“I certainly want to do all I can to advance John’s vision. He was a community-builder,” Belt said of her husband, who died in March.
That’s a vision tied up in John Belt’s desire to provide Oklahoma City with an arts district, being an anchor for the Paseo Arts District, promoting artists and keeping Sheets’ dream of an art gallery alive.
For the last decade, the Paseo has blossomed around the gallery at 2810 N. Walker Ave.
To celebrate 10 years this month, Joy Belt is showing a boxed portfolio exhibit with limited edition signed prints by 10 of her most popular artists. The show runs through the end of September.
Not only is the gallery a piece of Belt and her husband and a valuable piece of the Paseo, it’s also a piece of history.
Nan and Fred Sheets built the house, called The Elms, as a residence. In the 1920s, it became the first art gallery in Oklahoma City after they opened their doors to showcase their art collections.
Nan Sheets moved her furniture aside and hung velvet drapes over the walls so the paintings would pop. After three or four days of exhibits, she’d move her furniture back and go back to living, Belt said.
Eventually, the Sheets added a wing for art lessons and permanent gallery space.
Nan Sheets also founded the Experimental Art Gallery, now called the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, and oversaw its growth for 29 years.
Later, the Elms fell into disrepair and away from the purpose Sheets envisioned. John Belt wanted to rescue it.
“He tried to get it forever. He remembered when Nan Sheets had it,” she said. “He started buying Paseo in the early ’70s, and he decided Oklahoma City needed an arts district.”
John Belt finally bought the home, which was used as a day care in the late 1990s. He lovingly oversaw extensive repairs and exhaustive restoration, Belt said.
“They really changed the space. All the ceilings were dropped,” she said. “The oak in the main gallery had been painted Pepto Bismol pink.”
Meanwhile, Joy Reed Belt was running her own gallery in the Paseo as her husband bought properties and helped foster a neighborhood association in his quest to start an arts district. When their first tenant left The Elms, Joy decided she should be its next one. She presented John with a business plan, and though he had encouraged her to slow down, he never regretted her starting JRB Art at The Elms.
“He said, ‘A good lawyer and a good husband knows when to settle,’” she said. “He said I exceeded all expectations.”
Others see what John Belt saw.
Suzanne Silvester, director of the Melton Art Reference Library, said that Joy Reed Belt is excellent at promoting both the Paseo and its artists.
“Paseo, of course, was the heart of John. I credit him with the revitalization of the Paseo, and Joy was a big part of that,” Silvester said. “Joy has put her heart and soul into that house.”
Barbara Broadwell, an artist based in Luther, has shown at the gallery four to five times and is one of the 10 artists with prints in the anniversary portfolio.
“She’s always searching. It makes it much more of a vibrant gallery,” she said. “Joy is continuing on and keeping it vital and alive for herself and John and the community at large down there that he built up.”
Jennifer Barron, Paseo Arts Association executive director, said having such a professional gallery encourages other galleries and helps the district.
“Hers was one of the first truly successful galleries,” Barron said. “JRB from the outset put the focus on the leading edge of art. That commitment to quality is what you come to expect from JRB. It’s kind of a pace-setter for the area.
“Nan Sheets was a supporter of the arts, and it’s pretty amazing that that building is still used for that purpose. The Paseo is lucky to have Joy and JRB. She and John have always been a force.”