You’d be forgiven for feeling a bit disoriented on first stepping into the Island Arts South Hero Gallery. Is it a bank? Or a gallery? Or have you accidentally ambled into someone’s private home? The gallery is housed within a Merchants Bank, this within the historic South Hero Inn, which served as a tavern and boarding house in the wake of the Revolutionary War. There’s a lot going on in here, but the place retains a welcoming atmosphere, as if it were used to having company.
The gallery occupies the former inn’s main dining room, a sunny space with a long, formal table at the center. “Travelers would come in and have spirits, roll up their stuff against the wall,” says Chris Allard, the bank’s branch president and a history buff whose Vermont ancestors date back even further than does the inn. On the gallery walls, for the next couple of days at least, hang watercolor paintings by Maurie Harrington, a summertime island resident. “Barns of Grand Isle County,” an exhibit of work by the island women’s group Artists Way, goes up on July 1.
If you’re into Vermont history — as are both Allard and gallery director Sarah Robinson, whose grandfather helped construct the causeway — it’s worth visiting the gallery just to see the old inn. Revolutionary War soldier Thomas Dixon built the original structure in 1795 on the stagecoach road from Montpelier to Montréal. “Lot 56 on the map in the front room,” Robinson points out, referring to the original handwritten map of post-Revolutionary War land grants in South Hero, which hangs framed in the bank section of the inn.
The second owner, Helmer Kent, bought the place after serving time in the North Hero debtors’ prison — he owed $6.80 — the bars of which are still visible in the back of the North Hero courthouse. Kent employed an English stonemason to reconstruct the inn with 2-foot-thick walls of Isle La Motte stone, which is studded with fossils and seashells. A busload of geologists from the University of Vermont stopped by the other day, Allard says, to examine the inn’s walls.
Merchants Bank bought the building in 1995. It’s too spacious for a branch bank — much of it is not really used — but the president at the time, Dudley Davis, loved the place. Two years later, the nonprofit organization Island Arts approached the bank about hosting a gallery in the main dining room. The bankers liked the idea, and the Island Arts South Hero Gallery became the first art gallery in Grand Isle County.
It’s now run by Island Arts president Katya Wilcox and a small team of volunteers, including Robinson, a photographer and retired anthropologist; Mary Jo McCarthy, a weaver and elementary school teacher; and Sandy Reese, who is a painter as well as co-owner of Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery.
Island Arts primarily shows work by Grand Isle artists. Recent exhibits include the freestyle cross-stitch work of Heidi Chamberlain and quilted landscapes by Ginger Johnson. In March, the gallery presented work by local children, as well as kids from Bhutan, the result of a cultural exchange initiated by Island Arts more than a decade ago. “We like to show artists that are evolving, developing,” says Robinson.
For the most part, the venue shows traditional, two-dimensional work, but Robinson says they’re looking to expand. “We’re interested in showing more modern, abstract work,” she says. For example, next year she’d like to exhibit sculptures by Riki Moss, an island resident who has an installation in the current “Paperwork in 3D” show at the Shelburne Museum.
Still, many people visit the South Hero Inn for reasons other than art — or banking. “We often have descendents of people who lived or stayed here stop in and give us stuff,” says Allard. She has a growing file of historical documents and anecdotes, which help bring the building to life.
Several years ago, Allard recalls, a woman tracing her husband’s ancestry stopped in. His great-great-grandfather from Québec had spent a night at the inn during his travels as a saw salesman. The innkeeper at the time took one look at him as he was entering and declared him the tallest man who had ever crossed the threshold. The innkeeper carved a notch beside the door to mark the man’s height.
According to Allard, the notch is still there. “These are things that could so easily be lost if this were a private home,” she says. Instead, the community gets to share in the history. And, of course, the art.