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Open Studio Weekend 2003


Published May 21, 2003 at 4:47 p.m.

They used to say Vermont has more cows than people. While that's no longer true, we're still going with the claim that the state contains more artists per capita than any other. This weekend, nearly 230 of them will be leaving their doors ajar in anticipation of loads of visitors. The 11th Annual Open Studios Weekend, presented by the Vermont Crafts Council, aims to make Memorial Day weekend memorable for its beauty -- in the form of pots, paintings, sculpture, rugs, quilts, furniture and just about any other art form imaginable. It's a free -- until you buy stuff -- and tourist-friendly event that offers equal drop-by encouragement to locals, who may be wondering what some of their neighbors do all day.

Seven Days checked out three of 'em in advance.

    edifice complex

    A long horizontal photograph of Red Square -- the one in Moscow -- hangs over the mantle in John Brickels' house, the vintage panoramic shot encompassing St. Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin as well as the inevitable line snaking toward Lenin's Tomb. This nondescript suburban home in Essex has nothing at all to do with Russia, but there's certainly much ado about interesting buildings -- the other ones on the walls, that is.

    Brickels made them from mounds of dark-brown clay and fired them in a kiln in the back yard. The stoneware "architectural sculptures" -- some hang and some squat on tables -- are at once meticulously realistic and whimsically fanciful. Every shingle and board on his structures is made individually, every windowsill and doorknob applied as if on a real construction job. But there's a twist -- quite literally -- to most of these rowhouses, factories, barns and churches: They bend and buckle, as if arrested in some stage of entropy. In fact, this is one builder who loves the concept of things falling apart.

    So do plenty of art buyers, apparently -- particularly those of a certain age. "As you get older it's kind of a feeling of control to freeze the sagging," Brickels suggests -- he turns 50 in July.

    It takes him about 40 hours to make one of the smaller structures, which are carried locally by Frog Hollow and go for around $600. The huge clay amusement park currently adorning the wall of Boutilier's Art Center in Burlington is a bigger investment of time, and money: six grand.

    "My original inspiration was my old man talking about the big Victorian houses he grew up in," says Brickels. But he was also enamored of the factories in his hometown of Akron, Ohio -- "the rubber capital of the world when I was growing up."

    That fascination continues, as evidenced by the giant posters that line one corner of Brickels' neat basement studio. He orders the industrial backdrops from a toy train manufacturer, and scours the UVM library for pictures of factories and farms. But Brickels finds plenty of models in rural Vermont, too -- the dilapidated barns and weathered clapboard houses. "If you're making sculpture, architecture is a good subject because they're four-sided and come with a lot of textures," Brickels says. "But most of all I like the 'baggage' that comes with them." For example, the furniture on the porches, the "creepy things" in a barn. "Sometimes I'll stuff the barns with appliances and junk, and they kind of tell a story," he notes. "If they're empty, it's more about the form; I look at it more as sculpture."

    In between Ohio and Vermont, Brickels lived a few years in San Antonio, Texas, during the time Henry Cisneros was mayor. Brickels got a gig making accurate renditions of local Spanish-style buildings, in white clay to emulate the stucco, that Cisneros would give to visiting dignitaries. One was President George Bush -- the elder -- whose gift had to be X-rayed before it was handed over, Brickels remembers with a chuckle.

    His visitors this weekend, probably less security-conscious, will find the "studio" tucked between the washer and dryer and an adjacent room lined with shelves that hold entirely different clay works -- made by his wife Wendy James, who teaches ceramics and photography at Essex High School. "She has a nice steady income," Brickels confides. "Mine is feast-or-famine. I'm a lucky guy."

    rock steady Jim Geier didn't intend the double entendre in his business name, but if you Google "folk rocker" you'll find him listed after some 325 musician sites. Of course, the Internet wasn't invented yet when Geier designed his first rocking chair back in 1974, and when his enterprise evolved from Vermont Folk Furnishings to Vermont Folk Rocker -- he decided to specialize about eight years ago -- the "folk" stayed on to represent traditional Vermont craftsmanship.

    As for the rocking, in Geier's chairs the rhythm is decidedly lulling. Testimonials on his Web site from the likes of chiropractors and pregnant women back up Geier's assertion that the rocker supports and conforms to one's lower back. "It breaks in a little, like a shoe," he explains. That's because of the unique construction: The back and seat comprise wood blocks laced together with nylon cord. The cord slips through the centers of the blocks, so it is not seen in front or back, but only as "stitches" down the sides of the frame. The frame itself is put together with snug mortise and tenon joints. Unlike the chairs' owners, they "will not creak with age," Geier assures.

    The result of this quiltlike design is a seat with subtle give. Considering the whole thing is made of hardwood, it's remarkably comfy. Available in a variety of woods -- red oak, cherry, bird's eye maple and black walnut -- the chairs have a natural, lustrous oiled finish. Depending on the wood, they rock to the tune of $1175 or $1375. That is, the ones for grownups. The children's are $475. And if that seems steep for a little person who won't fit in the chair all that long, just think of it as an investment in juvenile tranquility. "They've been well tested on friends with really rambunctious kids," Geier says.

    In 1988, Geier moved his shop from Pine Street in Bur-lington to a scenic parcel on Rt. 116 between Hinesburg and Starksboro. On a visit there one recent sunny morning, he shows off a batch of some 18 kiddie rockers ready to be shipped out. Though he built his first smaller version years ago, Geier notes the painted birch plywood frames are a new development. The rainbow of hues -- primaries and pastels -- and, of course, the size make them instantly child-friendly, but they are otherwise identical to the mom-and-dad version.

    Geier sells his work directly from the shop or Web site as well as to furniture stores -- locally Vermont Folk Rockers can be found at Tempo, Pompa-noosic Mills, Artisans' Gallery and other outlets. Inviting samples sit at a few rest areas throughout the state. He turns out about 300 chairs a year; each set of 40 or 50 takes about six weeks to make.

    After nearly three decades, Geier says he still loves working with wood. "It's a good, accessible medium," he says. "It has clean dust, not offensive." But his first medium was a lot heavier. "I used to work with my grandfather -- he was the head mason on the million-dollar staircase at the capitol in Albany," says Geier. "My grandfather did a lot of sculpture and painted; that was an inspiration. I just liked to make things, to put things together."

    After graduating St. Michael's College in 1965 and a stint in the service, Geier decided to get back to making things. First it was renovating houses, but the "really nasty" dust from that work inspired him to set up his own shop with natural woods. "I took a course with [UVM prof] Chester Liebs about making stuff with local materials," Geier says. "That's where the 'folk' came in."

    This weekend will be Geier's first experience with Open Studios. Then again, he's already accustomed to visitors. "I've always thought it was amazing how people find this place," he says of his hillside shop. "People come from God knows where and just pull up the driveway."

    closely knit When Judith Giusto's farmhouse was first built in 1830, Addison County was sheep central: about 373 of the fluffy critters per square mile. While those numbers are greatly reduced now, Merinos were and still are the most prized breed -- at least for their wool -- according to Giusto. Her farm and fiber business is just across the road from the Rokeby Museum in Ferris-burgh. Tourists are more likely to notice the Round Barn Merinos sign and stop in to exclaim over the gorgeous handknit sweaters, socks, throws and hand-dyed skeins in the retail shop. Regular passersby are more likely to check out the sheep -- 165 of them in brown or white -- while zipping past on Rt. 7. If they're lucky they'll also catch sight of the two people-shy alpacas and a couple Mohair goats, and if they're really lucky, they won't drive off the road when spotting the camel.

    Arguably the farm's star attraction, Ollie the Camel is just more than a year old and already stands a couple heads above his petite, red-headed owner. The dromedary stoops for a handful of peanuts whenever an obliging visitor approaches. Thoroughly socialized, Ollie offers a suedelike nose and curious, flabby lips. One of the endangered Bactrian breed, he was born on a camel farm in Wisconsin and is descended from the diminishing stock in Afghanistan, Mongolia and Tibet. His prized camel hair is simply brushed off in soft, fuzzy clumps.

    With characteristic zest and organization, the aptly named Giusto thoroughly researched her camel -- indeed, everything about her life-changing occupation -- before diving in. Formerly a self-employed marketer and writer for a pharmaceutical company, the New York native with a knack for fashion created her "master plan for luxury fibers" and moved north 10 years ago. Except for her accent and rather stylish rural attire, it's hard to believe Giusto wasn't born and raised on the farm.

    Her pride in her products is evident -- "Every piece of yarn here has been touched by me," she says. And she's positively smitten with the animals. "I love you so much," she purrs to an ancient, blind ewe in the barn -- one of many that will live out a full life here. When it comes to slaughtering her "employees," Giusto says she is "spineless."

    Round Barn Merinos is primarily a one-woman operation, and a single-parent woman at that. But Giusto is quick to credit the two Vermont knitters and the Burlington artisan who handcrafts each button on the cardigans. And the traveling shearer who comes around each spring. Guisto handles the animal care ("Worming the alpacas is a nightmare!"), runs the business, designs the knitted goods and dyes the wool -- she'll demonstrate the coloring part at Open Studios this weekend.

    At Round Barn Merinos, Giusto abides by the principle of "what you see is what you get." That is, the quantity of goods produced "is dictated by what comes off the sheep" each year. "You want to be able to make enough to make a living and enjoy it, and for folks to know what they're getting is not from Wal-Mart," she says. "Part of what happens here is not just buying a sweater; it's meeting the camel, the sheep, seeing what comes off my 'workforce.'"

    Accordingly, an out-of-state customer trying on pullovers one recent morning definitely gets the big picture. "It's so wonderful to see it all come together," she says, "that this wool came from your animals." She puts down a deposit for a custom $225 sweater in a sandy brown. From $9 skeins of yarn to beautiful bedspreads costing in the hundreds, Giusto's fiber wares are high-end and high-quality. But, like a lot of premium Vermont specialty products, hers convey an intangible aesthetic, she believes. "I see the whole thing as a creative process, the whole farm as a canvas."