Not in my backyard
Louisville artists revolt against Goomby Gallery owner Joda Pyle
Shawna Khalily, a local printmaker and woodcutting artist, has been searching throughout the past few weeks for Joda Pyle, the owner of Goomby Gallery in the Phoenix Hill neighborhood.
But this search is not to display her prints in an upcoming show. It’s to collect money Khalily says she is owed from her art sold at the gallery last month, as well as to collect her prints Pyle is still in possession of. And among Louisville artists who have worked in the gallery since it opened last December, she’s not alone.
During Khalily’s July showing, Goomby Gallery — an acronym for “Get Out Of My Backyard,” the same name as Pyle’s skateboard branding company — bustled with staff, which included fellow artists, curators, photographers, bloggers and filmmakers who worked together on the collaboration. But the small space on Baxter Avenue has sat empty for the past few weeks following the mass exodus of staff and artists pulling their work from the gallery, only to be replaced by complaints of broken promises, lost faith and lack of compensation for their work.
Khalily’s demands for Pyle — which have been echoed by other artists on social media in the past week — are quite simple. “I just want the money owed to me and my prints, and for the crew who worked so hard for my show to be compensated,” Khalily tells LEO. “That’s the only reason I’m reaching out.”
While rumors have swirled on Pyle’s whereabouts — some assuming he fled to Hollywood, where he lived before moving back to his native Louisville, others hearing he’s been in the hospital — he turned up last Friday, returning LEO’s phone call within minutes and inviting us to his gallery.
Pyle’s side of the story is no less odd than the sight of disgruntled Louisville artists banding together to demand justice and compensation for their work from a gallery owner. While these artists paint a picture of Pyle that’s more shady grifter than art dealer, Pyle says he should instead be thanked for his contribution to the arts scene, claiming “money-hungry” bohemians have thrown his life into turmoil.
“He owes a lot of people money and has made empty promises,” Khalily says. “Artists don’t make money very often. And in Louisville, we do hold it down for one another. You can’t piss off one person in this town, or it will get around and come back and get you.”
Some of the others who have stepped up and rallied beside Khalily are several former curators for Goomby Gallery. They originally found the position by responding to Pyle’s Craigslist ad that laid out a path to prosperity. Curators would get commission from art sold, and after a successful 90-day period on the job, they would become salaried staff.
However, Drew Martin, who worked as a curator at Goomby from April to July, found this was not the case. While the job started out as fun, he says he soon realized it was not as advertised. “After a while, we started to realize that we were doing all of this work for free,” says Martin. “And I was there for over three months, and not once did I get any form of payment at all, whatsoever.”
John Seyal began his work as curator in June, spending much of his time developing the gallery’s website. While he fully realized that pay was not to come quickly, he soon concluded that based on the experiences of those before him, compensation would be an issue.
“I couldn’t get any paperwork from him, and I didn’t have any way to enforce that 90-day period,” says Seyal. “There was no paper trail, so there was no way for me to really feel comfortable moving forward with it. I saw other people who had put their three months in, and the conflict seemed to boil down to a lack of payment, or a lack of agreement on payment.”
Samal McNealy, an artist who had worked as a curator for almost three months before leaving at the same time, says that while the little money he made at the gallery had to go right back into “what Joda owed,” compensation was ultimately not the reason for his departure.
“Any time I had ideas for the gallery, he just wanted me to sign over partial rights to Goomby, and I just wasn’t having that,” McNealy says. “Slowly I began to see that it was almost a scheme to make money, as opposed to catering to the local artist network.”
After reading up on some of Pyle’s past history with employees facing similar issues, Martin, Seyal, McNealy and several other staffers walked away from the gallery in mid-July.
“I didn’t want to dig myself deeper into a situation that I’d eventually get burned in,” Seyal says. “So I just got out and cut my losses.”
Following the mass exodus of staff at Goomby, Khalily became further alarmed when Pyle delayed compensation for more than $1,000 worth of her prints that sold. While she says Pyle was promising to take her to New York, Hollywood, Berlin and Japan to show her art, by that time Khalily had seen enough red flags, taking as many of her prints as she could out of the gallery.
From that point on, she and several former staffers tried in vain to contact Pyle and arrange compensation, but he did not take any of their calls, changed the lock on the gallery and appeared to vanish.
To our surprise, Joda Pyle quickly returned LEO’s call last Friday to talk about the complaints of artists and staffers at the gallery, attempting to point the blame back at them.
“I gave it a shot. I tried to do something good for the community. They took it the wrong way; I’m getting punished for that instead of, like, a pat on the back, like, ‘Oh, thanks for trying,’” Pyle says. “Because all these people were, man, at the end of the day, just money hungry.”
While Pyle says “everyone from the get-go knew it was not a paid gig or anything like that,” he also conceded he owes money to multiple people who worked at the gallery and will pay them.
“We are a legit company,” says Pyle. “Everyone who’s owed money will 100 percent be paid. We pay our bills.”
When asked who he specifically owes money to, Pyle says he only owes money to one artist, whom he declined to name. However, Pyle also says that such repayment is only conditional if unnamed people associated with the gallery stop publicly criticizing him, and he will not respond to calls unless they do so.
“How am I supposed to work something out when people are just bashing me and making threats toward me, because they think they’re owed something or whatever?” Pyle says. “Because there has been slander … I have been advised by my attorneys to not do anything until it basically stops.”
Pyle — who threatened to sue LEO if he didn’t like our story — then invited LEO to Goomby Gallery, where he insisted on playing a video he shot of himself the night before, explaining his situation.
Citing his light résumé as a “professional actor,” Pyle opened the video by saying, “I assure you that I’m not acting now,” then launched into an attack on those criticizing him, claiming they only care about being paid — and should ask themselves “What would Jesus do?” — and deny all of the great things he’s done for the “creative community.”
Pyle then spoke about his fiancée leaving him three weeks ago over the gallery drama — repeatedly emphasizing that he hopes this story convinces her to give him another chance — claiming that after drinking, he “flipped out,” screaming at her and kicking things until the cops were called.
Though Pyle claims he committed no crime and was charged with disorderly conduct, the arrest report obtained from the Clark County Circuit Court in Indiana reveals a much darker picture.
In the report, Pyle’s girlfriend says that after she told him she was taking her belongings from his house, Pyle would not let her leave, telling her he was getting his gun. The victim then ran out of the house to call 911 at a neighbor’s house, after which Pyle exited, shouting for her while holding what appeared to be a rifle.
Pyle, whose real name is John Pyle, was later arrested and charged with criminal confinement, a Class D felony.
The incident was similar to Pyle’s 2010 arrest in New Albany — which Goomby staffers became aware of and alarmed by in July — when he broke into his parents’ house after they evicted him, damaging property and refusing to leave until a SWAT team extracted him. Pyle would plead guilty to criminal trespassing and criminal mischief.
Pyle now says he will officially close Goomby Gallery at the end of the month and will use that space for his next project. He claims he’s now focusing on “pursuing a law degree” and working as a marketing consultant for an “international finance company.”
Asked if anyone who worked at the gallery sided with his version of the story, Pyle could only name Megan Kaheler, his friend of 15 years who also worked there as a curator. However, Kaheler told LEO that Pyle was solely to blame and that he owes both her and Shawna Khalily money.
“I’m not even really worried about the little bit that he owes me,” Kaheler says. “I’m more worried for Shawna, because that is a lot of money, and he has hundreds of her prints that have not been returned. And he won’t return my phone calls.”
Like Kaheler, Khalily is shocked that Pyle emerged only to speak with LEO and was dumbfounded by his attempt to portray himself as the victim.
“That’s crazy,” says Khalily. “He should have given me a check right after he got paid for my work — my work, not his work.”
Disputes with Pyle over uncompensated work go all the way back to last year, according to Kentucky filmmaker David Brewer. Brewer worked on Pyle’s attempt to make a television pilot starring himself — “He said it was ‘Entourage’ meets skateboarding” — which he described as a train wreck, made worse by Pyle’s refusal to pay him and much of the crew.
After calling Pyle out over his behavior, Brewer says Pyle refused to pay him because he was disrespected. “He wanted an apology from me first, basically buying excuses and time not to pay me.”
Brewer took Pyle’s company to small claims court and won, but he says Pyle has still not paid him the $1,000 he is owed, as the sheriff sent to serve him a subpoena has not been able to locate him.
Brewer’s Facebook post detailing his past dealings with Pyle are what originally alerted many of Goomby Gallery’s staff to their boss’ history. Brewer — who describes Pyle as a serial exaggerator who claims to be a major Hollywood player in discussions for collaborations with Jennifer Lawrence and James Franco — says Pyle’s routine is easy for artists unaware of his history to fall for.
“I don’t think it’s a reflection on anyone being naïve,” says Brewer. “It’s hard to imagine someone being so committed verbally and having the (gallery) location to be such a — for lack of a better term — scam artist.”
Former Goomby curator Drew Martin agrees that Pyle’s initial charm and grand claims were quite convincing, but wore off quickly.
“He likes to play himself off as this big Hollywood baller,” Martin says. “All he ever talks about is his money and how awesome he is. And then the more time passed, the more you realize that all he has going for him is what he talks about.”
Of the dozen artists who worked for Pyle that LEO spoke to, two common themes about the Louisville arts scene emerged among them: 1) Pyle’s burning of artists is extremely rare and won’t be tolerated, and 2) The united front of artists standing up for each other is inspiring and says a lot about Louisville.
“Everybody who lives here knows it’s a small town,” says former curator and longtime Louisville artist Samal McNealy. “If you do something screwy or underhanded, the word will get out. With social networks now, you can be done the next day.”
“I was really inspired by the solidarity amongst artists and creative people in this city,” says former curator John Seyal. “There was just a lot of intolerance of that kind of way Joda was doing business. We had a lot of artists watching each other’s back.”