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Saving Johnson

How the Vermont Studio Center has turned a town around


Published December 3, 2003 at 12:44 p.m.
Updated December 6, 2018 at 3:39 a.m.

In 1979, you could still buy ice cream cones at the Johnson Pharmacy for 10 cents. When my family relocated from Manhattan to this hamlet in its purple bowl of highlands, we thought we'd stepped into Mayberry. Despite the state college perched on its hill, Johnson was still a place where scratchy, checked hunting jackets were the uniform; where a man pushing a stroller sparked gossip; where everyone who was anyone chewed the fat at the town diner.

Since leaving in 1983 I've made regular pilgrimages back to Johnson. The changes I saw were subtle at first. But now, 20 years later, when I drive in on Route 15 I see a town transformed. The rickety old gym, where I used to attend basketball games, Halloween pageants and town meetings, has become a hive of cubicles where artists paint and sketch. The town diner offers vegetarian entrees. On a summer day, the porch of the old Stackpole house is abuzz with folks sipping what look suspiciously like lattes, and a kid with green hair strolls down Main Street. What happened here?

In many ways, the story of Johnson is the story of Vermont. As farming and traditional small-town industry decline, ex-urbanites with a yen for rural life move in, bringing their tastes with them. But what sets Johnson apart from other revamped villages is immediately apparent on a walk through town. Everywhere you look, you see buildings - former firehouses, mills, churches, schools - bearing the green-and-white logo of the Vermont Studio Center.

"We have about 30 buildings now," says Jonathan Gregg, who co-founded the VSC with Fred Osborne and Louise von Weise in 1984. The school started when Gregg, an architect and painter who had been running a construction firm out of a former Johnson mill, decided to make his property the center of an "international creative, contemplative community." As he tells it, "People thought I'd gone crazy."

The VSC now boasts a staff of 25 and an annual operating budget of $2 million. Artists and writers - 52 each month - spend one- to three-month stints enjoying studio space and opportunities to share their work. Big-name visitors, such as Bread and Puppet's Peter Schumann or novelist Joyce Carol Oates, are on hand to offer mentoring.

The VSC selection process is tough, and the vast majority of those who make the cut receive financial support to offset the hefty $3500 monthly fee. Each year, about 200 artists and writers come free - including a sizeable contingent from overseas.

In the Studio Center's airy dining hall overlooking the Gihon River, where metal chutes in the ceiling recall the building's former identity as a grist mill, Gregg talks about his brainchild's place in Johnson. "Most of the major artist communities in the country are in isolated areas," he says. "You go off and contemplate stillness and quiet somewhere. We consciously chose to be in the middle of a village. Our visual and physical impact is probably a lot greater than that of a normal business with the same budget. You see people walking up and down the streets in their native costumes - Indian women in saris, Nepalese guys in funny hats."

That's a strange sight in a town so small it has no traffic lights.

Situated near the center of Lamoille County, an hour from Burlington and 25 minutes north of Stowe, this town of nearly 3300 never managed to capitalize on the ski trade. Yet, as you walk up College Hill away from the floodplain, Johnson offers a spectacular views of the Green Mountains - a rippling chain topped by Sterling Mountain at 3715 feet. From this vantage point, the village is just a dimple in the landscape.

Back on the business strip, one place where the VSC's impact is apparent is at the former Stackpole place, a Victorian that now houses Roo's Natural Foods, two massage therapists and the Bad Girls Cafe.

Opened in 1994 as the French Press, the cafe passed a few weeks ago to co-owners Lisa Buell and Annette Vachon, two energetic fortyish women who've posted a "Bad Girls' Philosophy of Life" on the wall. The two-room cafe still feels like part of someone's home, despite the cyber-age touch of two sleek, flat-monitor Dells. The sitting room walls are painted a warm tangerine, and an antique console holds the condiments.

"The Studio Center has been much more of a presence in town in the last 10 or 15 years," says Buell. "It brings people from all over the place, and they have more sophisticated needs." But, she adds, her clientele also includes new-style locals: "I know of many people who have gone to school here and then bought land and settled down."

Across the street in Beard's Hardware, a Johnson institution since 1928, Alan Beard agrees that the Studio Center has "resurrected the town in a way." In his sixties, Beard remembers a time when Johnson was a mill town and the 19th-century homes on Pearl and Railroad Streets were all occupied by single families. "Now a lot of it's been turned into college housing, and people pretty much exclusively commute," he says. "We've got one milking farm left." Once a vital resource for farmers, the stocked-to-the-rafters store now caters to artists and local do-it-yourselfers - "if they don't go to Home Depot," adds Beard wryly.

To the passing tourist, the Plum and Main Restaurant, with its vintage 1952 diner decor and roster of homemade pies, may look like something from "Twin Peaks." But it too has adjusted to the changing face of Johnson, says Pat Persico, who with his wife Laurie has owned the local fixture for 15 years. "We've made a conscious effort to accommodate vegetarians."

"Many artists want to be here to interact with the locals - we've had them sitting at the tables, sketching," adds Laurie. She points out a colorful gallery of Johnson images - all done by visiting artists - in the back room.

While Johnson's older businesses have adapted to the VSC clientele, its new ones weren't all drawn there by the artists. Ken Schlegel, co-owner of the Edelweiss Bakery and Cafe, which recently relocated from Winooski, says he was attracted by the town's "quaint, laid-back, European feel."

Stacy Burke, who runs Ryan Books in a former bank on Main Street, says she "didn't even know the Studio Center was there" when she opened the store three years ago. Still, her magazine rack reflects the new Johnson, with Snowmobile sharing shelf space with Harper's andVegetarian Times. "It's really the local people who keep me going," says Burke, including VSC staff in that category.

Indeed, those VSC staff see themselves very much as "local people," rather than urban invaders. Gregg acknowledges that long-time Johnsonians might view with trepidation the center's program of buying up historic buildings. Noting the VSC's nonprofit status, "Some people say, oh, we're taking [the buildings] off the tax rolls," he says. In reality, Gregg points out, not only does the VSC voluntarily pay $60,000 in annual property taxes, "but we're putting buildings on the tax rolls that never were."

"I think [the VSC] was viewed with some suspicion at first," says Floyd Nease, the state representative for Johnson/Eden. "But over time, the Studio Center has proven itself as a wonderful neighbor."

From their place at the town's social hub, Pat and Laurie Persico can see both sides of the issue. "It's a mixed blessing," says Johnson-bred Laurie, pointing out that the former municipal buildings now owned by the VSC are "part of town history." But while their role in the community may have changed, the buildings themselves are "still there," and the VSC has won awards for preserving them.

Pat believes most townspeople know that the VSC contributes to their coffers. Still, "People are nervous that sometime down the road [those buildings] could go off the tax rolls. Concern for the future is what I hear."


Concern for the future is nothing new in Johnson. Located at the confluence of the Lamoille River and its tributary the Gihon, the town once had ambitious prospects as an industrial town (see sidebar). One 19th-century aspiring magnate went so far as to build a towering 125-by-40 foot general store at the corner of Main and Railroad Streets.

But one by one the mills closed, until only a sawmill and the famous Woolen Mills remained. By the time my family moved to Johnson, the hulking, ornate general store, known as the Landmark, had become three floors of storage space. When Broadway playwright John Ford Noonan visited the Johnson State College campus in the summer of 1982, he made the broad steps of the Landmark the setting for an acerbic play called "When Life Was Perfect." In it, out-of-work laborers and squabbling spouses kill time at the site of a small town's former glory. Visiting four summers later, I watched the night sky flush orange as the Landmark burned to the ground, taking with it one of the dreams of 19th-century Johnson.

Gregg's dream of a "creative community" is distinctly more modern. Still, he says that Johnson's working past is an important part of his vision for the VSC. "We've made a serious effort not to follow the path of Windsor or Grafton or Woodstock - the whole idea of gentrification," he explains. "We encourage people to honor the hard work ethic that's always been here. People get up to work in the Woolen Mill or the lumber mills or whatever; we get up to work in the studio." Rather than fostering a college-party atmosphere among the visiting artists, Gregg suggests, "We basically say: ‘Here's an empty room and here's food. That's it.'"

The idea of art as work might seem odd to a dairy farmer or a talc miner. But it's an increasingly normal mindset to Johnson's younger residents, thanks in large part to the VSC. "Every year we bring the kids into the studios and walk them through," says George Pearlman, the center's director of operations. "They're always amazed, like, here's an adult who's painting all day! They can't believe there's that option."

The "kids" are students at Johnson Elementary, a building with a tall red steeple, circa 1895, that recalls one of those kids' books about a pristine little schoolhouse. The truth was less idyllic. My sister, who attended in the early '80s, remembers a school damaged and demoralized by a recent fire, with no funds for "frills" -- including art. Pearlman and his wife Andrea set out to remedy that situation in 1986, when they began teaching art classes as volunteers.

Over the years, the art program has prospered along with the school, whose uncertain future was finally decided in 1997 by the completion of a $5 million renovation and expansion. Today art is taught not in a cramped basement but in its own bright room; the teacher is funded by a grant from the Hearst Foundation.

Pearlman makes a special effort to bring the VSC's international residents to the school. "These kids are getting exposed to all kinds of cultural differences," he says. He remembers two Malaysian artists, totem carvers from the bush, who came and made masks with the children. "They were great guys. They had never seen indoor plumbing. I think they were hunting out back, catching the beavers."


The international visitors, who comprise 20 percent of VSC residents, have made a small but distinct impact on Johnson. At the diner, the Persicos have had their share of encounters with artists from way, way out of town. Pat remembers a jet-lagged non-Anglophone South African who showed up after hours and communicated his hunger in sign language. Then there was the woman from the Philippines who arrived in January sans winter coat. "Jon brings in all these people from nice warm countries who forget their hats and gloves," says Stacy Manosh with a chuckle. Her family has owned the Johnson Woolen Mills for four generations.

The foreign visitors may move on, but other demographic changes in town are more lasting. Settled by farmers and small-scale industrialists of Anglo-Saxon descent, Johnson has remained fairly homogeneous, except for the development of a small French-Polish community. While the population of the village proper is close to 1840s numbers, Johnson Town has doubled in size since 1960, according to U.S. Census data. "People are moving in," says Manosh. A realtor as well as a merchant, she's seen Johnson's changing composition firsthand: "It's not just farmers, loggers and hunters anymore."

"There are more flatlanders and fewer people who have been here for generations," agrees Nease, who, like me, came to Johnson in 1979.

These changes don't mean much to most of the students at the college on the hill. Founded in 1828 as a grammar school to prepare the town's youth for teaching careers, today Johnson State College is one of five institutions in the state college system. Forty percent of its 1541 students come from outside Vermont. Understandably, many don't feel strong ties to the town.

"It's pretty easy to have your whole social world be on campus," says senior Caitlan Gallagher. Another student puts it more bluntly: "There's nowhere to hang out in Johnson."

That may hold true for JSC's snowboarders, who escape to the slopes on weekends. But not for the art students. The school is the only Vermont State College to offer both a Bachelor's and Master's degree in Fine Arts, and has an active gallery of its own in the Dibden Center. That makes the college a great partner for the Studio Center down the hill, says Barbara Murphy, president of JSC for the past three years.

The MFA is a joint offering of JSC and the VSC, with the students doing a series of residencies downtown. Members of each institution enjoy the perks of both - the VSC's new yoga studio, JSC's pool and fitness center. "There's a lot of cross-fertilization," says Murphy. "And I feel it's a more subtle influence, too: The Studio Center brings people to Vermont who wouldn't come to Vermont otherwise."

The VSC and JSC's art programs aren't identical in their approaches, Murphy observes. Gregg "really wants artists to come with no obligation to produce a certain body of work… to be free from the pressure of deadlines or product," she says. The degree program is more structured and evaluative. "But even to have that conversation, to me, is a lot of what the arts are about," Murphy adds.

Cafes, galleries and yoga studio aside, life in Johnson still keeps its clock by the sun. Everyone I talk to points out that the place continues to close up at eight. "Thank God," says Gregg. The students, less thrilled, flee to Stowe or the nearby Long Trail Tavern.

But then, part of Johnson's appeal is the contrasts - it's the grittier, real-life version of one of those TV small towns where actors speaking in rapid, urban patter rub shoulders with men of few words wearing feed-store caps. Melanie Mack, a resident and former JSC student, sums up the mishmash: "You have your rednecks hanging out at the bar, your hippies and a network of really great artsy people."

It may not be Mayberry, and the soda fountain at the pharmacy closed long ago. But the new Johnson is the sort of place where a Manhattan transplant can chew the fat with a native - and both are sipping lattes.