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interview with emily susanin kessinger, yellow door gallery

credit: Preservation.

Will Signs caught up with Emily Susanin Kessinger of Yellow Door Gallery to learn more about the gallery she and her husband run in their home, hear about her vision for the space, get her take on the art scene in Des Moines and discuss all things Art Week Des Moines.

Why did you decide to open Yellow Door Gallery? 

My husband, Mason, and I have a friend in D.C. (Chris Maier) who runs an amazing initiative called Little Salon. He organizes salons in other people’s homes monthly and has creators come together and share their art, music, song, dance, food, drink, whatever. I loved the idea of such events and thought about trying something similar out in Chicago, where we lived before moving to Des Moines. I never got around to it in Chicago but knew it was something I’d pursue when the time was right. So, when we moved to Des Moines in 2016, we decided to try out Yellow Door Gallery – a different yet somewhat related idea here in the community – and it clicked. While our model isn’t that similar to Little Salon, I give credit to Chris for the inspiration and for encouraging me to try my own version of salon hosting. Turns out, it morphed in to more that I could have imagined.

So, back to your real question: Why Yellow Door Gallery? For Des Moines. For artists. For something different, something changing, something that expands one’s mind and one’s view of the world.

What led to the decision to open a gallery in your home, rather than in another space?

While I’d love to have a gallery in another space, I believe Yellow Door Gallery is where it’s supposed to (physically) be for now. Running a space elsewhere in Des Moines would take time and money away from other pursuits and interests that I have in life. Plus, I work full-time at Weitz doing marketing and communications, and I love my job and the people there. I enjoy having two vocations and passions that I can switch between.

What is the philosophy that drives how you choose topics and artists for exhibitions, salons and other events at Yellow Door?

I curate the gallery shows with emerging contemporary artists that are pushing boundaries, unique in their practice, and creating art, objects or installations that make me stop and think. Sometimes they’re local. Sometimes they’re not. Most all of the artists I have shown are friends or friends of friends or friends of friends of friends. Benjamin Gardner and Andy Davis were the first two artists to have a show at Yellow Door. They were local. I’ve known Andy for 15 years, and he is one of the big reasons I finally launched the space. Mostly because he kept saying, “Why not?” and I listened to that. He believed in it, and I believed it in. And it worked.

I met Benjamin Gardner thanks to Instagram, and he referred the next three artists who I showed at Yellow Door to me directly (THANKS, BEN!). Then, one of the artists he referred whose work I just LOVE, Gyan Shrosbree (of Fairfield), introduced me to the work of Katy Kirbach (of Fairfield/Chicago/Berlin). Then, Katy did a show with her extremely talented friend Zoe Nelson (now of New York). Then, an incredible artist, Heidi Wiren Bartlett, had a performance I saw in Chicago in 2015 that really stuck with me. I found out she was in Iowa City and contacted her there. She wanted to do a show with her friend Kuldeep Singh (of New York), and so it went from there. Referrals, listening to IPR, Instagram, conversations with friends and strangers – that is how exhibitions come together.

I’d say the salons and other events are similar. When you surround yourself with good people doing great things or have friends who know good people who do great things, your network widens and you feel the strength of the community. There have been a few awesome “cold calls” that I’ve made or that have been made of me. One that sticks out is when April and Josh Visnapuu of Open Door Rep emailed me out of the blue. I was SUPER excited to hear from them and meet them for a coffee date with Mason. They are a driven, adorable couple and were launching a pop-up theatre company. What wasn’t to like, and how could I say no? WE BOTH HAD DOOR IN OUR NAMES! So, we partner quarterly and continue to support one another. It’s a neat thing.

You’re originally from Des Moines, and your husband, Mason, is a transplant to the city. What are your thoughts on the art scene in Des Moines, and how have you seen it change since you’ve been back?

The art scene here is growing and vibrant and getting more diverse by the day. We have a freaking Kerry James Marshall now in our public art collection! Mainframe is a major attraction in our city. We have a wonderful Art Center and some rad groups within it (Art Noir, Print Club, Salon 4700). Shoot, Art Week Des Moines is a huge deal, and so is the Des Moines Arts Festival. The Barnum Factory is open and thriving. Art Terrarium in Elevencherry is hosting unique events and bringing artists and creators together. Olson-Larsen and Moberg Gallery continue to have incredible shows of local, regional and national artists, and fun events in and out of their gallery spaces. I love the OL (Olson-Larsen) Guild concept. There are various exhibition spaces around town in places one wouldn’t normally think to look, including in Blackbird’s Wilkins Building lobby, Baratta’s at the Historical Building, Mars Cafe, The Lift and so many others. It’s SWEET. And it’s only going to get sweeter. I love when people come visit because there’s always so much to do within the art scene.

What does Yellow Door Gallery have planned for Art Week 2018?

* RDG Dahlquist Art Studios Tour: Thursday, June 21; 5:30-7:30 p.m.

* June Exhibition Featuring Michael Velliquette and Joey Faerso: Sunday, June 24; 1-4 p.m. (exhibition open June 9 - July 8)

* Art Week Wind Down Yoga at Yellow Door Gallery: Sunday, June 24; 4-5 p.m. ($5 suggested donation)

Visit for details. See these events and others on the full Art Week Des Moines event schedule:

What Art Week events are you most excited to take part in?

The Artist Studio Tours that were organized this year each day of DSM Art Week are an awesome feature and super exciting to see on the lineup. I’m stoked to attend as many of those as I can. In addition, there are some great shows up during that time at Art Terrarium, Olson-Larsen and more. I’ll see Betsy Hart’s work at The Lift during Art Week and attend the Festival over the weekend. It’s also fun to check out the Des Moines Social Club’s Urban Visionaries show. So much to do in one week. Ah, I better start planning now.

Are there artists that you’re looking forward to seeing at the 2018 Des Moines Arts Festival?

It’s a secret.

Yellow Door Gallery is a residential alternative gallery space that is shifting the perceptions and dynamics of visual, aural, and performance art. Located in a private home in Des Moines, Iowa, the space connects emerging artists and collectors through salons, installations, concerts, and afternoon teas.

2121 Wakonda Drive

Des Moines, IA 50321

Open Sundays 1-4 p.m. or by appointment.

Interested in making an appointment or sharing your work? Contact