GROWING UP on the West Side, Helen West discovered her entrepreneurial spirit early. She set up Kool-Aid stands, sold barbecue dinners, and in an ode to the classic I Love Lucy episode, spooned out doses of fake Vitameatavega-min water for pennies. However, it wasn’t until recently that the former technology expert began to flex her enterprising talents and join a series of African American entrepreneurs (see sidebar) who are jumping into Bronzeville’s thriving arts scene.

“If someone told me I’d be doing this five years ago, I would have laughed,” says West, who has opened Neleh, an art gallery in a Frank Lloyd Wright stunner in Bronzeville (3219 S. Calumet Ave.; 312-225-5692). “When I started my business plan [for a smaller operation in Lake Meadows in 2003], it was just for custom framing. I thought, Why not art, too, since you’re doing framing? Then the plan just took off with a life of its own.”

In just three years in Lake Meadows, West’s small gallery attracted notable artists such as Dayo Laoye, Felicia Grant Preston, and Woodrow Nash. She earned even more cachet by resurrecting the annual Lake Meadows Art Fair, after a 20-year hiatus.

But over the past year, she thought about helping renew interest in Bronzeville’s rich architectural legacy. She converted her 1894 Wright home, one of only four row houses the architect ever built, into a multilevel gallery space with four fireplaces, hardwood flooring, and an expanse of earth-toned walls. Her gallery’s inaugural show, which runs through March, features works by the renowned Mississippi painter William Tolliver, who died in 2000. And future plans include work from more national and international artists, such as the Cuban painter Dorisa Camps. In 2008, West will host the International Art Expo at the Hyatt Regency at McCormick Place.

It’s all heady stuff for a former exec who worked in technology for companies like Lucent and Eli Lilly for 24 years before returning to her entrepreneurial and creative roots. West christened the gallery after her watercolor hobbyist mother (Neleh is “Helen” spelled backwards), her creative inspiration. “I think art was always in my blood,” she says. “I just didn’t know it.”

While you’re in Bronzeville . . .

an oil painting by Stephen Flemister Steelelife Gallery
(4655 S. King Dr.; 773-538-4773) The aesthetic: A sleek loft space run by photographer Bryant Johnson, Steelelife features contemporary art that pushes social and political boundaries. The artists: Look for striking photography by Johnson and figurative oils by Stephen Flemister (above).
Nicole Gallery 2
(4653 S. King Dr.; 773-373-4700) The aesthetic: With walls drenched in warm gold tones and paintings splashed with tropical colors, Nicole Gallery 2 reflects owner Nicole Smith’s Caribbean heritage; Smith also owns a namesake gallery in River North. The artists: The late collage master Allen String-fellow, Shona sculptor Washington Msonza, and Haitian painter Fritz Millevoix
painting by Haitian artist Fritz Millevoix
artwork at Gallery Guichard Gallery Guichard
(3521 S. King Dr.; 773-373-8000) The aesthetic: Painter André Guichard fills his spectacular, 2,400-square-foot gallery with an eclectic array of paintings, ceramics, sculpture, and glass works. Even the cool handcrafted light fixtures can be custom ordered-for a price. The artists: Steel sculptor Faheem Majeed and abstract acrylic artist Abiola Akintola

Photograph: Anna Knott  Art Courtesy Of The Galleries: Top 12Play II By Stephen Flemister, Middle Village Scene By Fritz Millevoix, Bottom Complimentary Colors By Abiola Akintola