Inspired journeys: Making the most of Southern Vermont arts towns

 

By Anita Rafael

True confession: That familiar dark brown delivery truck stops at my house at least once a week due to my lazy routine of shopping by iPhone—so much so that I am on a cordial first-name basis with the driver who goes through my town.

That said, I’ll always have a deep vein of what I call brick and mortar curiosity when it comes to traveling the back roads of Southern Vermont in search of the kinds of art and crafts that make this region extraordinary. We seldom stop to think how many museums, galleries, arts and crafts co-ops, open studios, and boutiques wait within a short hop of each other, showcasing more artistic talent and creative ability than you’d ever imagine.

Most of the time, I’m not on the hunt for any particular thing. I just like to know what’s out there and where to find it when I want it.

Here’s our guide to making the most of a few representative Southern Vermont arts towns large and small.

Village to Village

Some of the most scenic and enjoyable roads to drive for artful shopping take in Routes 35, 100, and 11, connecting Grafton, Weston, and Chester. Each village is walkable, parking is free and easy, and there you’ll find a broad variety of places to explore. It’s probably a little more than you can fit in to one day, so make a weekend of it—and enjoy the local fare at some of the restaurants and country cafes as well.

Gorgeous Grafton

A parade through picturesque Grafton.

Grafton is so picturesquely “Vermont” that it’s the main reason people go there. I can give you several more reasons to go: all of them are interesting places to see art and artifacts. There are many must-see places close together in the village, and so here is your Grafton to-do list: the Mercantile, the Jud Hartmann Gallery, The Yellow Door Studio, and The Painted Cupboard.

You know that off-registry wedding gift you’re going to want to find come June? Consider a small landscape painting or a traditional still life from Gallery North Star. More affordable than you might think, and such a distinctive gift idea.

Add to the to-do list: Sit down for a nourishing farm-to-table supper at the Old Tavern Restaurant at Grafton Inn.

Jud Hartmann

The wonders of Weston

Weston has long been famous for two things: its wildly successful playhouse and now legendary Vermont Country Store. No argument there, but I was in town on two consecutive weekends last holidays season, and both times I ended up in the same spot: Village Green Gallery.

First of all, it’s a perfect place to gather for a cup of hot coffee or tea, which you can take out to a table on the porch. This enticing gallery is hard to define in a word because, while it’s like a fine arts exhibition with its great deal of excellent artwork and fine art photography, it’s also rich in crafts in ceramic, glass, wood, fiber, paper, and mixed media. On both visits, I found myself glued to the displays of handmade clay whistles by Mary Stone. Strung on a knotted cord to wear as a necklace, the different bird and animal shapes make distinctive three-note sounds in different pitches.Intriguing little things.

A taste for Chester

In Chester, there are two parts of town to explore—Main Street on Route 11 and the nearby Stone Village historic district along North Street on Route 103. There is no shortage of creative genius to be found at such places as DaVallia Art Boutique and DaVallia 39 North Gallery—both done beautifully—and 103 Artisans Marketplace, offering more than 2,000 square feet of pure temptation.

DaVallia’s two locations are unique but share a wonderful sophistication of design and presentation. You must visit both and take the time to chat with husband and wife artisans Michael and Jessie Alon. She designs and makes exquisite contemporary jewelry; he builds reclaimed wood and metal furniture.

City Wise

Two of the major north-south and east-west routes in Southern Vermont, I-91 and Route 9 (a.k.a. the Molly Stark Trail), inevitably take you into Southern Vermont’s small cities: Brattleboro, Bellows Falls, and Bennington. You can spend a day soaking in the artistic creativity of each. And you’ll find a long list of “Best In Vermont” choices for breakfast, lunch, cocktails, and dinner.

You’re likely to find artistic moose in downtown Bennington.

Bennington, Brattleboro deliver

Both Bennington and Brattleboro are firmly anchored in the arts, each with a museum offering full, changing exhibition schedules. It’s well worth becoming a member so you don’t miss a show. The Bennington’s permanent collections include the works of Grandma Moses, whose works are reproduced in a variety of charming gifts in the Museum Store (which, by the way, is always free to enter, so you can peek in when you’re in the area).

Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, or BMAC, is a non-collecting museum, which means that the changing exhibits are the star attractions. I just like being in the historic building, which was once the city’s busy train station.

A reminder to local residents: the library in your town may offer its patrons a three-day pass for free or discounted admission to museums.

Through the window of Ruggles & Hunt in Brattleboro, you can spy the work of artist Laura Zindel, who combines her naturalist illustration with ceramics and housewares.

At home, my everyday dishes are Bennington Potters’ Blue Agate stoneware, so I am often in the Bennington store to see what else I can find for my table. The must-see there is the working studio down a narrow path in back of the store.

As for gift shopping with a creative mindset, it’s hard to find shop that offers you more ideas and options than Hawkins House Craftsmarket. Most people think it is exclusively jewelry—so not true. The shop is an arts and crafts smorgasbord.

In Brattleboro, here again, you have to work your way through the numerous galleries and shops. Take this list with you: A Candle the Night for fabulous imports; Mitchell-Giddings Fine Art; Vermont Artisan Designs, where, if you don’t go to the second floor you’re missing the best part; Ruggles & Hunt, which is jam-packed with incredibly colorful and fun things; The B’s Nest (an unbelievable mommy magnet for baby goods, but you’ll find beautifully crafted items for all ages); and, just north of the city center, Grafton Village Cheese. (People who don’t believe cheese is an art form have never paused to watch the different kinds being made by the curdmeisters there.)

Falling for Bellows Falls

The village of Bellows Falls.

Driving on Route 5 north from Brattleboro, you can avoid the interstate completely and reach Bellows Falls. Go for it. Bigger than a village but smaller than what I’d call a city, BF nonetheless has a downtown that hugs the banks of the mighty Connecticut River.

Love antiques? Allow at least an hour to poke around in the Windham Antique Center—two huge floors of vintage goods from fine art to architectural bits, primitives to elegant crystal ware. A little of everything, in other words.

Love wearing handcrafted jewelry? Go directly to The Rock and Hammer. The collections of their own work—stunning pieces in silver and precious stones—are extensive.

Bellows Falls glass artist Chris Sherwin at work.

Love things with down-home, homemade appeal? You must browse the displays at River Artisans Cooperative. (You’ll find even more high-level crafts across the river in New Hampshire. Look for the Walpole Artisans Cooperative on Main Street.)

One of the most fascinating places to visit in BF is Sherwin Art Glass, a blown-glass studio. Although Chris Sherwin’s pieces are sold in many area shops, you won’t really appreciate his talent and skill until you’ve watched him work magical transformations of molten glass into beautiful objets d’art.

Paths off the beaten path

Perusing Putney

Putney is a thriving village along Route 30 with a long history of elevating the prestige of its many artists and crafters. The annual Putney Craft Tour of galleries, open studios, and shops marked its 40th season in November.

Skeins of yarn at Green Mountain Spinnery.

Few people are aware that at any time of year they can politely call most of the two dozen or so places on the tour list—find it at your leisure at putneycrafts.com—for appointments for studio tours. Think of what you love most and you’ll find a lot of it in or around Putney: pottery, glass, jewelry, handmade clothing, fine art, upcycled works from found objects, and artisanal wines and cheeses.

Thankfully, the list goes on.

My most recent quest in Putney was all about fiber. Not the kind we eat, the kind we wear, which landed me at three places in one afternoon: Betsy MacIsaac’s Crooked Fence Farm, Dena Moses’s Handwovens, and Green Mountain Spinnery—a yarn-making operation akin to a working museum.

A cornucopia of announcements on the bulletin board of the Putney Co-op.

Working Wilmington

Wilmington is one of those tiny villages with a big river running through it, which explains its wide bridge in town center at the junction of Routes 9 and 100.

I like snooping around Wilmington because it’s close to home, and I always find something new and interesting in its shops. On a recent visit, I wandered into the Jim McGrath Gallery for the first time. It wasn’t what I expected—there were spacious rooms with his paintings all beautifully hung and lighted just right. Toward the back of the gallery, I was invited to step into Jim’s studio to see his latest painting, a portrait fresh on the easel. Even though McGrath wasn’t in, I gained insight into his style and methods by chatting with the gallery staff.

Motivated by that experience, I also dropped into Gallery Wright in Wilmington. Again, I was surprised at how expertly the paintings, sculptures, and craft pieces were exhibited. There were works by several amazing artists and artisans. Part of the space is the working studio of the owner, printmaker Mary Therese Wright.

For more information about art events and artists’ open studios in and around Wilmington, check out the Mount Snow Chamber of Commerce on Main Street.

Share This Post On