In the late 1930s, a group of plein-air painters from the country’s oldest working art colony, Rocky Neck in Gloucester, Massachusetts, cast around for a summer location that would provide plenty of stunning landscapes and little to interrupt their work. They chose the Cambridge-Jeffersonville area of Vermont.
Two of those artists, Mary Bryan and her husband Alden, were so taken with the region’s hulking mountains, working dairy barns and dramatic cloudscapes that they moved permanently to a farm in Jeffersonville in 1941. Mary died there in 1978, having achieved national recognition, and six years later Alden built an art gallery on the town’s main street in her memory.
The Bryan Memorial Gallery is one of the few purpose-built art galleries in Vermont. (Originally the Mary Bryan, its name was shortened to honor both artists after Alden died in 2001.) It looks like a small house from the curb but comprises two lofty 1500-square-foot exhibition rooms separated by a retail space. Originally known only to a small group of artist friends, the Bryan is now a nonprofit with approximately 900 member artists and a crew of local volunteers who hang nine exhibitions a year.
All this happens under the enthusiastic direction of gallery curator and chief operating officer Mickey Myers. A longtime New England artist originally from Hollywood, California, who specializes in abstract pastels, Myers served six years as executive director of the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe before being hired full-time by the Bryan’s board in the fall of 2006.
Myers says she told the board that she intended to “honor the gallery’s history [of plein-air painting] but expand its reach” — both in the public’s consciousness and in the range of art it displayed. One of the board members was its founder, Alden T. Bryan, the Bryans’ son and a retired Superior Court judge; he remains supportive of Myers’ innovative approach to his parents’ legacy. Her projects have included an exhibition of children’s book illustrators that brought in nearly 700 local schoolchildren for their first-ever art gallery visit, and an annual “Masters of Vermont” exhibit, the first of which displayed Mary Bryan’s work in the context of four other contemporary women painters.
“How can I be modest here? It was a blockbuster,” a delighted Myers recalls of that 2007 show while seated in her window-lined second-floor office, formerly Alden’s studio. The next “Masters” show was the inaugural exhibit of “Art of Vermont: The State Collection,” a two-year traveling show about which Myers wrote an article for American Art Review.
The Bryan’s origins continue to be honored in an ever-expanding schedule of outdoor painting workshops. “I find plein-air painting to have a very brave premise: to be working only from natural light,” says Myers. “But I feel that there are many different directions today that enhance the idea of landscape painting.”
One such direction is indicated in Myers’ hand-selected invitational exhibit now on view in the East Gallery, “New Vistas: Landscape and Fabric.” Working a piece of silk or a skein of hand-dyed yarn is far from setting up an easel in, say, a winter field. But the exhibit’s colorful and occasionally nonrepresentational works by five women artists each reference landscape in some way, including Roselle Abramowitz’s hand-painted crêpe-de-chine kimonos and Dianne Schullenberger’s intricately collaged and embroidered “Dune” series. Lush and gorgeous, they are appropriately priced; one piece by Valerie Hird costs $22,000.
Balancing this select show is the 12th Annual Small Picture Exhibition in the Main Gallery, an open member exhibit of 245 paintings by 125 artists. The small, mostly representational landscapes and still lifes, with the exception of some abstract works by Dorothy Martinez, are priced starting at $200.
Myers plans to honor the gallery’s 25th anniversary next year with “Masters of Vermont: The Men,” focusing on Alden Bryan and his contemporaries. “Obviously, the history of men is much better known than women’s history,” says this dedicated feminist. But her effort will be helped by the fact that Alden refused to sell his art (Mary did, quite successfully) — the gallery owns a large permanent collection of his work.
The Bryans left more than a gallery behind: They invited their teacher, acclaimed landscape painter Emile A. Gruppe, to come and paint the region, which he did annually until he, too, died in 1978. Gruppe’s daughter now runs a gallery in Jericho that bears his name and holds his remaining work. It seems the landscapes of Vermont were too beautiful not to share.