By Steve Noble
In 36 years as working artists in Vermont, Roger Sandes and Mary Welsh have learned to share their cozy, cluttered 432-square-foot studio, with each other – and with the ghosts of oxen past.
Set in an old barn built around 1810, their studio, perched on a small hill overlooking the Rock River in Williamsville, was once part of a wool-carding mill that served local farmers during Vermont’s sheep-shearing heyday in the early 19th century. In the summer, when the river slowed to a trickle, oxen were used to power the mill. To shoe them, the oxen needed to be lifted by sling. On a visit to their studio, Welsh pointed out the place where the ox slinging used to take place.
“That’s one of the interesting things about this place,” said Welsh.
History is important to Sandes and Welsh, who have learned a lot about their hometown and its past since they first moved there in 1978. “We’ve always lived in historical houses,” said Sandes, pointing out that they once lived in a house in New York City that used to belong to Aaron Burr.
While history does figure in their work as artists – Welsh’s collages contain historical images; Sandes’ paintings often reference art history – this side of them only reveals itself when you visit them and hear their stories. Getting to know artists as they really are is one of the many pleasures of the Rock River Artists Open Studio Tour, a weekend-long event in which 18 artists and craftspeople in South Newfane, Williamsville and Dover welcome visitors to see where they work.
While meeting customers and selling work is part of the event for these high-caliber professional artists, the Rock River Open Studio Tour, which takes place this year on July 19-20, offers visitors a chance to witness the happy intersections of place, passion, inspiration and perspiration reflected in their work.
There are several opportunities for people to encounter artists in their natural habitats. In addition to the Rock River Artists Open Studio Tour, there is the Vermont Crafts Council’s statewide Open Studio Weekend on May 24-25 and Brattleboro-West Arts’ Sixth Annual Open Studio Tour in September.
Counterpoint to the fluorescent-lit cubicle farms where most of us work, these studios reveal a lot about the artists themselves. And that is a big part of the charm.
Case in point is the small barn that Sandes and Welsh share. Though admittedly not perfect, it has served them well over the years. Filled with color studies and sketches, paint-spattered work clothes, material for collages and equipment for building frames, the studio presents itself as a still-life snapshot of two people who have lived a life in art.
And they’ve lived it in close proximity. Their workspaces are just a few feet apart, a closeness that invites input, helpful hints and lots of support. “I couldn’t imagine working alone,” said Welsh. “We really are a team,” added Sandes.
Always, nature is close by, visible through two large windows, which look out on the Rock River. Birds are always around; sometimes deer and once Sandes saw a fisher, a large dark-colored member of the weasel family that he first mistook for a monkey.
“We both have little nature things in our work. Living in the middle of it keeps it in your mind,” said Sandes.
Because their studio is small and full of the stuff of working artists, Sandes and Welsh turn their home into a gallery for the Open Studio Tour, and it serves them well. Every room in their home is bathed in light, and their artwork adorns every square foot of wall space. They invite visitors to take the long way into the house, through their wildflower garden, a magical Session world of lilies, roses, black-eyed Susans and more.
When the tour is over, it’s back to the studio. Though only a short walk across their yard and a hop, skip and jump across their driveway, the studio is a world unto itself, a different space, devoted to work. They removed the telephone to keep intrusions at a minimum.
“We can get into a very contemplative state while we’re working. I consider that to be an important factor in long-term health,” said Sandes.
And the commute’s not bad. “It’s wonderful working at home, thinking of the travel time that’s been eliminated,” Sandes said.
Just a few miles down the road, fine art photography Christine Triebert also enjoys a short commute to her studio – a light-filled, high-ceilinged garage/barn that she and her partner, graphic artist and designer Carol Ross, share.
In fact, the idea of turning the barn into a studio was what enticed them to move there, at the junction of Dover Road and Parish Hill Road, from Boston in 1990. “It had a dirt floor and no insulation. It was basically just a post-and-beam structure, but we saw the potential,” said Triebert.
Though it’s just a few paces away from the house, that distance, a commute that can be measured in feet or inches, is significant. “We didn’t want to come down for breakfast and see all the work we still had to do,” said Triebert. “When we come into the studio, we’re at work.”
Even after all these years, the studio’s feeling of light and openness, at its best in the morning hours, inspires Triebert. The same goes for the 200-300 visitors she welcomes to the studio every year during the Rock River Artists Open Studio Tour. “So many people, they walk in, they take one step in, and you can see them taking in the whole space. It’s kind of a surprise,” she said. “From the outside, you don’t have a sense of it. It’s just this shed, painted barn red.”
Like Sandes and Welsh, proximity to nature is an important source of inspiration. The river bends amiably around Triebert’s land, like an old friend putting his arm around it. But once, things were not so amiable. During Tropical Storm Irene, floodwaters raged through Triebert’s land, washing a guest cottage off its foundation and several feet away and damaging the studio.
But time heals. The studio has since been repaired; the river flows through the new channel it cut, 110 feet away from the old one, and land near the river, once a boulder-strewn wasteland, is becoming greener every year. “After Irene, my neighbor told me ‘This is Vermont. Give it three years, and you’ll be amazed at the regeneration,’” Triebert recalled.
And Triebert found a way to make art from Irene, taking the detritus of mud, rocks, sticks and junk washed up nearby and using it in work she called “Geomorphs.”
She always enjoys having people visit her during Open Studio weekend and appreciates that they leave with a sense of what it means to be a working artist.
“You see the work, but you don’t see the process that it takes to get it,” she said. “It’s hard to show what the process of it looks like.”
“It’s important to get people to see what’s actually involved in the making process,” agreed Matthew Tell, a potter and unofficial king of artist open studios, at least in Southeastern Vermont.
Tell’s location on Potter’s Hill Road – he named that himself as a play on the term potter’s field – in the northwest corner of Marlboro, where Marlboro, Dummerston, Newfane and West Brattleboro meet, allows him to participate in the Rock River and Brattleboro-West Arts tours. A former board member of the Vermont Craft Council, he also took part in their tour.
His location is remote – so remote he posts signs along the road to visitors saying “Keep Going” and “Still Keep Going” – but worth the trip. About 10 years ago, he took the advice of mentor and fellow potter Malcolm Wright, who urged him to build his dream studio while he was young enough to enjoy it.
The 700-square foot, dimly lit guesthouse in which he worked was transformed into a 2,000 square foot potter’s Shangri-La, complete with an upstairs gallery, plenty of windows to let in light, and radiant heat to warm both his clay and his tootsies. There are also gas-fired and wood-fired kilns on the property, so visitors have plenty to look at.
Tell’s house sits higher on the property and has a spectacular view of the mountains. His studio is lower and closer to the woods, so it doesn’t have the same view. “I’m actually kind of glad I don’t have the view because I’d never get any work done,” said Tell, who has no regrets about taking Wright’s advice and building his dream studio. “I get happier and happier as time goes by.”
22nd Spring Open Studio Weekend – May 24 and 25
Open Studio Weekend is a statewide celebration of the visual arts and creative process, offering a unique opportunity for visitors to meet a wide variety of artists and craftspeople in their studios, some of which are only open to the public during this event. The self-guided Open Studio tour features the work of glassblowers, jewelers, printmakers, potters, furniture makers, weavers, ironworkers, painters, sculptors, quilt makers and wood carvers. Many galleries will host gallery talks and feature special exhibits in conjunction with this event. Admission is free. Maps can be downloaded on the website or find them at tourism racks, Chamber of Commerce offices and at the State Welcome Center.
Southern Vermont Artists located in Wilmington, Whitingham and Readsboro will be participating in the Open Studio tour in addition to other artists in Southern Vermont. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Southern-Vermont-Artists
22nd Rock River Artists Open Studio Tour – July 19 and 20, 10-6p
Start at the Old Schoolhouse in South Newfane, where the sixteen participating artists present their group show. With maps provided, visitors have the option to visit every artist’s studio, all within a short driving range of South Newfane. Admission is free all weekend.
Brattleboro-West Arts Open Studio Tour Sept 27-28, 10-5p
For more information on the Rock River Artists Open Studio Tour, visit http://www.rockriverartists.com. For more on the Vermont Crafts Council Open Studio Weekend, check out http://www.vermontcrafts.com. For dates and details about the Brattleboro-West Arts Open Studio Tour, visit http://www.brattleboro-west-arts.com.
A studio story:
As part of our coverage of open studios, we invited artists in the area to tell us a great story about their studio. This one from Rich Gillis stood out.
Once a barred owl flew into my shop chasing a mouse and was trapped, the large front doors were frozen shut, piled high with snow in front of them so I couldn’t open them to free him easily. So I dressed up with all my welding gear; my leather jacket, gloves and helmet. I inched my way close to where he was perched on an extension ladder in the front of the shop. I reached out to grab him and he made some surprising clicking noises. He didn’t struggle much and I was taken by how fluffy his feathers were and just how small his actually body was, like a Cornish hen! I took him outside and set him down on the high snow pile next to the shop expecting him to explode into flight. He didn’t. He just sat there for a minute, which seemed like 5 or 10. He turned his head around in both directions, assessing his surroundings. He looked right into my eyes and then turned and lifted off completely, silently into the woods and nearest high branch. His wingspan had to be at least 4 feet. He called out, “who cooks for you!” that’s what it sounded like to me anyway, and hung around for a little while. Soon drifted slowly away off into the woods. I swear the same owl continued to come around all year and eventually he brought his mating partner. I just know he wanted her to see the shop. “See, that’s where I was trapped and the big guy set me free!” They made quite a ruckus throughout the summer nights. What amazing sounds they can make, especially when mating!