Figtree Gallery
& Coffee Shop
African Art and Coffee

by Rachel Perry

The village of Helmsburg in Brown County may seem incongruous with an upscale coffee shop which markets original African art. But for the past two years, the Figtree Gallery and Coffee Shop has managed to blend their urbane fare and cosmopolitan ambience to create a viable establishment off the beaten track.

Entering the impressive 1920s two-story brick building from the rear courtyard customers encounter a thoughtfully renovated 30’ x 60’ space dominated by a spotless coffee bar. The former Masonic Lodge and auction house gracefully accommodates its new mission. Coffee enthusiasts can sit and chat at tables inside or outside surrounded by colorful contemporary paintings and handmade artifacts.

The eclectic gallery merchandise includes woodcarvings from the Mombasa community (Kenya), soapstone carvings from Kisii (Kenya) and stone carvings from Zimbabwe as well as basketry created by women from the Turkana tribe. Ceramic teapots, coffee accessories, malachite and hematite necklaces, CDs and tapes by Estiban, banana bark paintings, detailed batik framed textiles by Heidi Lang, Jerry Morlan walking sticks and handcrafted furniture and cutting boards by Paoli master cabinetmaker Dale Barnard are among the tasteful displays.

The featured fine artist in the gallery, Vijaya Kalyan, specializes in Kenyan subjects. Her large oil canvases of abstract and stylized figures are depicted in bright oranges and reds, often outlined with black glossy paint. Ms. Kalyan is originally from Mumbai, India, where she received a Fine Arts degree in 1987. Since then, she has worked and exhibited in Kenya and participated in exhibitions in Nairobi, Uganda, India, South Africa, and Italy as well as Cincinnati, Ohio.

“Ever since childhood I have been fascinated by the expressive potential of colors, shapes and forms,” Ms. Kalyan writes. “Life is a huge canvas. And a canvas is my window, through which I see nature, people and life…To me, real life is about love, peace and happiness which radiates from human bonds—bonds that transcend human barriers.”

Vijaya Kalyan plans to bring twenty-five canvases to Helmsburg this September. The Figtree Gallery will be hosting a reception for the artist on Thursday, September 6 from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. as part of the annual Brown county art Renaissance weekend.

The proprietors of the Figtree, Glenn and Thomi Elmore, became enamored with African culture and art beginning in 1991. That year they participated in a project to build faculty housing at a bible college in Kenya. The couple purchased African arts and crafts to share their enthusiasm with friends back home. “African art is different than a lot of people think…We choose things that are uplifting—related to the countryside and the animals,” declares Mrs. Elmore. Mr. Elmore has returned to Africa eight times in the past decade.

Part of the Elmore’s dream/strategy had always been to establish a coffee shop and art gallery. “The reason we combined the two together was because a gallery in itself can be a very cold place—no one talking, just quietly studying the pictures,” said Mrs. Elmore. “When I think of a coffee shop I think of people gathered, sitting and talking in a real relaxed atmosphere. We thought of putting the two together. That way people could be relaxed surrounded by art.”

The Elmores lived and worked in Shelbyville when they began to implement their dream. Glenn worked as a private investigator and Thomi was employed as a computer consultant. “You never realize how long you have talked about doing something until you are at a point in your life where you either make this change now or you know it probably won’t happen,” Mrs. Elmore laughed. With their four children largely raised and a comfortable familiarity with Brown County, the couple bought a house on Lanam Ridge Road in 1996.

“We started going there on weekends and puttering around,” Mrs. Elmore recalled. “We then started looking for property (for a business). Nashville was cost prohibitive and we wanted something sizeable. So we started driving around the county. My husband knew that at one time he had seen this building for sale. We stopped and looked around and it was pretty overgrown. When we called and asked if the building was for sale the owners said, ‘No. Do you want to buy it?’ Within a month, here we were. We don’t know whether we picked the place or the place picked us!”

After two years of extensive restoration The Figtree Gallery and Coffee Shop hosted its grand opening in February of 2000. “This is a labor of love,” explained Mrs. Elmore. “We want people that come here to have a sense of being in our own home.”

To that end, the coffee shop offers a variety of entertainment choices. Customers can order any of the specialty coffee drinks and desserts while enjoying diversions ranging from country, folk, and blues musicians to periodic theme nights.

The Figtree is open Fridays and Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. and closes at 4:00 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays. They are closed Sunday through Tuesday. The Elmores can be reached at 812-988-1375 and their website is