- Luke Awtry
- Jennifer (left) and John Churchman with dogs Laddie, Maisie, Quinn and Tosh
To fulfill a longtime dream — and fill an empty nest — artists and authors John and Jennifer Churchman recently opened the ArtHound Gallery in Essex. The idea had been brewing for years.
The husband-and-wife creative team, who wrote the New York Times best-selling children's book The SheepOver and four subsequent Sweet Pea & Friends titles, opened their first art gallery, Brickhouse Studios, in Stowe in 2006. Then the 2008 recession came, and the tourists didn't. So the gallery closed.
A decade later, John was talking with longtime acquaintance Peter Edelmann, owner of the Essex Experience complex and managing partner of the Essex Resort & Spa. "I told him, half joking, that he needed a gallery in Essex Experience, and he agreed," John said.
ArtHound opened in October, a few months after the Churchmans' youngest child enrolled at the University of Vermont. At 21 Essex Way, it occupies spaces that formerly housed Phoenix Books Essex (now at 2 Carmichael Street in Essex Junction) and Carter's (now Carter's OshKosh at Maple Tree Place in Williston).
"There aren't a lot of spaces for Vermont artists to show their works, and there hasn't been a gallery out here in Essex for about 15 years," said John, a professional photographer and painter. "Even in Burlington, there are very limited places besides Frog Hollow [Vermont Craft] Gallery, and that's small."
John, who once served as president of the Frog Hollow board, estimated that gallery's space at about 2,000 square feet. ArtHound occupies 7,400 square feet.
"Vermont artists need more spaces to show, and we want to provide that space," John said. ArtHound is a nonexclusive gallery, meaning that it doesn't limit artists from showing elsewhere. The artists get 60 percent of their sales; the gallery, 40 percent.
The Churchmans named the gallery for their seven dogs. Two are "certifiable hounds": Quinn, a goldendoodle, and Cyrano, a golden retriever mix. The hounds and border collies Laddie, Maisie, Tosh and Blaze take turns serving as greeters at ArtHound. "People come in and feel like they get dog therapy," John said, laughing. Their seventh dog, Scout, prefers to put in his hours at the Churchmans' 25-acre Moonrise Farm in Essex.
At first, the gallery was going to occupy just the former Phoenix Books location, but when the Carter's space became available, the couple created a large opening to connect the two spaces. They reused Carter's light and display fixtures, pulled up the carpeting in both areas, and put down a faux-wood floating floor.
Carter's former checkout counter now has a cherrywood top, milled from a tree hit by lightning at Moonrise Farm. The ceiling is gray and the walls cream because that combination highlights the art without competing with its colors, Jennifer said.
The entrance area is designed to make people find the gallery approachable, Jennifer noted. "Anyone can come in at any budget level, whether it's a high schooler buying a card or an interior designer shopping for a high-level client."
The Churchmans want to fill the space with as much art as possible, creating a hub for Vermont artists. They're well on their way, with more than 130 represented. "We've basically been word of mouth. We've put out very few calls to artists," John said.
Some artists, such as photographers Peter Miller, Richard Brown and Kurt Budliger, showed their work at the Churchmans' Stowe gallery. Others heard about ArtHound on social media, such as multimedia artist Lynn Ann Powers of Essex, who saw a friend's Facebook post and decided to stop in with some of her cards.
"The lighting in here is fantastic, and the space has a professional museum touch," Powers said. "Everything is well spaced, nicely displayed and easy to see."
Jennifer, also a multimedia artist, is responsible for that ambience. "I have an eye for space and displays, and I love doing it," she said. She's also creating the website, through which patrons will be able to purchase anything in the gallery.
"Our core mission is celebrating three different levels of artist: master, emerging and community, with a good representation of mediums and artists," Jennifer said.
Both gallery owners work the register and serve customers, but John's specialty is acquisitions. Other artists represented include plein air painter Eric Tobin, art quilter Judy B. Dales, printmaker Woody Jackson, steampunk lamp maker Gerry Conlon, fused-glass artisan Gabriele Baumann, upcycled fiber artist Carol Kelley, pen and watercolor illustrator Jess Polanshek, wood craftsman JB Bryan, bronze and silver jewelry maker Lochlin Smith, and wood bowl turner Ted Beebe.
ArtHound's first nod to community arts is an ongoing fall show by the Essex Art League, which supports the appreciation and creation of art in Chittenden County. A winter show will launch in time for the gallery's grand opening.
The couple is also offering framing services and print making from an Epson giclée fine art digital printer.
Phase two plans include adding artist salons, where artists can meet and create together, and classes by artists for the community. Those goals support Edelmann's objective: He wants businesses at the Essex Experience to offer experiences to visitors. For instance, the soon-to-open Black Flannel Brewing & Distilling, not far from the gallery, will offer beer making and distilling classes.
Uncommon Coffee, which Maya Crowley plans to open in 2020, will occupy the 5,000-square-foot space next door to ArtHound. A door will connect the gallery and the coffee shop.
Some of the Churchmans' own artworks are on sale at the gallery, and the couple may add more over time. But for now, they're busy working as authors. The Easter Surprise, their fifth Sweet Pea & Friends title, will be republished as a board book in early 2020. A new book, The Christmas Barn, is scheduled for release by Little Bee Books for the Christmas 2020 season.
The couple is seeking a publisher for The Garden Princess, and they're working on a concept they call Hide and Go Sheep. "We'll probably do one or two books a year forever," John said. They'll also be working at Moonrise Farm, home of the sheep, chickens, alpacas, ducks, geese, cats and rabbits who star in their books.
Inside the gallery, John and Jennifer mused on their showroom devoted to Vermont artists. "Being in relationship with all these artists gives us access to more than just what's displayed," Jennifer said. "We can connect [patrons] ... to their entire portfolios. We love the artist community of Vermont, and this gallery is a place to show that love."
Correction: November 13, 2019: An earlier headline misstated the location of ArtHound Gallery. It is in Essex.