Photograph by Bob Rozycki
Laura Straus’ work life has been diverse, to say the least.
She has loaded trucks for a wallpaper company, answered phones for a publisher and sold furniture on New York City streets.
She has created and exhibited her own fine art. She has filed and edited photographs of others but taken so many more of her own. She has earned a teaching fellowship, won awards and had books published. And she’s long worked not only to protect the rights of other artists but also to promote her own community.
The linear path clearly holds little interest for Straus, who admits it’s been quite a journey.
“The fact that it’s been so varied gives me a lot of leeway,” she says with an infectious laugh.
She’ll spin tales of people she’s met through those jobs, of things she’s learned and places she’s gone. And those stories simply serve to show that most every aspect of her past is reflected today in Piermont Straus, her ambitious Piermont art gallery and bookstore, which has just marked its first anniversary.
GETTING TO THE GALLERY
Tucked into a cozy storefront along the Hudson River community’s main drag, Piermont Straus is a rare find. It’s an art gallery that sells honey, a bookshop that features T-shirts and a museum shop that hosts book signings, art openings and wine tastings.
The common thread, of course, is the multifaceted Straus, whose local roots run deep. She grew up in Purchase, a daughter of a book publisher and a professor – they’re the Straus in Farrar, Straus and Giroux – and attended The Whitby School in Greenwich and Hackley School in Tarrytown before going on to graduate with a fine arts degree from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.
Straus would spend the next 25 years in Manhattan. She turned to photography after a career in photo editing, in which she worked for Magnum Photos and as director of photography for Abbeville Press. She has published a number of photographic monographs, starting with “A Child’s World” for Hearst in 2000. A series of titles for Andrews McMeel Publishing followed, with her photographs also appearing in The New York Times and Elle and People magazines. Straus’ work on the “American Family” project led to her winning the 2002 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Photography.
“When I got the NYFA, it kind of just changed me,” Straus says. “I think I kind of respected my own work a little bit more.”
Since 1998, she has also worked with the Artists Rights Society in Manhattan, representing the estates of artists ranging from Pablo Picasso to Henri Matisse to Georgia O’Keeffe.
Straus says she never really felt the urge to go into the family publishing firm, which she casually calls FSG.
Her grandfather, Roger Straus, was a founder of the publishing giant, and her father, also Roger Straus, was a publisher as well and is now an architectural photographer. (He’ll be signing his latest book, “Houses of the Presidents,” at Piermont Straus Nov. 8.)
She did, though, work at FSG during teenage summers. “Because my grandfather ran the company, they were so scared to give me any work,” so she was relegated to the reception desk.
BEYOND THE BRIGHT CITY LIGHTS
Straus came to settle in Piermont four years ago with banker John Alexander, whom she married in 2009.
But it wasn’t a retreat to a quiet life in the suburbs.
Since then, she has become an active advocate of the local community, a force on the Piermont Business Council.
Straus and her husband have created the Piermont Straus Foundation, dedicated to contributing to the arts and culture of the Hudson Valley.
“I think the thing that really drives me is I learn a lot from throwing myself into all these things,” Straus says.
The gallery opened in October 2011, a move she says “felt like the next natural step in my life,” with themed exhibitions taking center stage.
“We take an author and try to celebrate their work through imagery,” Straus says. The current “Green Acres & Simple Pleasures,” for example, features artwork that reflects “Simple Pleasures,” by Cornelia Guest.
“This place has done more for me in terms of feeling I have my hand in the creative world than I could have imagined,” she says.
The back of the gallery, originally set to be a storeroom, has become a mini book shop boasting towering shelves filled with both new and used titles.
“It’s been really half our business,” Straus says. “I’d like to grow this part of the business. It was almost an aside at first.”
Like everything else, it’s all about adjusting to what’s working.
“We don’t have any absolutes about what this needs to be,” Straus says.
It’s much like the way she produces products to celebrate Piermont as a destination (she made T-shirts, caps and magnets once she “realized there was no swag in town”) or items such as limited-edition scarves using artwork of those featured.
“If the artist is interested, we often try to take their work and do what a museum shop would do,” she says.
At first, Straus says she was tempted to use the gallery to showcase her own work. She first considered using the space as a studio, then moved on to the gallery concept.
“The evolution of this became more about becoming a part of the community here rather than showcasing my work,” she says. “I have never actually done a solo show here in my own gallery. I feel the multi-artist shows are when I can slip in.”
And one of her drawings is indeed featured in the current show, which will yield to a December exhibition on the work of book-and-paper artist Ramon Lascano. His creations will be complemented by works from a number of local artists and artisans who are using everything from old newspapers to old books to other source materials to create “something that’s unusual or visually stunning, hopefully,” Straus says.
That she’s not exactly sure how it will play out isn’t a concern. At Piermont Straus, it’s all about experimenting.
“That’s sort of what this place is about.”
The art she sells offers people the chance to bring something personal into their own surroundings, something that resonates with them.
“We need to have these things in our life to give us the connection to each other,” she says.
And whether through a renewed commitment to her own art – she’s currently creating a ceramics studio in her basement – or the work of Piermont Straus, she will continue to reach out.
As Straus says, “There is a lot of room for us to grow.”
Piermont Straus is at 530B Piermont Ave. in Piermont. It’s open Fridays through Sundays or by appointment. For details, call (845) 459-3124 or visit its Facebook page.