Above: “Sky Grammar V” by Kate Doyle
Drift Gallery’s Ali Goodwin finds light in art and life after cancer
by Chloe Kanner
It’s been five years since Ali Goodwin opened Drift Gallery. Five life-altering, life-affirming years.
“This whole five-year chunk of my life has been so illuminating,” she said.
Drift Gallery, at the historic Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion in Portsmouth, begins its anniversary season this weekend, with a reception on Saturday, June 13, from 5 to 8 p.m. The opening exhibition, “Everything Illuminated,” features new paintings by Kate Doyle, Sean Ware, and Timothy Wilson, who’ve all mastered perspective and light in unexpected ways.
It’s the perfect background for reflecting on how Goodwin reached a milestone with “patience, perseverance, and perspective.”
Goodwin, a local photographer and writer, established the contemporary art gallery in June 2010 in Kittery, Maine, before relocating it to Portsmouth in 2013. The original space was small and seasonal, but the response was huge. And she didn’t need much anyway; she was hoping for a lighter life.
“I used to have so much and it was too much,” she said. “I intentionally let go of a lot to free myself up to be able to go find myself again. And then, I really had to let go of everything.”
Moments before boarding a plane for an artist residency in Berlin, she felt a lump in her breast. She left anyway, fearing that missing the opportunity would be worse than the diagnosis she would eventually receive.
“I made the most of my time, and knowing that I might be really sick made me even more inclined to create experiences I likely would not have had,” she said.
She had to return home two months into the eight-month residency, and was diagnosed with cancer a week later. It required surgeries and chemotherapy that left her sick, weak, and exhausted. She had to make sacrifices to cover the basic needs of shelter, transportation, and food. She still does.
“I was not only trying not to die, I was also trying to live,” she said.
While still in Berlin, Goodwin began writing about and photographing her body as a way to distance, distract, and document herself. Most of the photos disappeared when her computer crashed, and she was only able to recover some from emails. “It was devastating to lose myself all over again,” she said.
After everything, after having lost the body she knew, her assets, and even some of her friends, she still sees the bright side.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” she said. “I have been given such a gift. Most of us go through our lives just going from one day to the next, likely reacting as opposed to acting on things, or worse, settling because we are too stressed or scared or blind to change. Over the last few years, I’ve had no choice but to acknowledge the value of every single minute.”
Goodwin said one of the hardest things about surviving cancer is trying to figure out what to do next, after realizing anything is possible.
“It’s only with this newfound perspective that I can finally give myself permission not to waste my time or that of others, or feel guilty or be too hard on myself if something doesn’t go quite as planned or if I change my mind,” she said. “I had little to no control of what was happening to me, and being able to let go of the outcome of things is really the greatest gift. I am lighter and stronger and happier because of it.”
She acknowledges having dark days, but said clarity came from looking for the positive.
“This year, I’ve sensed a significant shift,” she said. She’s putting her health first, and seeking balance between financial needs and doing what she loves. She became a real-estate agent in December, and found that her talent as a curator translates well to showing houses. Things are looking up.
And, over the past five years, she’s reached her goal of bringing the highest caliber of contemporary artists to Drift Gallery, which has come with its own challenges due to the hidden location and the recent construction surrounding it. She’s shown work by names recognized near and far, such as Sally Mann, Robert Wilson, Alec Von Bargen, Bear Kirkpatrick, and Sumner Winebaum.
“I’ll never be who I was, but I’m much more whole now than I’ve been in the past five years,” she said. “This gallery was a great anchor.”
The gallery, in the former carriage house of the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion, carries on a legacy left by John Templeman Coolidge, who encouraged other artists to visit and be inspired by the setting. Goodwin considers that past when she thinks about the future.
“I feel like I’m the heiress of some crazy throne. I’m part of the history of this place,” Goodwin said. “I feel like it’s a legacy thing. I can’t stay here forever, but maybe I can, in a way.”
“Everything Illuminated” is on view through July 26. Drift Gallery is located at 375 Little Harbor, Road, Portsmouth, and online at drift-gallery.com.