The Lauri Kaihlanen Art Gallery in Rockport is like a record store that sells paintings instead of music. And it’s sort of like a sailor’s lair. And it’s also sort of like the house of your cool great uncle who had a career in adventure sports or jet setting before settling down in a seaside town.
But the Lauri Kaihlanen Art Gallery is exactly what it sounds like: an art gallery owned, maintained, and operated by Lauri Kaihlanen. It’s plopped in a wooden-shingled building at the foot of Rockport’s Bearskin Neck. Outside the front door is a red sign with the words “Whimsical Art for all ages” in swirly letters painted on it.
“I knew it had to be art some place, because that’s what I wanted to do,” Lauri says.
Lauri is 74 and first opened the gallery with his mother, Hilda Kaihlanen, roughly 30 years ago. They’d been selling and showcasing their work in other New England seaside towns before that.
Lauri says his mother didn’t start painting until she was 53. He, on the other hand, graduated from Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 1969 and taught junior high school art classes for about ten years after.
Hilda passed away in 2013. Lauri, who is named after his father, continues to showcase her work alongside his. Each piece in the gallery is still an original by either one of them.
“It’s a place that just everybody goes into,” says Heike Boettcher, who helps maintain the gallery. “You have to. You can’t just walk by it,” she says, adding that “the colors suck you in.”
Sometimes Lauri asks his wife if she’s expecting him to retire anytime soon. She usually says she doesn’t. That’s a good answer for him. “As long as I can do it…I’m gonna do it,” he says.
Lauri uses acrylic paint and lots of color, and paints everything from wildlife to cityscapes. Pictures of colorful animals from birds to turtles embellish the gallery’s walls. Beside them are scenes of Rockport in all seasons and packed games at Fenway Park.
“There’s something for everyone,” Lauri says.
His most popular print is a smiling rainbow giraffe’s head. He says he once sold 56 of them in the same day.
Among the bright colors, Lauri also loves clean, simple lines. His many paintings of bright birds show them sitting in intricate black and white trees.
“I love doing cardinals. People relate to cardinals. It’s something having to do with death, in a way. It’s like a relative coming back. They see a cardinal in a tree, and they think about their mother,” he says.
Lauri is part of the gallery’s allure, too. He is a striking figure, with long white hair in a low ponytail behind his head and ocean blue eyes which multicolored, round glasses frame.
His distinctive looks and personality have even made him a bit of a local celebrity. Not long ago a receptionist at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston even recognized him while he was there for an appointment. Apparently, she’d visited the gallery a few years before and bought a few of his pieces.
“She said, ‘the ponytail kind of gave you away,’” Lauri laughs. “And that happens so often.”
Lauri’s primary goal is to contribute to people’s joy. “I love the people,” he says. He’ll offer to sign art for anyone who buys it if he’s in the store that day.
“He’s just so open and welcoming,” Heike says. For Lauri, a key aspect of being open and welcoming is keeping his prices moderate.
It’s a “wonderful feeling,” when children come in to buy a piece with their own money, he says. Sometimes those kids will even return to the gallery as adults, and tell Lauri about the joy that first piece of art brought into their lives.
“They carried it all through life. Now they’re 45 or 50 years old, and they still have my little giraffe head, or my little zebra, or a little scene of Rockport,” Lauri says.
“As long as I’m able to do this, I’m gonna do it,” Lauri says. Then he pauses. “I’ve said that three times already. But I love that.”