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Prolific Burlington Designer Gets Barbara Smail Award

State of the Arts


  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Tony Sini

When Fran Stoddard invited Anthony Sini to lunch not long ago, he expected to have a casual chat with his old friend. But Stoddard, host of the Vermont Public Television interview show “Profile,” had some news to break: She had nominated him for the eighth annual Barbara Smail Award administered by Burlington City Arts. When he heard that, Sini admits, “I really didn’t feel I was qualified.”

Stoddard obviously thought differently. “Tony has given of himself to the art community through his commitment to the arts community in general and through participation in several community arts events,” she wrote in his nomination letter to the BCA.

Sini was introduced as the 2010 recipient of the Barbara Smail Award on February 19 at the opening of the Firehouse Gallery’s current exhibit, “This World, Other World.” The prize? A thousand dollars and use of BCA’s facilities — including the print and clay studios and darkroom — for a year.

On the surface, Sini, a graphic designer, does seem an unlikely choice for the annual prize, which was founded by the family and friends of a respected Vermont artist who died in 2001. Past winners have been painters or sculptors; last year’s recipient, Jude Bond, is a textile artist. Yet Sini’s graphic artwork is a familiar sight; his blocky, colorful, often humorous designs enliven the signs at Healthy Living and Kids Town and the publicity materials for groups such as the Vermont Mozart Festival and local craft fairs. They also adorn such food products as Biggie Iggy and Chessters From Vermont ice-cream sandwiches.

While some award winners present a false modesty, Sini’s surprise seems genuine. “It was nice, and I’m honored,” he says during an interview at his Church Street studio. “They gave me $1000 because I’m a good guy or something.”

Sini — who occasionally cooks up his authentic Italian red sauce at the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf and has designed pro bono for many local nonprofits — is a good guy. But his talent may have had a little something to do with winning, too. Sini was trained at New York’s School of Visual Arts with a concentration in illustration and design. He’s supported himself as a designer since arriving in Vermont in the ’70s, while his paintings have helped make his name in the local art scene.

In 2008, the Firehouse hosted a show of Sini’s offbeat architectural paintings in the Second Floor Gallery. The mostly black-and-white works are based on quick pencil studies in Sini’s sketch pad. The foreboding, soft-edged cityscapes seem to capture a wavy dream world, all at roof level. The perspective is not surprising when you discover Sini’s studio on the third floor, above Leunig’s Bistro — it affords him a good view of the tops of nearby buildings.

Sini concedes he’s not the type of artist “to get up every day and paint.” But he is currently working on a commissioned portrait in oil, and the prize money will help pay for the expensive supplies for that piece. “Invest in poppy oil,” he jokes. “That stuff is the future.”

Like many artists, Sini has found the dismal economy difficult to weather. “I didn’t think the recession would hit me that hard,” he says of his slow winter.

Sini anticipates using some of his Smail winnings for a class at BCA where he’ll learn a new skill such as drypoint etching or lithography. The lull in his design business has given the 66-year-old a chance to revisit and refine some of his earlier artwork — the luxury, he suggests, of having decades of work in his portfolio. And perhaps he’ll have a good long time to make new work, too.

Sini chuckles at the thought that the Smail award is intended for a “midcareer” artist. “Midcareer, I like that,” he says. “Shit, I’ll live to 110.”