Author John Villani has made Burlington proud by including it in his oft-reprinted book, The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America. Already on many quality-of-life lists, the Queen City joined the ranks of those towns that provide " a strong sense of support for the visual arts, performing arts, and music. These communities," Villani explained, "are at the vanguard of an important national trend that's leading to the revitalization of smaller communities through arts-driven economic development."
To be sure, you hear a lot of talk about the "creative economy" not just in Burlington but in towns all around the state -- Barre and Vergennes spring to mind -- as well as from travel-and-tourism officials. Still, launching an art gallery in Vermont is a bold, brave thing to do. OK, risky. Because, let's face it, many Vermonters are more preoccupied with paying the heating bills than picking out paintings.
But this month three new galleries are opening their doors with gusto, and faith that the art-loving public will come: The Lazy Pear Gallery in Montpelier and the Julie Ruth Studio & Gallery in Waterbury debuted last weekend; Pine Street Art Works in Burlington will host its first reception on Saturday, December 17. Each venue has an utterly unique vision, and that originality bodes well for finding a niche in Vermont's artosphere.
The Julie Ruth Studio & Gallery is owned by painter Julie Ruth, a 30-year-old transplant from Ohio, and, less obviously, her sculptor husband, Shannon Matthew Long, 33 and Philadelphia-born. Both are graduates of Johnson State College and affiliated with the Vermont Studio Center (VSC). The one-room gallery is above the Alchemist Pub & Brewery. The "studio" part is a corner workspace, delineated by a moveable partition.
Though the place is not officially a co-op, for now most of the dozen or so artists represented will take turns gallery-sitting. And so far, most are artists Ruth knows from VSC. That alone speaks to the high quality here. And despite its modest size, the gallery comfortably presents paintings, sculptures, prints, mixed-media -- even cards and jewelry. Ruth says she'll soon have bios and images of all her artists online.
The Lazy Pear is also owned by a husband-and-wife team from out-of- state. Mary Jo Krolewski, 38, and Rob Hitzig, 41, worked for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., for a decade before escaping to Montpelier three years ago. Their fate was sealed when they fell in love with a gorgeous 1878 Victorian by the roundabout on Main Street. Though they hadn't originally planned to open an art gallery, Hitzig says, the couple did want to expand their own artisan interests -- hers, soft sculptures à la Claes Oldenburg; his, wall-mounted wood sculpture -- and the building itself inspired them to go that route.
Krolewski and Hitzig spent three years renovating; luckily, there are four furnished, income-producing apartments upstairs. The exterior is painted a lemony yellow and several shades of peach; inside, other inviting colors provide a suitable backdrop for the gallery's first exhibit of "Vermont artists with humorous and playful styles." Among the works are John Brickel's entropic clay barns, Hal Mayforth's sophisticated, cartoony illustrations, and Timothy Fisher's charming carved critters. It's a family-friendly show that allows small children to sit on Fisher's life-sized, wooden dog. On the other hand, parents might be glad their tots can't read the satiric text on dug nap's edgy paintings.
Only a Scrooge could resist the Lazy Pear's good cheer -- or Krolewski's ginger cookies. One of the gallery's three rooms is a mini patisserie, with coffee and a bakery case featuring real sweets alongside some of her pillowy pretenders. Though it's not a commercial cafe, visitors can sit at one of Hitzig's handmade, amoeba-shaped tables and eat a treat while taking in the views.
In Burlington, photographer Liza Cowan has the same sit-and-stay-awhile approach; she'll have "at least two couches" at Pine Street Art Works, and visitors can grab a latte right next door at Speeder & Earl's. Cowan, 56, also eschews the "white cube." Red, green, blue and mustard-yellow walls, eight feet high, divide 2500 square feet into a front gallery and three artist studios. Cowan has left the high ceilings, exposed pipes and cement floor as is; salvaged doors and other artifacts contribute to the post-industrial aesthetic. Befitting its location in the state's largest city, Pine Street Arts has a decidedly urban feel.
For the debut show, Cowan's "Fake!" series -- paintings on glass in the style of Leger, Picasso and Matisse -- will share the space with fellow New York native-turned-Vermonter David Klein. The Marshfield artist, known for his whimsical "Beanie" shadow boxes, has also copped themes from art history, and his pun-filled titles are shameless. Though the signature blue doggie is usually diminutive, this show will include a 6-foot version. Woof!
Cowan says Vermont artists will have a strong, though not exclusive, presence in her gallery, as will smaller items such as artisanal handbags, lamps and jewelry. Local artists will be invited to create displays for the front window, and they're welcome to use her "two gorgeous mannequins." For the first exhibit both dummies will be dressed as . . . Picasso.