The towering yellow mansion at 510 Orange Street has served numerous purposes over the years: The leading family of the Protestant Episcopal Church built it in 1905 to be the residence for the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of East Carolina. The mansion was home to several bishops over the years. In the ‘60s, it was occupied by Dunlea Broadcasting Industries Inc., and in the early ‘80s, to Village Radio of Wilmington, before the Bahr family acquired it in 1984. Since their ownership, they have pioneered its renovation from dilapidation to a beautiful home, and most recently, an art studio, an “arthaus,” so to speak—or as they call it, “Bahrhaus: An International Art Museum.”
The home showcases a large and unique art collection acquired by the family from local, regional and international artists. Johnny Bahr III, local artist and resident of Bahrhaus, says there is so much art in the home, it’s impossible to display it all. They showcase multi-media from Ecuador, Switzerland, Mexico, Argentina, Russia, Japan, and Australia, among others. Bahr’s favorite of the collections from his family’s travels are the Swiss clocks, which have been gathered over the years. “They are very ornate and impressive as mechanically functioning objects, and the cuckoo clock is hard not to notice everyday,” he says.
Bahrhaus also houses artists with hopes of adding to Wilmington’s creative city and becoming an arts destination. Made up of a trifecta, Johnny Bahr III, Nick Mijak and Jahde Justad, each artist currently residing in the house has owned a studio, gallery or art business, in some fashion—many in familiar buildings of downtown: The Trust Building, City Market, The Murchison building. Their personal art can be seen all over Wilmington as well. Bahr III has a mural featuring the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge on a wall outside of Slainte on Front Street. He also is the resident artist at YoSake Downtown Sushi Lounge.
Mijak can be seen about downtown nearly any day of the week, painting watercolors of the historic area. He currently has an exhibit at Panacea Brewing Company featuring drawings of “Old Wilmington’s Old Trees,” which also were exhibited at Thalian Hall last year.
Justad currently has her work displayed in Front Street’s Port City Java, as well as in a window display at Bar Local. She is currently engaged in many projects including a woman-inspired series where she will be using strong women’s poetry, artwork, photography, and interviews to inspire her own work and explore the confidence, grace, and power of women who inspire her. She is doing a painting of one of the gnomes for Airlie Garden’s “Gnome Invasion,” on display from June until October later in the year. Three artists intrinsically woven into the fabric of our beautiful town are now strengthening their connection by living within Bahrhaus; collecting and creating for their own art museum.
Bahr’s mother always has shared with her son a passion for art. They often frequented museums together, and she had mentioned the idea of opening a “little store” or “museum” in past conversations. After the patriarch of the family passed, Bahr and his mother decided to turn the idea into reality. “With the house being empty, it felt like it was time to do something with the space,” Bahr says.
Mijak and Justad moved in not too long thereafter, and the idea began to fall into place. The starting off point was a mixed-media exhibit last summer. In September they showcased “Colors of Ecuador” with international art collected by the Bahr family over generations. Bahr’s mother is from Ecuador, so the country has been a travel destination, with the family collecting new art each visit. It included a collection of ancient Incan artifacts his grandmother used to acquire archeologically for banks and museums in Ecuador. Bahr loves the biodiversity of Ecuador and complexity of color stemming from it. “The color spectrum of flora and fauna is unlike anything I have ever seen, and you definitely see all those colors reflected in the artwork,” he explains.
Then they hosted “The Art of the Postcard” in January, and featured postcard art by Bahr, Mijak, and Justad. It also offered a collection Bahr discovered in the home, which belonged to his father before he passed in 2016. Bahr found postcards dating back to 1906, with different old scenes of Wilmington.
“Many of them my father acquired were through an online auction from the destinations they were sent to,” Bahr says. “It is a bit romantic, these pieces of history left as notes from people here experiencing Wilmington in a time before text and e-mail—when writing and postcards specifically were the only way to communicate.”
Bahr felt a connection to the postcards instantly as they were his father’s attempt to collect art that could represent the visual history of Wilmington and its surrounding areas. The cards were displayed from inside a glass case and included scenes of the Wrightsville Beach rail trolley from downtown, The Lumina Pavilion, the cable car ride above the Carolina Beach Steel Pier and scenes from the past of historic downtown Wilmington.
Most recently, in line with Valentine’s Day, they presented “HeARTache,” an art experience about unrequited love. The exhibit displayed largely local artwork by Bahr and Mijak, as well as “heart-related” sculptures by Nathan Verwey. Among displays was a projection screen spanning a wall, which flashed various break-up texts, e-mails, and messages received from past romances of Bahr.
The core group of Bahraus have a grand view of their future: Mainly, they want to focus on international art. They want to expose folks to works that add flair to the world-at-large. Bahr wishes to challenge the more conservative nature of local art, and inspire people to desire different experiences outside of the comfort of their immediate surroundings.
For example, Bahr once snuck into a graveyard in Paris and took photographs. He almost got stuck overnight in a lot of snow with a large wall to scale. One of his collectors wanted to purchase a photograph from this adventure, and Bahr sold it to him—so long as he promised he would visit Paris.
“A year later, he went to Paris, having never been before,” Bahr tells. “I think it is amazing. A piece of art inspired someone to go have an experience. I think worldwide art has the ability to allow us to see a different perspective, to show us there are other things out there, to inspire us, and to teach us about ourselves and most importantly to make us feel. People here can’t always afford to travel, so I want to open up a space so they can come see something different.”
Bahr also envisions a residency program, with artists from around the world coming to create while living in Bahrhaus. What they create will then be exhibited and promoted from the home.
“I think it would bring in a different perspective to Wilmington and start connecting dots around the world,” he continues. “I’d also be curious to see how a foreign artist would interpret our town and the scenery here, and how it might influence their art.”
In the past years they have had visitors from Russia, Argentina, Japan, Switzerland, France, and Italy, all of whom have left behind artifacts. “I’d like to continue to cultivate that idea; an international art community.”
As well, Mijak envisions giving art lessons at the house, perhaps outside in the beautiful and spacious yard.
Bahrhaus International Art Musuem’s next show will be held March 29, 6 p.m. – 10 p.m., featuring mixed-media, including photography, paintings, paper crafts, collages, video projections, and animations. It will feature work by Johnny Bahr III, and pieces from multiple international collections will be viewable during the exhibit, including Ecuadorian paintings from the previous show. The event is open to the public.
“The hope is to get more people in experiencing art,” Bahr says. “That’s what my life is about: creating art and sharing it. . . . I want Wilmington to become a world art destination—a beacon of inspiration for art, film, music and all things creative.”