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Last year, Esther Beish, an El Cajon mother of three, took up photography as a hobby and won two awards. Last month, Beish opened a gallery filled with her rainbow-hued, digitally manipulated photos of nature, carousels and boats.

“She’s got guts — especially with this economy,” said artist Phebe Burnham, who attended Esther’s opening reception Friday. “But she’s charming, very charming, and she’ll manage.”

Burnham, a 90-and-a-half-year-old pastel artist, has won more awards than she can remember, but never considered opening a gallery. Burnham said Beish is just a different breed: “As they say in my family, she could sell a tail to a monkey.”

Beish’s venture, Main Street 5 Gallery, is tucked inside the Glamour Girls Boutique on El Cajon’s main drag.

Beish, 43, doesn’t expect to fund her gallery solely on the sale of her own artwork, although she said she has sold eight pieces since opening.

She plans to rent it to other artists for demonstrations and shows, she said. The first show she has booked is a San Diego photography meet-up group.

If someone wants to do a weekend show, that will be $200, Beish said. She said she’ll charge $450 for a two-week show, including the closing and opening receptions.

I met Beish last month when a mutual friend, watercolorist Chuck McPherson, introduced us at a reception at SDAI: Museum of the Living Artist. McPherson told Beish she would want to show my work, but I was far more interested in Beish’s story and chutzpah.

To get to Beish’s reception Friday, I had to weave through dresses festooned with sequins and frills before arriving at a smart, professional-looking, 400-square-foot gallery in the back.

At 6 p.m., there was already a crowd of about 40 people. Beish bubbled with enthusiasm as she greeted each person and made introductions. She blushed and she boasted and her laughter rang through the room.

“This is the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” she said.

Beish was 16 when she took her first photography class at Helix High School in La Mesa. Although she continued to study the subject in college, she wasn’t serious about it. She married a lieutenant commander in the Navy when she was 25. Three children quickly followed.

But in 2010, she got the camera out of the closet. She was excited that she could now digitally manipulate the photographs.

“With the computer, I can make it more unique,” Beish said.

Last summer she won an honorable mention in a photo contest at the San Diego County Fair and the owner of the now-closed Park Place Café invited her to put up her work on the restaurant walls. In September, Sophie’s Gallery hosted a show for artists from around the county at Liberty Station.

“And I got second place. Little Esther from El Cajon got second place!” she said. “I thought, ‘Geez, maybe I do have something here.’”

In November, Beish asked the owners of the boutique about the dusty back room. In December, she spent $5,000 on paint, lighting and furniture, and by January, she had a gallery.

“Some people do research forever and never do it,” Beish said. “I still need to do research.”

A lack of business training doesn’t keep her from dreaming.

“As soon as I know what I’m doing, I’m going way bigger,” Beish said. “I would like to do nonprofit. I have a big heart for children.”

Although Beish’s reception was popping with energy, I had to leave early to get to two more shows Friday night. As I was halfway out the door, Esther called me back: “You have to see something,” she said.

Back in the gallery, she shouted over the crowd: “How many people here have met me in the last month?”

About half the people raised their hands.

Her eldest son, 15-year-old Baron, was stocking the table with more sandwiches and soda. He said he’s proud of his mom. She’s always been one of those people who jump into projects enthusiastically, but the photography has really taken off.

“She’s like a snowball rolling downhill,” he said. “She just keeps picking up speed and getting bigger.”

You can reach Dani Dodge at Dani@DaniDodge.com, see her work at www.danidodge.com, or follow her on Twitter: @DaniDodge.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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