Gallery owner is as eclectic as the work he exhibits
The J. Bangle’s Silk Stocking Gallery anchors a shady corner at 25th Street and Avenue L in Galveston. It’s one of the city’s oldest galleries, and was one of the original shops in The Strand’s renaissance, which began more than 30 years ago.
Wraparound windows display an intriguing sample of the objects within: original art, a few antiques, embroidered tea towels, velvet slippers, bunches of dried lavender, handmade lamps, Victorian-style cotton nightgowns, vintage matchbooks and a bobblehead Trump doll.
Like his eclectic stock, J. Bangle is a one-of-a-kind character with wispy white hair, a trimmed beard and wire-rimmed spectacles. The shop is a gallery-boutique hybrid co-owned and operated by Bangle and Elaine, his wife of 20 years.
The sign outside bears its proprietor’s name, but the shop’s beginnings, its character and its long success is mostly due to the women who have inspired him, Bangle said.
“I never, ever imagined opening a gallery,” he said. “It was my third wife’s idea. Lois was bored as a housewife and she wanted to do something creative.”
Launching a gallery was the answer to her ennui, but it turned out to be a creative challenge for Bangle, too. Although he was working full time as an insurance inspector, Bangle secured start-up money from a local bank and immersed himself in every aspect of the business, he said.
In addition to original work by local artists, the gallery offers custom framing, a service Bangle initiated shortly after the shop opened to fill a niche and augment his fledgling business.
“Early on, I recognized that if we had to pay for third-party framing, profits would be diminished,” he said.
To acquire the necessary skills, Bangle attended a framing workshop in Brownwood, Texas, and bought a suite of professional tools to do the job right, he said.
It opened on The Strand in 1980 as Ranier Gallery, after Lois’ family, in a refurbished 19th-century building owned by Robert Lynch. A revival was underway along The Strand and new business interests were opening alongside established merchants such as Bill Fullen with Old Strand Emporium and Jack King with La King’s Confectionery.
Those were heady years. In 1984, Princess Anne, daughter of Queen Elizabeth II, visited Galveston and strolled into the gallery with her entourage. Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Michener was another visitor. The man who wrote “Texas,” among many other famous titles, ordered a print of the tall ship Elissa, which Bangle framed. He also was commissioned to frame an original Gauguin painting.
With Bangle at its helm, the gallery collected all manner of artifacts and art. For example, when Galveston’s legendary bar The Interurban Queen was to be torn down, Bangle procured some of its signature items, including a large, nude painting of silent film actress Clara Bow and original 1925 bathing beauty photos.
But, as the gallery flourished, his marriage frayed. After he and Lois divorced, Bangle made a subtle but symbolic change: “I decided to call the gallery by my name — that couldn’t be challenged or taken away,” he said.
The road to Galveston — now Bangle’s home for decades — was a long and winding journey. He was born Sept. 27, 1942, on a small family farm in the northwestern corner of Kansas. After his parents separated, he lived with his mother, an older sister, Judy, and extended family in Sacramento, California. He spent the summers with his father.
“My father raised Angus cattle, so I played cowboy in the summers,” Bangle said. “I did consider pursuing that life, but I made other choices.”
The choice he made was to follow his heart; that is, he fell in love. Fearing that her parents would force them to separate, the two teenagers decided to elope. His first son, Gregory, was born when Bangle was only 18.
In 1960, with a baby on the way and a family to support, Bangle enlisted in the Air Force and in 1962 was sent to Vietnam, where he served as a records clerk in and around Saigon.
After his military service, Bangle made use of the GI Bill to return to college, earning a teaching certification from Berkeley and an associate’s degree in firefighting technology from San Jose City College.
Bangle was working for an insurance company and attending Sacramento City College when his first marriage ended.
He moved to Lake Tahoe, where he found work at Harrah’s Casino and later worked as a firefighter.
This was the freewheeling 1960s and Bangle was only a short jaunt from San Francisco and the flowery scene at Haight-Ashbury.
“I was on a four-day visit there in 1967, walking on The Panhandle, which leads to Golden Gate Park, when I met Janis Joplin and Grace Slick,” he said. “I had never heard of either of them. They were selling the Berkeley Barb newspaper for 50 cents and singing with the bands playing music in the park.”
Alternating bands were Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother & The Holding Company and Santana.
“I was out of place with my khaki pants and button-down shirt, but we had a nice time standing in line for hamburgers; it was a long line and they were handing out joints to ease the wait,” Bangle said.
A few weeks later, he returned to San Francisco and met up with the soon-to-be-legendary Joplin in Golden Gate Park, Bangle said.
“When she saw me, she ran across the park screaming ‘my fireman,’” he said. “That night, we went to The Fillmore auditorium because she wanted to see some band that was opening for Cream.
“While we were standing outside, a couple of people asked her for an autograph, so she was already becoming known locally.
“The Fillmore was a dilapidated building with no seats. Everyone had to sit on the floor. She put something under my tongue and the rest of the night was a blur.”
By the early 1970s, Bangle had married his second wife, Anita, and they moved to Houston, where he sought work as a firefighter, and she found a job at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
Bangle got work on a Port of Houston fireboat, but six months into the job, his hand was crushed in an accident and he lost two fingers.
Unable to continue in his chosen career, he enrolled at the University of Houston-Clear Lake and earned a degree in Human Resource Management.
Afterward, he joined Aetna Life Insurance Co., parted ways with Anita, and moved with his son Gregory into a Galveston apartment.
Over time, the gallery moved from The Strand in 2000 and later to Pirates Beach. For a time, Bangle operated the gallery and his framing operation from a studio at his home on Avenue N. After Hurricane Ike in 2008, Bangle began to look for a new gallery location. He settled on the 25th Street site.
“It felt right,” he said.
It has operated at four locations and under two names in four decades, but little else has changed about the shop. Now, as then, the focus is on local artists and craftsmen in addition to the decorative objects that appeal to the owners.
Bangle has given some prominent artists, including René Wiley and Jennifer Peck, their first exhibits in Galveston. Artists currently showing at J. Bangle include Laura Monford Greiner, Loretta Trevino, Sue Bown, Marie Charrel Menard, Stan Huncilman and Joe Derr.
From his seat behind his shop desk, Bangle is willing to spin a tale or two for visitors and he has plenty to share: true tales of Galveston’s last half century. He most admires original work, he said.
“Each of us must select our own art and its presentation,” he said. “Copying someone else’s choices — that’s just imitation — that’s not for me.”