Chris Cooley’s new gallery in downtown Leesburg has been a labor of love—and a hands-on project—all the way down to installing the plumbing.
Cooley, a ceramist and former Washington Redskins tight end, quietly opened his new Leesburg gallery in December with fiancée Madi DeBray. Since then, the couple’s vision for the new larger space to serve as a cultural anchor for downtown has come to fruition.
“We believe we can do something special here,” Cooley said. “We wanted to make a commitment to something that’s sustainable.”
The new space replaces the smaller gallery Cooley opened in a leased space just a block away on King Street in 2010. After years of paying rent, Cooley decided it was time to buy a space and really put down roots. When the former bail bonds building across from the courthouse and next to the Lightfoot restaurant went up for sale two years ago, the timing was right.
With more square footage and plenty of space behind the storefront, the couple had initially imagined a restaurant/gallery, serving meals on handcrafted functional pottery. Those plans were put on hold when their daughter Sloane was born in 2014 and Cooley and DeBray decided to focus instead on classes and events. They recruited a stable of top regional artists and craftspeople to teach classes from ceramics to cake decorating.
The jam-packed events list includes paint and wine nights (in some cases hosted by Cooley himself), open studios, and ongoing classes—from clay hand-building classes with noted local ceramicist Amy Manson, to mixed media and children’s book writing classes with Mary Rand Hess. And the owners are already taking things beyond the visual arts. They’ve scheduled writing workshops with author David Hazard and are in talks with a comedy troupe about hosting a monthly improv night.
“Our big thing is that we want an art community. It’s not an art store. It’s not an art gallery. It’s a community,” said DeBray, who handles the gallery’s special events and class scheduling.
For Manson, the gallery is an exciting development following the closure of the ArtSquare gallery and studio in 2014.
“They have a new and fresh take on what a creative art space can be and I love that they are willing to take chances and do things differently. They have been so supportive of new ideas and flexible in what types of classes they can host and encouraging of collaboration amongst the teaching team,” Manson said. “When we gathered a month or so back for a teachers meet and greet, I looked around the room and saw a new and exciting group of instructors that were hand picked by Chris and Madi. You could feel the excitement and energy in the room. Chris basically said, ‘If you want to try it, lets go for it—we’re here to support you.’”
Before getting things up and running, the new owners had to gut and restore the building, which had been divided up into office space. In true Renaissance man fashion, Cooley did most of the work himself, removing dropped ceilings and installing corrugated tin.
“I put the toilets in—which was hysterical—trying to learn how on YouTube … It was a good project,” he said with a laugh.
The result is a gorgeous space with lots of exposed original brick and reclaimed wood—further evidence that Cooley seems to have a magic touch in whatever he undertakes.
An art major at Utah State University, Cooley was drafted by the Redskins in 2004 and opened his first gallery in 2010 as a side project while playing for the team.
“I just started having a lot of pots in my house and I thought I was getting pretty good—and by the way, I still think I’m getting pretty good,” Cooley said. “I walked downtown and thought about leasing a space.”
For Cooley, the gallery has always been a venue to showcase his own work but also a way to leverage his name recognition to help promote other local artists.
“I know that there are people who come in the door because it’s memorabilia but continue to come back and purchase other artists’ work and see other stuff,” he said.
Cooley also sees the gallery as a way to contribute to what he calls “after 5 o’clock life” in downtown Leesburg, creating a synergy among local arts and music venues and restaurants.
Cooley retired from the Redskins in 2013 and now works as a radio host for DC’s ESPN 980. On a certain level, the gallery has always been a side project, but with DeBray’s help, he’s looking to take it to the next level, as a connecting point for other local artists—as both teachers and students.
And of course, the former professional athlete has a sports metaphor:
“It’s like having a little team,” Cooley said. “We believe we’re going to need them to help us and we’re going to support them as much as we can.”
The Cooley Gallery’s grand re-opening is scheduled for Saturday, March 5. For details and more information about classes and events, go to www.thecooleygallery.com.