The artisans showing their furniture and home accessories at a new gallery in downtown Rutland aren't just looking to make money and promote their crafts. They also have a political, economic and environmental agenda. Center Street Artisans was launched with support from the Washington-based Wilderness Society. It aims to lure shoppers to the central Vermont city by offering one-of-a-kind items with earth-friendly pedigrees.
Located on the ground floor of the nearly century-old Tuttle Block, a four-story brick building restored by the Rutland County Community Land Trust, the elegantly appointed gallery is part of a long-running effort to resuscitate Rut- land's moribund downtown economy. In spite of heroic initiatives by civic boosters, many hollow spots remain at the core of the state's third most populous community. Several stores are vacant or entirely bereft of customers even during a workday lunch hour. Center Street attracts a fraction of the foot traffic that makes Church Street in Burlington so vibrant and festive.
Gallery backers acknowledge widespread local skepticism regarding downtown Rutland's prospects. But they talk a good game about this unusual venture's prospects and its potential impact on the central business district. "Rutland is definitely morphing," says Peter Sterling, who heads the Wilderness Society's Montpelier chapter. He and others involved in establishing Center Street Artisans cite the "creative economy" that has reinvigorated Burlington and is beginning, they say, to make over the Marble City. "We have faith that we're leading the charge in transforming Rutland by means of the arts and other forms of creative work," Sterling says.
Center Street Artisans will attract shoppers from the region and beyond because it's only the second gallery of its kind in the country, Sterling predicts. "With that kind of cachet, I think it's sure to catch on," he says.
The Rutland outlet is modeled on the four-year-old SugarWood Gallery, a similar Wilderness Society venture in Farmington, Maine. That shop has been "an amazing success," says Sterling. It has expanded twice and generated over $1 million since it opened in a locale with demographics similar to Rutland's, according to Center Street Artisans store manager Carol Santo Johnston.
The Wilderness Society kick-started both co-ops because this "tree-huggers' group," as Sterling calls it, sees small-scale, locally sourced furniture production as more environmentally beneficial than commercial timber harvesting. "A gallery like Center Street Artisans proves there are other ways to make a living from the forest besides large-scale cutting," Sterling suggests. "This place can also make more money for the local economy than you'd get by sending logs to Canada for milling."
The Rutland site was chosen in part for the city's strategic location near the midpoint of the Green Mountain National Forest. While the Wilderness Society seeks mainly to preserve and expand such natural areas, it also supports locals who are trying to sustain themselves and forestlands by using what the woods produce. "Vermont would not be Vermont without people cutting trees and making a living out of that," Sterling acknowledges. "We're not trying to turn Vermont into a theme park."
He likens the Rutland and Farmington artisans' galleries to farmers' markets. "They give local producers a central location to sell their goods and raise public awareness regarding the land," Sterling says. Not all the producers represented at the Rutland gallery are locals, however. In fact, 14 of the 24 artisans who belong to the Center Street co-op are based in Maine. Another lives in New Hampshire.
The two dozen furniture makers, potters, weavers and other crafters formed their retailing cooperative this summer. Each contributed a startup payment of $360, and pays $250 a month to cover rent, maintenance and the salaries of a fulltime store manager and part-time assistant. In addition, the gallery gets a 40 percent cut of every sale. Prices range from $15 for individual hand-carved utensils to $15,000 for a wall hanging by Maine quilter Audrey Nichols.
The costs of displaying on Center Street can be substantial, says Chittenden furniture maker Chip Ogg. But, he adds, some artisans would prefer selling through a shop to "hauling stuff around from show to show during the warm weather." It's unlikely, though, that the Rutland gallery will generate enough business to let an artisan abandon the itinerant approach entirely. Most will also continue to rely heavily on the Internet as a point of sale.
Ogg himself has been making pieces for several years for Charles Shackleton Furniture, a Bridgewater, Vermont, subsidiary of the Oregon-based Collins Companies. He also started his own business, Charles Ogg Furniture, a couple of years ago. "My ambition is to make beautiful things," Ogg says. "And if I can do that independently, all the better."
Ogg got started in woodworking while working as a chef in a restaurant on Lake Bomoseen. He carved fish figures in his spare time, and eventually began an apprenticeship at Charles Shackleton. Ogg still incorporates fish into his work, as in the mahogany bench displayed in the window of the Center Street gallery. A pair of Coho salmon form the backrest for a piece made from leftover wood he purchased from Shackleton.
Many of the furniture pieces and wooden accessories for sale at Center Street Artisans are similarly produced from scrap materials or from trees commercial timber cutters reject because of imperfect appearance. Some tables, for example, have "live edges" -- a naturally occurring ragged form that has not been planed away. A furniture maker transforms this uniquely shaped piece of wood into an object of beauty by applying finishes that smooth its texture and enhance its coloring.
Finding profitable uses for rejected trees and furniture company discards encourages healthier forest management practices, says Sterling. "A big-scale timber harvester will take only the best trees and leave the weakest ones," he notes. "Pretty soon the forest isn't as healthy as it once was. A better approach is to take all the trees from a small area instead of a few choice trees from a large area. That becomes feasible when you have artisans able to sell pieces made from lower-value wood."
Scott Duffy of Weathersfield is selling a table at the Center Street gallery that wouldn't be available at an Ethan Allen showroom. It's made from two large, matching slabs of burled oak. The asymmetrical shape and thickly veined grain make it a distinctive piece that could be produced only by hand. Duffy also turns 8-inch, castoff shards of cherrywood into honey-hued frames for small clocks inserted into the wood.
The gallery also sells porcelain dolls produced in the Rutland City home of Darlene Gregory. When she was 12 she began to make figures of Little Red Riding Hood and other fairy tale characters that weren't available from commercial doll companies. Gregory resigned in April after working 17 years as Rutland city clerk. "I got bored," she explains, "and I also came to the realization that life is too short not to do what I really want to do: I want to make these dolls."