Arts Tour: Southeastern Vermont

Elizabeth Russle Connelly
American Style Magazine, February, 2006

There was a time when spa-seekers traveled to Brattleboro for the water cure. More than a century later the waters still revive, but therapy for the soul abounds on terra firma in the area's exceptionally fine craft.

Not only does Vermont claim to have the country's highest number of artists per capita, but, tucked in the state's southeast corner, Brattleboro is repeatedly ranked among the country's top art towns.

A visitor can find winter beauty in daylight near Putney or at night in downtown Brattleboro where visual treats include openings during Gallery Walk.

"Brattleboro is the poster child for arts and culture," says Andrea Stander of the Vermont Arts Council. "Other towns look to it as a success story."

Even local farms have turned artisanal, converting to agritourism and organic products. The Experiment in International Living program, which maintains its international office in the area, and a history of arts colleges and communes have helped make this a worldly place with an involved population.

To raise awareness for sustainable agriculture and local arts, the annual Strolling of the Heifers parade recasts Pamplona's stampede in slow motion. Young bovines, preened to perfection, mosey along Brattleboro's Main Street. Happy marchers include the men who swiftly hoist baby buggies over their heads in unison, performing the Hefting of the Strollers.

That same sense of humor is often reflected in area art. Seek it behind Main Street's brick and wrought-iron-fronted art galleries and bookshops, coffeehouses, multi-ethnic eateries-local vendors without the usual franchises. On the first Friday of every month, Gallery Walk turns this street and the surrounding area into a roving art party.

More than 45 arts venues await visitors on the first Friday of each month during Gallery Walk in downtown Brattleboro. Pictured above is one of the many receptions (at Gallery In The Woods) clustered on and around Main Street

The Brattleboro Museum and Art Center is a good place to start your tour. The restored train depot by the Connecticut River showcases contemporary artists from all over the United States.

Two blocks north, on Main Street, is Greg and Susan Worden's Vermont Artisan Designs. Richly hued pottery and elegant glasswork share space with Robert Chatelain's turned black-cherry burls inlaid with gold leaf and colorful resin. Upstairs, in Gallery 2, you'll find handcrafted furniture, fine art, photography, metal sculpture by Bill Heise and Joseph Fichter, and seemingly tornado-ravaged miniature clay barns by John Brickels.

One of the many elegantly crafted works in glass from Vermont Artisan Designs on Main Street. Along with glass you'll find jewelry, paintings, furniture and a variety of well made and beautiful crafts.

Across the street is the studio and retail shop of lapidary and metalsmith Robert Borter. His strong contemporary designs are most often inspired, he says, by the shape of a stone-some are soft and comforting, others dramatic and bold. One floor up, The Artist's Loft is the bed-and-breakfast and studio of William H. Hays. The artist looks out his studio's window for views of the river and Wantastiquet Mountain to paint landscapes in oils. He switches to watercolors at outdoor locations.

Down the block, art enthusiasts will think they've found paradise at Gallery in the Woods and Dante's Infurniture. The tagline "visionary art and spirited craft" guides artist-owners Suzanne and Dante Corsano in their choice of artists.

"Spiritual concern is communicated from the work of a person who is deeply into pattern language," explains Suzanne. "It boils down to a personal familiarity with the intentions of the artists themselves."

Fine examples are Peter Muller's elongated, creaturish glass forms, Chris Roberts-Antieau's thought-provoking fabric paintings, and Alan Steinberg's large, "made for a sacred space" clay sculpture. Jackie Abrams elegantly interweaves painting, collage and printmaking in her extraordinary baskets.

Working in a simple, classic style, "Dante never repeats a piece," says Suzanne. "When you look at the back of one of his cabinets, it's as beautiful as the front."

From the street, A Candle in the Night looks like an oriental rug dealer. It is. But throughout the year, art is displayed in its gallery and throughout the store. Showing this winter are Lanny Lasky's constructions, boxes and collages made from found objects.

A mile south of downtown, on Cotton Mill Hill Road, a century-old brick and wood-beam complex holds a burgeoning artists enclave. Randi Solin pioneered the movement with her hotshop, Solinglass Studio, where she creates palette-rich, one-of-a-kind sculpture. Natalie Blake joined her, making vividly colored urchin vessels in her pottery studio next door. Five years later, the complex houses more than 20 visual and performing arts studios.

The interior of The Artist's Loft Fine Art Gallery.

"Every time someone moves out, an artist moves in," says Solin. One, woodworker T. Breeze Verdant, makes exquisite inlaid boxes, guitars, furniture and accessories. To create "the greatest beauty consuming the smallest amount," he uses exotic woods from scrap or veneer.

At the other end of town, Brattleboro Clayworks invites visitors to ask questions and peer over the shoulders of working artists, including Alan Steinberg. The co-op's gallery features works from traditional wheel-thrown stoneware and porcelain to large-scale sculpture.

In nearby Putney, cafes and shops cluster near the general store. Every November, dozens of artisans throughout this creative community open their studios to the public.

Penelope Wurr's shop showcases her glass vessels with signature textile-like finishes. Fine two-dimensional art is just up the road at Village Arts of Putney. At Ken Pick's tobacco-barn gallery and studio, high-fired stoneware strikes a stimulating balance of vibrant color and soothing earth tones. Some of his teapots and vases are so dynamic, they appear ready to spring.

Listening to a babbling brook, Wendy Wilson turns out the grain of native woods in her natural-edge bowls and vessels. Her more contemporary, sculptural pieces incorporate stainless-steel banding and rubber cord.

Veiled silver glass with delicate bubble patterns infuses Robert Burch's perfume bottles, paperweights and sculptural pieces. He and his wife, Nancy Gagnon, run Brandywine Glassworks out of their 200-year-old barn.

A selection of Robert Burch's blown glass exhibited in his studio in Putney.

At the narrowest spot along the Connecticut River, Bellows Falls, a former mill town, is fueling an up-and-coming art scene with the Rockingham Arts & Museum Project as its engine. RAMP has converted downtown's Exner Block into 10 live-work spaces and several galleries.

Five miles to the west, The Jelly Bean Tree in Saxtons River is an artists co-op worth visiting.

This corner of Vermont is brimming with innovative artists. Meandering along scenic roads through quintessential New England towns will unearth hidden treasures. It must be something (talent?) in the water.

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