Making it as an artist in Vermont

Making It as an Artist in Vermont

by Anita Rafael


screen shot 2011-05-25 at 6.21.51 pmNew artists’ alliances are bursting on the scene—all with similar missions—to work together and to work smarter and to welcome and engage audiences in new and dynamic ways. Just as farmers and fresh-food enthusiasts have found each other at farmers’ markets—artists and art-lovers are finding each other at open studio tours, in guilds and galleries, and at public events and festivals.

screen shot 2011-05-25 at 6.26.53 pmArtists are creating online directories that are not just for selling art, more importantly they are promoting the artistic milieu of Southern Vermont. Talented people collaborating online and face-to-face are why our local alliances are worth watching. Arts education, arts participation and arts awareness are all on the agenda. In Brattleboro, the town has formed an arts committee. They’ve partnered with the Arts Council of Windham County and share meeting minutes, have a couple of common members and have worked with both the Town Planning Department and the Town Manager on Sidewalk Art to bring more public awareness to the arts.

screen shot 2011-05-25 at 6.27.38 pmOther groups are helping each other write business plans and budget their marketing dollars. They’re organizing regular potlucks and trade-talk about arts and cultural tourism initiatives. We talked to a few of them to find out more.

Artisans of Southern Vermont has a short but informative blog. Former bond trader turned metal jewelry-maker Carmel Furtado, of Leaves of Gold Gallery, is a member of the guild, which charges its members $50 annually for group advertising. She talks about the baby steps the group took in its launch phase in 2008 and about one of its biggest success stories three years later.

“The goal in forming our group was to bring attention to the concentration of the number of artists and artisans working in the southwest corner of the state. We wanted people to know about the unique beauty of handcrafted items in a world of machine made. In 2008, we created a blog and an elaborate driving map through Manchester and out to Pawlet as a way to promote the Statewide Open Studio Tour in our area.”

“The idea of a guild—everyone wants different things out of it—but, of course, we want to sell art. This past November, the Southern Vermont Arts Center gave us a show. It was a first for the Center to combine traditional hooked rugs, pottery, sculpture, clothing, jewelry, and craft furniture. It was a successful show and sales resulted from it.”

“One of the good things from the group is that we derive business from each other—we do work for each other, and thank god for it. You know, Vermont is the home of the potluck, and it’s one way of getting out more often to visit each other’s studios. We are figuring out ways to stay cohesive and to learn more about each other’s craft.”— Carmel Furtado

This November is the 33rd Putney Craft Tour, America’s oldest continuous craft tour, since 1978, with 27 artists and artisans participating this year. This group of artists is united around one simple mission—to invite the public to meet some of Southern Vermont’s most prominent artists while they’re at work in their studios. One of its most enthusiastic members is weaver Dena Gartenstein Moses, founder of the Vermont Weaving School in Putney. She wants to help make Putney even more of a crafts destination primarily for education, classes, and workshops. She talks about Putney’s successful tour.

“Being an artist in Putney is almost like having a brand. I feel a lot of pride in being part of the annual Putney Craft Tour—I am one of a group of very skilled and established artists. I’m surrounded by savvy people and from them I get the energy to go back into my studio and create. The tour has a great group of sponsors, and we’ve recently added a group of ‘friends,’ members of the community who help support the tour. We also have a website, and this year retained a public relations team to help us with more sophisticated outreach.”

“If I could wave a magic wand, I’d like to get more artists together in Putney to create a campaign for crafts education. Someday I’d like to see an organized, non-centralized school, so that people could come here and take classes in various studios.” Dena Gartenstein-Moses

Readsboro Arts organized five years ago as a 501c3 non-profit corporation with a mission to enhance the life of the townspeople and visitors to the area. They’re in the planning phase for their 4th annual arts festival. In addition to the18 or so artists and artisans participating as exhibitors, the popular festival invites many local musicians to perform and entertain. It’s an event for all ages.

Mary Angus, a glass artist, talks about this small town that now has a big art following and a very successful event.

“Readsboro is a very small town and we’re somewhat isolated, geographically and culturally. There’s not a lot going on here, so people are amazed that there are so many artists willing to work together to create an event for the community where they live and work. Usually about 250 people or so come to the Arts Festival, but there’s definitely room for more. I would like to see the event grow both in attendance and in the number of artists participating. If you are not an artist yourself in this area, you don’t realize how much art there is. The festival brings artists and people interested in art together in one place, and in many ways, this enriches the Readsboro community.”

“I have been part of the Vermont Craft Council’s Open Studio Weekend tour for 18 years. During the open studio weekend and at the arts festival, I enjoy talking to people about my work and I get a lot out of educating the public about what I do as an artist. It’s invigorating for me as an artist.” —Mary Angus

The Cricketers Building is the home of the newly organized Grafton Valley Arts Guild, chartered as a nonprofit marketing cooperative. With seed money from the Windham Foundation, and a dozen or so juried members, the guild is fomenting a vision of Grafton as a destination for art lovers embraced by a supportive community.

Blacksmith Adam Howard operator of the Grafton Forge, and president of the Guild, talks about how the guild is marrying art, crafts, Yankee hospitality, the Vermont lifestyle, and, yes, even cheese making, to put Grafton on the map for more than just its quaint architecture and fall foliage.

“The members of the guild and the community agree that more is more in Grafton. For example, just two years ago during the statewide Open Studio Tour Grafton had one dot on the map, so coming here for one artist seemed really out of the way to some people. Now, there are going to be many dots on the map for Grafton, so people will look at that and say, ‘Wow, there must be something exciting going on there. The guild wants the town to be a destination for art and crafts.

“We’re working to make ‘Grafton Made’ a brand, we own the name. So, coming here to see sculpture, or fiber art, or something from the forge, or Grafton Village Cheese Company, and by being able to take a class with one of the guild artists, anyone can become part of the ‘Grafton experience.”

“The Windham Foundation has helped member artists with affordable studio spaces in Foundation buildings and making it possible for us to have the gallery which will also function as a visitors’ welcome center. We owe them a debt of gratitude. They understood what we  wanted to do – that we wanted to both live here and make a living here.”  —Adam Howard

Brattleboro-West Arts is a nonprofit association with about 25 juried members who began organizing as a single “brand” in 2009. Their Third Open Studio tour is slated for late September. In their view, the Southern Vermont region and the Whetstone Brook corridor in particular, provides peaceful, natural settings for artists in a supportive community environment. It is no wonder, they say, that artists and craftspeople of local, national and worldwide reputation have chosen to live and work there. The group’s website takes viewers on a virtual studio tour of bios, workshop views, artworks and links. Doug Cox, who crafts violins and string instruments and is on the group’s publicity committee, talks about the arts, location and culture.

“The most significant thing that we are doing is getting together to help each other with everything. We have groups that sometimes focus on a particular craftsman or artist both to critique their work creatively and to talk about their business plan, helping them connect to their market. We have monthly potlucks, and sometimes we have special topics and guest speakers from outside come in and talk to us.”

“As part of the West Brattleboro [community] Association, we were advised that the best things to do for economic health is to look at underperforming resources—to look at what you already have that can be improved rather than by trying to bring in something new. I knew that there were a number of other craftsmen and artists in the area, and we began looking at getting together. We found there were about three times as many artists and artisans in this one area than I thought there were.”

“Most everyone in the group would point to everyone feeling better about their own work as a result of being a member and feeling that they are not alone. Everyone is working harder and smarter. Most everyone’s work is on the upswing, and really has been.”

“I see hard economic times as being good for the arts. I think that the adjustment to what I like to think of, as ‘the new economy’ is that people are going to be more careful about how they use their time and money. That they will be looking for objects that bring beauty and meaning into their lives, as well as functionality. There will be greater need and respect for artists, along with the realization that culture is a local thing. We are where we live.”       —Doug Cox

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