Through the front door of the spacious new home of Open Your Eyes Gallery and Studio on Main Street in Gunnison, three smiling dogs joyously bound, their bodies wiggling in happy greetings of wagging stumpy tails. Francie and Allan Ivy purchased the historic three-story brick building last month and have been busily converting its interior into an art space for their photography work as well as their top-floor home. In two weeks they moved their entire world and lives into the building that was constructed in 1882, when Gunnison still had dirt streets and lots of Wild West cattlemen.
Coincidently, the couple’s former occupation was ranching, although perhaps not so Wild West.
Born and raised in South Africa, Francie and Allan worked on a cattle ranch in a little village called Munnik. “We ranched for 13 years before we did anything else. It was my family’s ranch,” Allan says of raising 700 head of Bonsmaras, a composite breed developed in South Africa.
Ranching on that land was a family tradition that began with his great-grandfather, who emigrated from England and bought the ranch in 1918.
Francie, whose name is actually Françoise, hails from a French mother and Belgian father. In Zaire, where her parents lived, political unrest evacuated all the women from the mostly Belgian and American community. Her mom and aunt left for South Africa, where Francie was born, returning to Zaire when the unrest subsided. Francie lived there until she was 10 years old and her parents packed up the station wagon with her and three sisters to relocate to Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe.
Francie lived in civil war for nearly her entire life, learning how to use weapons in high school in case the school was attacked. Attending the University of Natal in Pietermariztburg, South Africa, she studied English and French and graduated with a teaching diploma.
At university, Francie met Allan at his twenty-first birthday party in 1982. He was in the army studying chemistry, physical metallurgy and plastics technology. The country didn’t exactly have a draft system, but in South Africa you served in the army through conscription, which Allan explains allows no choice—every white male had to go into the army. He served for four years because he was studying his sciences, and claims it was, “A pretty good gig.”
Two years after meeting, Francie and Allan were married. Their daughter, Natasha, was born in 1986, having been conceived, they laughed, in a 1972 VW Beetle while touring the USA.
“We came to the States and did 36,000 miles and 41 states on a tour, living on $10 a day, including gas money.” Allan was working as a photographer, a serious hobby while ranching, and they spent a year traveling before going back home to their family’s ranch. Their son, Andy, came along 16 months after his sister was born. The young family stayed on the ranch in South Africa for 13 years.
When apartheid ended and the lands were designated to be returned to the black majority, the family sold the farm back to the new government, as required, and Francie and Allan decided to move to the area west of Sheffield, England.
“People don’t understand the bond that existed between blacks and whites despite the racial unrest,” Francie points out. “I refused to carry a gun I might have to use. We didn’t want our kids to grow up in the same situation that I was in when I lived in South Africa. It felt right at the time to leave and be done with it.
“But what we didn’t realize is that Africa doesn’t leave you. A lot of people think that because you’re white European that going back to Europe is like going home, but we’re third-generation Africans. Also, people thought all whites from South Africa were racists… there were a lot of misconceptions,” Francie says, and offers a quote from an ancient Arab proverb: “He that hath drunk from African fountains will drink again.”
While in England, the couple had a fast food business called Pasty King Pies, selling traditional English pies, 13 different flavors from steak and kidney pies to apple pies, making thousands of the pasties, as they’re called in England, from scratch. Allan explains that the pasty is more like a turnover. With four outlets, they competed with the biggies—McDonald’s, KFC and Subway—all in the same food court in a mall for 11 years.
Meanwhile, Allan was also professionally practicing photography and traveling all over western Europe, selling and showing his work in fine art galleries and exhibitions. Sometimes Francie would have to stay and run the business but together they traveled to Bangladesh, China, Hong Kong, most of Europe, and back to South Africa for Land Rover trips.
During their stay in England, Allan captured the spirit of the Romani (Gypsy) families as they traveled to an annual 400-year-old horse fair in Appleby, England, living in the camp with them. He would meet the Romany as they came into town, arriving from all over the U.K., and he was able to take photos of them traveling through the countryside.
“There are three hills that they camp on, and I camped with them,” Allan says and adds that although it’s pretty well documented with photographers flocking to the event, 99 percent of the photographers just stay in town and don’t actually integrate with the Romany. “I actually made a lot of good friends that I still keep in touch with. They were very open to my photographing them so I’m right up into their faces,” and his work reflects their strong family culture, weathered faces, the joy of their children and the beauty of their horses.
“It’s a very close-knit culture, a very strong family structure, they stick together. They’ve been persecuted forever and have the usual stigma of thieves and they’re very nomadic, but it’s becoming more difficult for them to remain nomadic,” Allan explains. “In the olden days, fields were set aside primarily for travelers to stay in, and they used to travel around with their skills and do dry stone walling, shoeing horses, and metal and wood work. They were craftspeople and when their work was done they’d move on. A lot of them still do this. It had become more and more difficult in the U.K. but it’s now become more accepted, people have become more tolerant.”
With fond memories of their 1985 tour of the U.S. in a VW Bug, Francie says they’d come back for short trips and vacations, tooling around in their RV, which they stored in the Four Corners area for return trips. “For some unknown reason, we decided that combining a campground and photography would be a really good idea,” she laughs.
They flew out from England to look at a few campgrounds on the Western Slope, but none of the properties felt right for them, until their real estate agent told them about a campground in Gunnison.
“We only had an hour and a half,” Francie says, explaining they had to get to Denver for the flight back to England. “We walked around the campground, went to town, had a coffee at the Bean, looked up and down the street and thought, this town looks kind of cool, kind of fun, and how quaint!”
They flew back to England and, Francie says, “In a weak moment, we decided to put the offer in,” with the intention of also having a gallery there with photography workshops. In 2008, they were the new proud owners of the Mesa RV Resort, just west of Gunnison on Highway 50, returning later that autumn to live here for a year before returning to England to continue running their pie biz. They converted one of the campground’s buildings to a gallery, teaching classes and workshops. Allan also taught at WSC.
The Gunnison valley continued to call the couple back to spend more and more time in the area. “Right now our favorite place is Gunnison,” Allan smiles and adds, “It’s why we’re still here. This whole area is unique for photography because of its vistas and natural diversity—alpine terrain, Hartman Rocks, Blue Mesa, Black Canyon—the geographical diversity is amazing here, as well as the diversity of the people, from the ranching community to the old hippies to the college students. We always found that, as foreigners, we can actually fit into any of the groups, and having traveled, we feel comfortable in different communities.”
Francie and Allan both agree they enjoy the area’s distinct seasons, even if they’re somewhat shorter in time. “Our whole journey has been guided by some energy out there, and both of our kids are here now,” Allan says. He notes that he and his son are both avid hunters, another plus to living in the Gunnison country. “We hunt to eat, and all the food we eat, we hunt. The hunting was a big attraction here,” he says.
When Allan upgraded his camera, Francie took over his old one and began shooting in 2012. She confesses, “I live with a good teacher.” They do all their printing in house with ginormous color printers that slowly produce images of very high resolution on canvas, paper, and metallic paper up to 44 inches by however long as you can imagine.
The couple is excited to be able to offer classes, workshops and photo courses for all levels, from beginners to advanced. As a family business, the space will also feature the work of their daughter, Natasha’s Wild Ivy Creations, with feather, leather and earthy natural jewelry and craft, and Natasha’s mom-in-law, Shelley Logan, who creates wall hangings from nature.
Francie and Allan feel that this area is a wonderful place to be. “The energy here is what keeps us here,” they smile in unison.
Visit their daily photo blog at allanivy.com and the gallery website at openyoureyesphotography.com.