The Mobile arts world lost a treasured member when Koch Gallery owner Lars Britt died Aug. 17 at age 65. He was in a Baldwin County medical facility enduring the worsening effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) after being diagnosed last November.
Britt wore several hats in the community for pursuits both cerebral and eclectic. The Mobile native seeded friendships naturally.
“Everybody who met him loved him. Through 20 years I’ve never heard anybody say anything bad about Lars Britt. He was a strong leader in the community, was always there, very generous and someone I would hope to be like,” artist and sculptor Vance Smith said.
Smith served as Britt’s apprentice for nearly seven years and was named the gallery’s assistant director two years ago. The legacy he’s left to continue is historic.
William Koch founded the gallery when the former merchant marine arrived in Mobile following World War II and put down roots.
“There were no art supply stores and no fine art galleries in Mobile. He was the first,” Smith said as he recalled buying art supplies from Koch in his youth.
According to Britt’s LinkedIn profile, he began work as Koch’s apprentice in 1974. Koch taught the young artist the appraisal and framing skills needed, then left the shop to him in 1989.
“I remember his art shows when he was still on Monroe Street and he brought in huge out-of-town art dealers for Sunday afternoon shows. I remember one had charcoal sketches by Salvador Dali and all kind of stuff you might not see in Mobile otherwise,” artist Shelley Ingersoll said.
Around the turn of the century, Britt moved the gallery to a location on St. Louis Street. The rent was lower but so was the activity around it.
“He always called his place an ‘art oasis in a desolate void’ when there was nothing on St. Louis Street for years. You had to be looking for it,” painter Devlin Wilson said.
“I was one of the original 40 artists that started Cathedral Square Gallery back in 1996 and that’s when I became acquainted with Lars and we started doing projects at Koch,” Smith said.
As the gallery’s namesake did for him, Britt did for Smith. He gave him studio space, taught him the intricacies of appraisals, the research and how to frame. With Britt gone, Smith is left the task of project completion, inventory and contacting consigners.
Britt’s interest and talents were varied. He was founder and director of the Mobile-Baldwin County High School Chess Association
“He was on the chess team in college and he saw that need to organize competitions. He’d been doing that at least 20 years since I’ve known him,” Smith said.
“Lars was this past year trying to save up money to go to a national chess championship out in Las Vegas. He was just about there when he was diagnosed with ALS,” Wilson said.
Britt worked as a sports correspondent for the Press-Register starting in 1993. He specialized in stories on chess competitions and soccer matches.
“I watched him take calls in the Press-Register newsroom. He was the guy local coaches would call, give them the scores, the highlights of the games and type up all that,” Smith said.
In addition to formal art, Britt was known for a lifelong collection of comic books described as “expensive.” He had relationships with comic book dealers across the area.
“I was on two trivia teams with him, one out of Wintzell’s and one out of Moe’s, and we went up to sunny Tunica, Mississippi, together to go participate in the finals in 2013 or ‘14. We didn’t win but we had big fun,” Wilson said.
Britt had triple bypass heart surgery two years ago. Initial ALS symptoms were assumed related to the coronary issues.
Britt began to use a cane. His drive in from Baldwin County became harder.
“We’re lucky to have had Fred Marchman as long as we did because he’d pick up Fred Marchman and they’d ride together. They’re hanging out together now because they were good buddies,” Wilson said. Marchman died in April.
A unique communal hub is now in flux. Like its proprietor, Koch Gallery was like no other.
“He had a group of chess-playing, comic-book-reading, trivia-playing buddies that hung out with him. It was better as a social gathering spot than for art sales,” Wilson chuckled.
According to Smith, Britt’s family is planning a celebration of his life. No details are available yet.
“We’re planning a benefit show for Lars closer to the fall but we’re kind of disorganized and it was unexpected he would die like this. We’re all still grieving. It’s just very surreal,” Smith said.