Tucked into the corner of Las Olas Boulevard and Tarpon Drive sits Upper Room Gallery, an airy, eclectic space with an understated storefront -- easy to pass, though worth the stop. Lamps of bamboo and organic paper by Filipino artist Wendy Fernando Regalado hang from the walls in shapes that vaguely and beautifully resemble fish, and wooden chairs and benches dot the perimeter of the space, functional fine art by another Filipino artist, Benji Reyes.
Abstract paintings and photographs by the gallery's founder, Robin Merrill, and floral paintings by her husband, Mark, accompany the works of other featured artists in a mix of media and styles crowned by the silver and multicolored glittery plastic chair that sits at the entrance like a pretty, even desirable, sore thumb, assuming that's possible.
The gallery, worth a stroll even for those naive of its mission, is a "nonprofit global collective" that caters to artists who work with "recycled materials and who are concerned with global poverty, social justice, and enviornmental issues," according to its website. Upper Room Gallery is a business subsidiary of Robin's nonprofit Christian Cultural Development Foundation.
The gallery space also houses Mission Gifts, a marketplace of handmade goods that supports women who have escaped prostitution in the Phillipines and other countries and the shelters and rescue centers that care for these women and others. Reclaimed flour sack aprons, shoulder bags of repurposed rice sacks, and wine carriers made from recycled materials look surprisingly trendy displayed on racks and in baskets. It's the "this is not a plastic bag" movement without a catchy phrase. And who would ever guess that rice sacks come in such vibrant colors and prints -- bright pinks and greens, mermaids, and fish.
The idea for Mission Gifts grew out of Robin's experience living in the Philippines for 15 years. As she was doing outreach helping prostitutes in Manila, she says she realized that "the sex industry is an economy" and that these women will return to prostitution if they do not have another way to make a living. Robin says the Mission Gifts items made by former prostitutes provide them with a modest temporary income as they look for other work. Mission Gifts items come from all over -- Cambodia, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Nepal, India. Shopping and browsing is not only a tactile and aesthetic experience; it's a lesson in social justice.
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