Severe flooding got summer off to a rough start in the Champlain Islands. But a countywide community art project has provided a bright counterpoint to the season’s early gloom. Sixteen colorful benches, hand painted by local artists, are on display throughout Grand Isle County as part of the Lake Champlain Islands Chamber of Commerce’s “Take a Seat in the Islands” event.
Islanders and tourists can visit the festive, functional pieces at venues from the Welcome Center in Alburgh to the Allenholm Farm in South Hero and a dozen points in between, and then bid to take their favorite seat home at a fundraising auction next month.
Chamber executive director Ruth Wallman was inspired by similar art happenings in other Vermont towns. “We watched Burlington have the cows,” she recalls. “In Brandon they did everything from pigs to rocking chairs to birdhouses.” According to Wallman, boatloads of artists reside in Grand Isle County, either year round or just in the summer. Planning got under way last fall.
The initial thought was to use Adirondack chairs. But one of Wallman’s board members suggested keeping things truly local by employing North Hero furniture maker Nick Durso, who crafts maple and poplar benches sturdy enough for outdoor use. “They’re beautiful pieces of furniture [even] without anything on them,” Wallman says.
A wide range of contributors picked up brushes. “One is still in high school, some recent college graduates, all the way through some fairly senior and well-known artists,” Wallman explains. They embraced the challenge of venturing outside the canvas comfort zone to tackle furniture and “fool around” with unfamiliar materials such as marine shellac, she says.
Local businesses are sponsoring individual benches. “We had originally envisioned that each artist would talk with their sponsor” to come up with a design, Wallman remembers. Some patrons made very specific requests; others asked, “‘Oh, please, just make me something nice,’” she says.
“Allenholm wanted apple blossoms, so they have apple blossoms,” Wallman notes. Killington artist Maurie Harrington honored Sen. Dick Mazza’s wish for an image of the Capitol by trekking to Montpelier to take research photos, and setting the Golden Dome in a glorious fall-foliage scene. Most benches are exhibited at the sponsors’ businesses, but a few patrons lack an island location. (Mazza’s store is in Colchester, so the Alburgh Welcome Center is hosting his seat.) “We just put them in places where people could see them,” Wallman says.
Design inspiration was more personal for artist Rachel Laundon, who works in Waterbury Center but exhibits at Grand Isle Art Works, where her bench currently resides. Two vivid, green-and-yellow fish swim in opposite directions on the seat and back. The coloring creates a dappled, underwater effect. “It’s very cool,” notes Wallman. “Turns out she’s a fisherwoman herself” and creates fish-shaped sculptures.
The Chamber has received “great feedback” since the benches debuted in mid-June, Wallman says. Some viewers reportedly have made pilgrimages to all 16 seats. One looming problem: Some of the sponsors have fallen in love with their benches and don’t want anyone to buy them, Wallman says. “Well, you’re gonna have to bid on it!” she mock-admonishes, laughing.
The auction takes place on Saturday, August 13, at the newly rehabbed North Hero Community Hall. A portion of the proceeds goes directly to the artists; the balance supports the Chamber.