Jennifer Salmi suffers a recurring nightmare about her parents.
It goes like this: Dead these five years, they come to the house where Salmi lives with her 4-year-old son Judah. Their intent, she knows, is to reclaim the money she inherited from their estate.
“They come back and take everything away and say, `It was just a test, we’re not really dead,”’ Salmi says. “And they leave me out in the street.”
A smile crosses her face as she says this, but it fades as quickly as it came. And then Salmi glances over her shoulder, as if something is gaining on her.
The new location of Auntie’s Bookstore is an impressive structure. Out of a dusty old furniture store, located at the corner of Main and Washington streets, co-owners Shannon Ahern and Chris O’Harra have constructed a book-seller’s delight: a store that is both functional and aesthetic, inviting and easy to use.
On the second floor, overlooking the traffic that whizzes by on Washington, Jennifer Salmi’s just-opened art gallery blends perfectly with the store’s overall decor.
And yet Galaxy Gallery is unique to this literary-minded setting. Fact is, it likely would stand out in a building devoted solely to the visual arts.
That’s because it is meant to be more than a mere art gallery. If things go according to Salmi’s plan, Galaxy will regularly double as a school.
A school for children in need.
At first glance, it’s not easy to see
what sets Salmi’s space apart. As with any gallery, the walls here are filled with works of painters, sculptors and other visual artists. Look around and you’ll see landscapes in oil, masks of glass, birds sculpted from wire, painted scarves, hand-made furniture crafted by hand, tinted photographs and more.
However, Galaxy Gallery indeed is something special. Its uniqueness can be found in the child-size stools and tables and the brightly colored, plastic painter’s easel resting behind the low barrier that splits the room diagonally. It represents both what gallery owner Salmi is and what she hopes to become.
For at age 29, what Salmi is, is a survivor.
What she hopes to become is a mentor.
“I was born and raised in O.J. Simpson’s neighborhood,” Salmi says.
Seated in one of her gallery’s small chairs, she has her elbows propped on the hand-painted table sitting before her. She continually throws her slightly-longer-than-shoulder-length hair away from her face with a nervous flip of her head.
“Before, when I said Brentwood, people would ask, `Where is that?”’ she says. “Now I just say, `O.J. Simpson’s neighborhood.”’
Salmi’s childhood in the exclusive Los Angeles borough was straight out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. Its highlights included privilege and the ready fame that comes from being a movie star’s kid. Which is what Salmi is.
Her father was Albert Salmi, the hulking character actor who played in more than 20 movies and numerous television shows. A native of Finland, he remains a source of pride for his native country.
Don’t remember him, you say? Listen: A Broadway-trained stage actor, Salmi starred in the original theatrical hits of “Bus Stop” and “The Rainmaker.” After moving to California, he turned to the twin screens, big and small.
Think for a second: Albert Salmi was the unlucky suitor of Audrey Hepburn in “The Unforgiven.” He was a Western outlaw in several episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” He portrayed investigator Pete Ritter for three seasons on the detective show “Petroccelli.” One of his last roles was in the mystery “Murder, She Wrote.”
Yet for all its glamour, Hollywood life can boast torment in equal measure. Maybe the fault stems from the fear of losing fame and fortune. Maybe it comes from the many temptations that lure the famous and fortunate.
Whatever, the children of Hollywood players are especially prey to such pressures. For some, a sense of unreality sets in. Imagine, after all, the heady experience of partying with the likes of Leif Garrett, Scott Baio, Tatum O’Neal and Phoebe Cates.
“It was different,” Salmi recalls, her smile flashing on, flashing off. “It was really Hollywood - ” she pauses a moment - “weird. But for me it was normal because it was what I grew up with. Everything was a movie. Everything was putting on acts. I went to an all-girls private school in the suburbs right next to Beverly Hills. I know stars. I was always on movie sets.”
In 1983, tired of the L.A. scene and enchanted by the Inland Northwest, Salmi’s parents decided to move north. Already the owners of a condo at Sandpoint’s Schweitzer ski resort, they decided to buy a house in Spokane.
But changes of scenery aren’t always a cure for what ails you. Family dysfunction isn’t just a matter of geography.
“I had a bad childhood,” Salmi says matter-of-factly. “I could write a book on so many different subjects, everything that I’ve been through.”
Her troubles began, she says, at “the very beginning. I was a blue baby. I was stuck in an incubator for a long time, and the doctors told my parents that I was going to die so forget about me. But some miraculous thing happened, and I didn’t die.”
Even so, she wore leg braces for years. “Something was always wrong with me,” she says.
If her troubles weren’t physical, then they were emotional. But whatever form her problems took, the result inexorably alienated Salmi from her parents - who suffered problems of their own. Salmi is uncomfortable being more specific.
She has written about her life, mostly in poetic form. But Salmi’s expression of choice is art. She’s exhibited her paintings around Spokane, most notably in the two Raw Space shows. And one of her efforts, a $600 painting titled “Emerge,” is on display at Galaxy.
But she didn’t start the gallery as a means of pushing her own work. True, she wants to develop a working business, and she hopes to do so by promoting the work of regional artists in such art centers as California and New York.
More than anything, though, she wants to provide a means of expression for children who remind her of herself.
“I can remember since I was young that I always wanted to make things better in the world, change things,” she says. “I still have that in me, to do something. There is so much we can do to make this world a better place.”
Val Hunt is excited for her kids, and Jennifer Salmi is the cause.
“I think it’s a great thing for the community that she’s opening up for our kids,” Hunt says of Salmi.
Hunt, youth services director of the YWCA’s transition and afterschool programs, works with what have become known as “at risk” children.
“They’re `at risk’ because they’re homeless,” she says, adding, “They come from basically all types of backgrounds.” Even so, 30 percent of them are, she says, “ethnically diverse.”
The “at risk” children served by the Y range from kindergarten age to eighth grade. Eighteen of them are second-grade age and below. Hunt says five to eight of them will work with Salmi once a week.
“This is a great opportunity for them to be exposed to the arts and receive some type of instruction in the process of finding their own creative energies,” Hunt says. “To express themselves in a positive manner rather than using their failings and anger to be expressed differently.”
Salmi has seen the results of anger and sadness in her own life. On an April weekend in 1990, in the family’s South Hill home, her father shot her mother and then turned a gun on himself. The couple had recently separated, and Roberta Salmi had filed for divorce. The shootings occurred two days before their 26th anniversary.
Salmi recalls her past with a range of emotions, pain and guilt prominently among them. But there’s a touch of anger, too.
“People blame divorce for a lot of things,” she says. “Like, `Oh, I am this way because the divorce destroyed me when I was 10 years old.’ When I hear that now I just want to grab that person and shake them and say, `If my parents had divorced when I was 15 years old when they wanted to, they’d both be happy, they’d both be alive today.”’
The guilt she feels is exacerbated by a statement she claims to have heard just a short time before her parents’ deaths. Five months pregnant at the time, she was at dinner with her father and older sister, Lizanne.
“He was asking, `Well, how are you going to support this child?’ because I wasn’t working,” Salmi says. “I don’t know why it came up, but he said, `I would kill myself but your mother would take all the money.’ Meaning he would kill himself to leave us some money, so we would be OK.”
To this day, Salmi’s sister says she never heard her dad say such a thing.
But, Salmi says, “I heard it. I know I heard it.”
Jennifer Salmi left home for good at age 17. She struggled to find her place in life, living and working where she could, alienated from her family and drawn to abusive relationships.
Through it all, art was her solace.
“Art has been my therapy for years,” she says. “My paintings are from the heart.”
Her father, too, was a painter. “He was an incredible artist,” she says, “a technically correct artist who was an actor.”
His tragedy, she believes, was that he gave up his art.
“Maybe if he’d continued painting …” she says, the thought dying there. “His acting, fine. That’s acting. That’s playing other parts, other roles. But he WAS an artist in his heart. That’s where I think I got some of my desire to do artwork. … But he stopped it. He was so afraid.”
Salmi herself is afraid. She knows little about running a gallery. She’s paid her lease for a year and has given herself that much time to make a go of it. After that, if things aren’t working financially, she may have to reconsider her career.
“Sometimes I think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew,” she says. “I think, `What in the heck am I doing?”’
Yet she remains committed to the idea of helping needy children in whatever way she can. She believes it is her obligation, not only to the children themselves but to the child she herself once was.
“I am offering this space, I am offering my supervision, my knowledge about art,” she says. “I’m not a college graduate. I’m not a teacher. But through everything I’ve been through in my life, I know that art has helped me. I can look at my paintings and go, `Wow, that really came from inside of me.’ And it helps. It’s like getting this load off your shoulders. I want to be able to show these kids how to do it.”