Bill Ramage knows big art. The artist has spent the last 30 years creating sculptural drawings and photographic works so enormous that precious few Vermont venues can accommodate them.
Castleton College’s Christine Price Gallery is one of them. So it’s fitting that Ramage, a semiretired art professor there, has curated the high-ceilinged space — which is actually the lobby of the John and Susan Casella Theater — since he transformed it into a gallery more than 30 years ago.
“We can be big and ostentatious here,” says Ramage, 69, exuding an infectious enthusiasm. It’s easy to see that he’s the kind of effervescent teacher who turns his students on to art for life.
Just be sure to call his art venue a gallery. “I get angry when people call it a lobby,” he says.
On a recent visit, it is anything but an ordinary vestibule. Castleton art instructor Oliver Schemm has filled the space with his interactive sculptures, creating a wonderland of arty toys, the highlight of which is the “Wunderkammer,” an old-fashioned, round, canvas tent filled with antique oddities and mysterious creations.
Visitors step inside to discover a mobile made of an old bugle, a bone, a small propeller and a vintage Jell-O mold. On the floor sits an intriguing silver suitcase beside some sort of stove, from which emanates the gurgling sound of a radiator (or is it a passing train?). There’s a rusty typewriter, a cigar box and a grand sea captain’s steering wheel in front of a scratched-up mirror.
It’s difficult to resist touching everything: prying open the suitcase, grabbing hold of the steering wheel and peering inside the cigar box. Survey questions Schemm distributes at the gallery entrance reveal that he hopes visitors do interact with the works. Ramage says a recent gallerygoer told him that when she caught a glimpse of herself in the tent mirror, she was surprised to find herself smiling.
Outside the tent, Schemm offers other opportunities for play: a 5-foot-tall circle of wood that can be spun by pulling a metal bar; a “Rocking Wheat Pendulum”; and a roughly 10-foot-high Ferris wheel that rotates when cranked, causing brightly colored metal fish to loop around in place of passenger cars.
There’s an advantage to showing artwork in a lobby space: A couple thousand people pass through over the course of any given show, says Ramage. Running an academic gallery has its perks, too. “We don’t have to worry about a market,” he says. “We can do anything; we can be all over the place.”
Castleton has a relatively small art department — only three full-time faculty members — so the gallery, as Ramage sees it, is vital to exposing students to a broad range of work from professional artists. Plus, he says, “I think it’s good to challenge the community.”
Not every show is a hit, though. Ramage recalls one 15 years ago in which an artist wound black insulation tape around the inside of the gallery. Ramage overheard a tour guide leading a group of prospective students through the space. “Usually, there’s art in here,” she said.
Ramage began his teaching career at Ohio State University, but moved to Vermont after the 1970 shootings at nearby Kent State. By 1978, he was teaching at Castleton and about to start the gallery, which he named after local author and illustrator Christine Price.
Ramage has shown his own work here only twice — once before it became a real gallery and once to mark his official retirement in 2007. “I make such unmarketable work,” he says with a self-deprecating smile. A recent drawing measured 16 square feet. Several years ago, Ramage filled the Flynndog in Burlington with two roughly 37-by-10-foot panels.
Why so big? “My eyes are 63 inches off the floor,” he says, as if it’s perfectly normal to know the precise height of one’s gaze. Ramage likes the meridian of his work to occur exactly there. “It’s all about perception and space,” he says.
Trained as a sculptor at the Philadelphia College of Art and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Ramage says, “Actually, I think of all these big drawings as sculptures.”
His face lights up when talking about the big ideas that fuel his big work. “Do you know that when we look at something, it goes to 30 different places in the brain before it becomes a conscious thought?” Ramage asks. “Seeing is just such a magical thing.”
Christine Price Gallery, 86 Seminary Street, Castleton State College. “The Canal of Sch(l)emm & the Zonule of Zinn” by Oliver Schemm, through May 18. Info, 468-1119. castleton.edu/soundings/gallery.htm