years was always the plan, Petersen could have considered extending the lease, but “nothing happened to change my mind,” she said. For one, the pandemic and the rise in crime seemed to keep more people out of the Short North. And secondly, Petersen noticed the name of the gallery itself had been hijacked.  

Initially, she intended “sheep” in the title as a jab at the far right, which she contrasted with the left-leaning independent artists and thinkers she admired. But in the last three years, the term has taken on a new meaning, a realization that hit home when Petersen recently saw a truck covered in Trump signage, along with a bumper sticker reading, “Don’t be a sheeple.” 

“Somehow everything became upside-down world during the Trump administration, and now the Republicans are calling the Democrats sheep for getting [vaccine] shots and listening to scientists,” Petersen said. “It's all become a little confusing. I'm not sure [the name] is sending the right message. … I've had people come in and go, ‘Oh, I didn't know you were this kind of gallery.’” 

Rather than change the gallery’s name and go through a toilsome re-brand (after a six-month pause during COVID), Petersen decided to stick to her original plan and end the gallery’s run, though she emphasized that Not Sheep isn’t closing because the issues she cares about went away.

“Nothing has really changed. We don't have Trump in office anymore, but we still have issues with politics and religion and racism and sexism and environmental issues and a million different things. It was good to give the artists a platform to do that, but I got a little PTSD after the trauma, and I got a little tired of arguing,” said Petersen, who also noted the weight of the pandemic on her psyche. “I truly suffered emotionally during that time. I felt like I was in a war. A lot of the artists that I talked to, it was hard on them emotionally, too.”

Still, Petersen isn’t saying goodbye to art. She’ll continue to work with private clients and host pop-up shows through Muse Gallery, and she hopes to facilitate more art experiences, such as tours of art spaces in New Mexico, where she owns land. (Petersen and her husband are also considering a move to Asheville, North Carolina.) And she leaves Not Sheep with her head high, content with the gallery’s impact. 

“Do I think I changed the world? No, but I do think I made some people feel a little bit safer, in that they weren't alone in their opinions. I think I gave a platform to artists to be able to express things that were important to them, and I think that even if I pissed somebody off, maybe I made them think about something,” she said. “If you look at the big picture of everything, you're just overwhelmed and you think, ‘I'm powerless. I can't do anything. It's a runaway train.’ But if you look at it like it's a baby step, and that we can each change a life or make a difference, and that everything you do in your life influences something, then, yeah, I feel really happy with what I've accomplished.”