On a stormy afternoon last June, more than 100 people gathered for the opening of a new gallery — not in a slick, white-walled commercial space, but in Bowen and Christine Swersey’s Southwest Harbor home. While Bowen strummed a guitar in the open-plan living area, guests absorbed haunting Mount Desert Island night scenes by renowned New Orleans–based photographer Frank Relle, sinewy wax-and-acrylic abstractions by his wife, Romy Leonides, and vibrant, impressionistic landscapes and seascapes by Christine. The works were mounted above a leather sectional and a granite-and-fieldstone fireplace, next to a wood-framed window seat, and around a staircase with balustrades of knotty logs and twisted winterberry branches. More of the trio’s combined 60 pieces, largely created on-site, hung in a former garage (dubbed the “gallerage”) paneled in rough-sawn boards, a Tolkien-esque shingled sauna, and a tree house clad in a spectrum of tawny shingles. All of the spaces were hand built, including the primary home, by Bowen. “When you invite people to a gallery opening, it’s usually a one-note experience because the work is cut off from its source,” Relle says. “But inviting people into this space, which is also Bowen’s art, I can’t imagine a more holistic experience.”
Relle met the Swerseys in the summer of 2011, when he rented their tree house during a stint photographing the area. Afterward, he returned nearly every year, eventually bringing Leonides along. In 2020, the couples, by then close friends, rode out the pandemic together. Relle would slip away to scour the island with his camera at night and sleep during the day. Christine and Leonides painted in the garage, and Bowen, a landscape designer, mason, and novelist (whose supernatural mysteries and medieval fantasies are published under the pen name Winter Fox), wrote at the dining-room table or his desk in the tree house. “It was a terrible time,” Christine says, “but it was also a beautiful time because we had every day to create art and connect.”
Last winter, Relle and Leonides approached the Swerseys about using their house to debut the art they’d made there. Now, the Swerseys plan to leave the work in their home-gallery mash-up, called Art Acre, until it sells. Eventually, they’d like to host other artists’ work. For now, though, they’re acclimating to life in a quasi-retail space. “Every piece has a price tag, which is a little strange,” Christine admits. They’ve also grown attached to works that feel like part of their home. “There are a few things I can’t bear to lose,” Bowen says, like Christine’s painting of a hummingbird. It now hangs in the gallerage, protected by a red “sold” sticker.