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Flagstaff artist Jill Sans was in the throes of a bad day recently when a stranger stopped by The HeArt Box, her small gallery nestled in the alley between Aspen Street and Route 66, asking if she’d let him sing her a song.

“I was a little bit wary, but I said, ‘Yeah,’” Sans says. “He started playing me ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ by Nirvana.”

The HeArt Box is marking its first year as an arts space, an anniversary that for Sans comes as a testament to the courage she found to open it as well as the support given to her from the community—something she’s received almost constantly since opening the roughly 550-square-foot  space last August. This stranger off the street had found his way to her that day, and, like many before him, became part of the network of supporters and small gestures that keeps Sans and her space afloat.

“He signaled for me that there’s always this really cool exchange in this space, and it just kind of keeps getting fed new life and new energy,” Sans says.

Since opening The HeArt Box, Sans has hosted 12 shows encompassing an array of media and artists. From jewelry to recycled art, painting to sculpture, the gallery—which Sans sees as more of a living, breathing entity—is one of a handful of incubators for the arts in Flagstaff as it seeks to raise up and create space for local makers.  

“I do have a great support and artists who believe in the space and want it to keep existing,” Sans says.

One of those people is painter Emma Gardner, whose colorful pieces have long been a known and loved commodity in town, decorating many a space, including almost every inch of wall in MartAnne’s Burrito Palace.

“I think I’ve helped reinforce that she should follow her gut feeling and if she felt like it was right to not second guess, but to keep going forward with her vision,” Gardner says. “When you’re doing stuff in the arts it’s easy for people to be like, ‘I’m afraid, I don’t know what I’m doing,’ and I just said, ’Follow your instinct and don’t compromise your vision.’”

Gardner’s role is one that has proven instrumental according to Sans; so has that of Jerrel Singer, who will be one of a handful of artists at the upcoming show, which also doubles as the HeArt Box’s anniversary exhibit—an event featuring the work of Navajo and Hopi artists, live painting and music.

Around a year ago, Sans was at a cross roads in life, a recent divorce and the ending of other relationships prompting her to leave her job as a piercer and curator at Burly Fish Tattoo and venture out on her own. She was part of a collective that used the space together and when they decided to go their separate ways, Sans was faced with a decision.

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“If I gave up the space, I would probably not do this again. This was my chance to just keep on going down this road, so there wasn’t a lot of time for me to think about it. It was just go, do it, just go,” she says.

The time since then has been a process of constant self-affirmation.

“It’s been me having to believe in myself over and over. It’s kind of like when you have that feeling and you feel it in your bones and you know it’s there, but you don’t know how to get there. It’s been a lot of learning to trust myself, and then over time I’ve just had artist after artist--but other community members too--just show up and be like, ‘Wow, this is incredible.’ And I’m like, ‘Keep doing it, keep showing up and keep telling me to keep doing it,’” Sans says with a laugh.

The HeArt Box will celebrate its first year with a show that opens this Friday, Aug. 2, as part of Flagstaff’s First Friday Artwalk. Featured artists will be painters Jerrel Singer, Jeremy Singer, Randall Wilson, Nate Begay and jewelry by Jonah Hill. Several of the artists will be doing live art as part of the opening and Jill Sans will be raffling off art pieces as well. The event runs from 6- 9 p.m. at The HeArtBox, 17 N. San Francisco St. Suite 1B. Tickets are $5 each or four for $20. For more information, visit The HeArt Box on Facebook.

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