This one's for the girls

Artist Monica Tookes opens a new Kirkwood gallery and learning space

Art is in everything. It's the personal motto of Atlanta-based mixed media artist Monica Tookes. It's also the theme of an opening exhibition for her new gallery, Empty Spaces, which will feature the large-scale work of Mr. Paul and Arnold Butler.

"I've been pushing that concept for the past two years because art really is in everything," the Biloxi, Mississippi, native says. "It's in everything that we do."

Tookes, who operated Monica Tookes Gallery in Castleberry Hill for three years before its shuttering in 2008, goes on to explain how terrible it is arts programs typically get the ax first as school budgets evaporate. In fact, arts education is one of Tookes' primary passions, and something she wants to further explore with the opening of her newest gallery. This June, Tookes plans to introduce a program she's been developing for the past few years. Girls in the Gallery is a two-week leadership enrichment program at Empty Spaces that aims to connect young girls with female entrepreneurs working in creative fields.

"Girls who go through the program will have direct access to the program's featured women each day," Tookes says. She added that, for her teaching role, she will lead the program's 14 girls in a course specifically examining art's business side. "It's not only about teaching them how to be creative, but how to make money using their creative field of choice," she says. "We want to show them how to make a career and connect them to professional women who are already doing those things."

Tookes tapped students between the ages of 13 and 17 from Drew Charter School to participate in the inaugural program. She plans to expand the opportunity over time to other girls in the community, utilizing organizations such as the YMCA and Boys & Girls Club to attract potential attendees.

"I'm a huge champion for young girls," Tookes says. "We just really want to help them see some of their interests differently."

Tookes will also resurrect her initiative 100 for 100, in which she creates 100 paintings in 100 days. The paintings sell for $100 each, with proceeds poised to fund two scholarships for Girls in the Gallery attendees.

"It's fun," Tookes says. "No one gets to see their painting before it's finished. You only choose a number, which represents one of the 100 days. You don't know what your painting will be until we unveil all 100 paintings at the same time."

Although Tookes was a pre-law major when starting at Spelman College, she eventually switched to art at the urging of her professors — a move that changed her life. To date, her bold, abstract works have been featured in exhibitions throughout the country, along with private collections including the Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs, American Red Cross, and the Pan African Film Festival.

One of the early progressives in Atlanta's new art renaissance, Tookes' Castleberry Hill gallery was a springboard for local talent looking to showcase their work. After closing the gallery, she spent the next few years traveling and exploring different aspects of her own artistic interests. She couldn't let her visual art go completely, however, and decided to open a new gallery — this time in Kirkwood. Empty Spaces will provide Tookes the opportunity to combine two of her passions: helping to expose the talent of local artists and teaching young girls.

"As women, we are something else when we connect to each other," she says. "We're a powerful force when we have 10 of our girlfriends show up and say, 'We believe in you.' That's what I want to instill in young girls."

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