The words of restaurateur Alice Waters, owner of California’s organic mecca Chez Panisse, are emblazoned on a chalkboard-painted door inside Burlington’s New City Galerie: “Our full humanity is contingent on our hospitality. We can be complete only when we are giving something away.”
The quote serves as a guiding principle for Joseph and Katie Pensak, who opened the gallery last year under the auspices of their brand-new church, Redeemer Presbyterian of Burlington. The couple relocated last summer from Connecticut, where Joseph was campus minister for the Reformed University Fellowship at the University of Connecticut.
While Waters’ quote evokes Christian ideas of charity, this gallery is not a churchy place, so don’t expect religious artwork or proselytizing. “The church is way, way in the background,” says Joseph Pensak. “There are no shackles on the art because of it.”
The Pensaks are artists themselves — he’s a musician; she’s a graphic designer — and have long believed that religious institutions should play a role in artistic communities. “There’s this long tradition of the church as patron to the arts,” Pensak says. “What happened to that? We want to bring it back.”
The sunny rooms of New City Galerie are tucked above Akes’ Place on Church Street. On a recent afternoon, they are filled with Burlington potter Bech Evans’ sensuous earthenware teapots and cups; Erik Rehman’s clay sculptures, including a stick-mounted head lopped to reveal a dense city block instead of a brain, and a small, vulnerable figure curled in fetal position; and Amherst artist W.R. Cooley’s haunting, black-and-white images of snow on asphalt in the New Jersey Meadowlands.
Pensak envisions the gallery as a cooperative art space. “We want to be something that artists in Burlington own,” he says. So far, the core group of local artists involved includes Evans, Rehman, photographer Rachel Styers, jeweler Emily Henry, St. Michael’s College environmental science professor Anjanette DeCarlo and Burlington photographer Jean Luc Dushime.
But New City isn’t just about visual arts. “The vision for the space is art, music, film and lectures,” says Pensak, and notes that he’s especially interested in providing a venue for artists from Burlington’s refugee community. He and Dushime are hosting a June 5 event with local hip-hop act A2VT (Africa to Vermont), which is made up of three young men from Tanzania, Somalia and Congo.
Pensak kicked off the gallery’s grand opening last December with a concert by St. Michael’s music professor and Americana/blues guitarist Bill Ellis. “We started with music, because that’s what I do,” says Pensak, who co-founded Bifrost Arts, an ecumenical sacred-music organization and record label, several years ago. In February, New City hosted Americana musician Tim Eriksen, who composed the music for the film Cold Mountain. Last month, the gallery welcomed Philadelphia jazz artist Joshua Stamper.
Pensak is always looking for opportunities to link a performance with works in other media. The night Stamper performed, for instance, the musician’s brother, Ben, screened his silent films. W.R. Cooley — of the snow-on-asphalt photographs — did the cover art for Stamper’s album.
At New City’s recent Africa Night, Rwanda-born Dushime showed his photographic portraits of local African women, DeCarlo screened her documentary about the frankincense trade in Somaliland and Brooklyn-based Ethiopian artist Ezra Wube showed his animated film made entirely from oil paintings.
Pensak’s mixed-media approach to the gallery is all part of the master plan. “We want to connect emerging artists with emerging patrons,” says Pensak. “We don’t want this place to be intimidating for families.” To that end, he’s outfitted a kids’ room in the back of the gallery with an extra-low table, tiny chairs and art supplies.
All told, the bright, airy gallery, which takes up the entire second floor of the Akes’ Place building, has two exhibit rooms, the kids’ room, a movie-screening area, an office and a storage room. It’s a lot more space than Pensak’s church normally could have afforded, he says, but the landlord loved what the couple envisioned and gave them a special deal.
“It’s just grace,” says Pensak of the opportunity to get the gallery off the ground. “It’s pure grace.”
New City Galerie, 132 Church St., Burlington. Info, 735-2542, www.newcitygalerie.org.