The painting, a self-portrait of a Black woman, that attracted a female customer one Friday afternoon is the topic of discussion a day later as Art Society owner Shema Woodruff took a few moments to tell the story behind the piece.

“I was in a dark place in my life and art was my outlet,” she said.

The painting, “Complexity of Complexion” outlines her profile and has a roadmap of arteries making their way through her face and neck. Woodruff’s eyes in the painting can only be described as striking. Woodruff, 29, had quit her job as a restaurant manager in April and was looking for her next challenge and chapter in life. 

“I knew what I was doing was not what I was meant to do,” she said. “I would try to get my work in galleries and it was hard.” 

Then she had one of those crazy ideas that when all the stars are aligned and everything goes as planned feels like a stroke of genius: Why not open an art gallery? Hence Art Society, one part art gallery, one part art collective, one part all-purpose custom art studio was born. 

The only art gallery in Clayton County’s Southlake Mall is here. 

“This is Art Society, where artists come together and leave here with a place to bring their vision to life,” said Woodruff.

Surrounded by the traditional fare of American malls; sneaker stores, fast food joints, jewelry stores and t-shirt shops, Art Society may not be what you think of when you think of a mall tenant.

Woodruff signed the lease on the 8,100 square foot space in May. She joked about the moment the idea of opening an art gallery crossed her mind, “I wasn’t sure what I was thinking.” 

Artists interested in having their pieces- paintings, sculptures, photography, et al- displayed in Art Society have to go through what can loosely be described as an audition.

They can bring samples of their work to Woodruff and her business partner Stephen Benitez, 27, a cinematographer, photographer, videographer and all-around idea man, and as long as the art matches criteria of non-racist and non-offensive messages then it can pass muster. 

“We don’t necessarily have a criteria for art,” said Woodruff. “A black and white sign behind her read in part: “Art is everything, and everything is art.” 

Whatever is sold at Art Society gets split between the gallery and the artist. 

“We want this to be a place where artists can build their brand,” said Benitez, who also goes by Artez, a combination of the word “art” and his last name. “This is a community and it’s about the relationship we are building.” 

The pair were introduced by a mutual friend, Picasso’s Splat Room owner Picasso Black and have been working together to build the Art Society into something south Atlanta residents and visitors can take pride in. While growing up in Brooklyn, New York Woodruff said she wasn’t exposed to art at her local mall, or anywhere else she frequented as a child.

“I wasn’t introduced to how to make a career out of art until I was in my early 20’s,” she said. “I love seeing little kids and younger people coming in here enjoying the art. I don’t have to make a dollar that day. It’s all worth it.”

When asked why she didn’t open a gallery in a more art-friendly neighborhood like Inman Park, Grant Park, Midtown or Buckhead, Woodruff said she knew Clayton County didn’t have something like Art Society available to the public and that was a challenge she was proud to take on.

“[Clayton County] is predominantly Black and I feel like we need to be invested in ourselves,” Woodruff said. “Originally I wanted to do a pop-up [art] shop but the mall said no and so we created a space for artists instead.”

Both she and Benitez say the level of support has been strong. Art Society also offers customers graphic design and photography services. Woodruff shared a story of a customer coming into the shop last week looking to have a photograph of her recently deceased boyfriend put on a t-shirt. She and Benitez were able to do that and more, enhancing the photo and got the job done within the hour.

“I love that our clients can come in and get what they need within an hour,” said Woodruff. 

“We want Art Society to be a hub for all artists to be able to connect and collaborate,” said Benitez. “I believe we are all created by the Creator to create.”

Monday is art hanging day at the gallery and Woodruff is ready to display some new pieces she recently received. First, she is going to go over the pieces with gallery curator Andre Thompson, another artist helping make Art Society work. “I don’t hang art in here without contacting him,” she said. 

Music played in the background as patrons milled about. Woodruff and Benitez went back to assisting their guests. The gallery was buzzing with activity. An art gallery at Southlake Mall on a Saturday afternoon. Picture that. 

A Tupac and Biggie Smalls piece by artist Travis 18. (Photo Credit: Donnell Suggs/The Atlanta Voice)

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Donnell began his career covering sports and news in Atlanta nearly two decades ago. Since then he has written for Atlanta Business Chronicle, The Southern Cross...