NEWFANE—On the weekend of July 18 and 19, the quiet, flower-lined roads along the Rock River become an open studio.
Since 1993, artists have opened their homes and workplaces on the third weekend in July for the Rock River Artists Tour. Guests can interact with them, purchase their creations, and sometimes see art in action through their demonstrations.
This year, 14 artists are included in the tour, which begins at the Old Schoolhouse in South Newfane village. Attendees can view the group show and pick up a map to guide them through the paved and dirt roads of Marlboro, Newfane, South Newfane, and Williamsville.
A variety of media are represented, including drawings, printmaking, woodworking, pottery, fabric, wrought-iron work, mosaics, mixed-media pieces, and photography.
Following are profiles of several of the artists participating in the tour.
Recording a disappearing landscape
The first stop on the tour is at Georgie’s home and studio on Augur Hole Road.
The mononymous plein-air oil painter said she mostly paints barns, bridges, and sugarhouses because they are slowly disappearing. “A barn might burn down, a hurricane destroys them,” she said, adding, “People aren’t building new.”
“I’m trying to record them while they’re there, in paint,” she said.
One of the newer members of the tour, Georgie said she was invited five years ago, after a jury process that she describes as “quite stiff.”
“The very best thing,” Georgie said, of participating in the tour, “is I have made so many very good friends. That is priceless.”
She said she has been painting for “about 20 years,” and she studied painting in a variety of places, including the Delaware Art Museum and the Barnes Foundation, a museum in Philadelphia.
“For some reason I can’t explain, so many people along this river are artists and musicians,” Georgie said.
When she began building her house in South Newfane 25 years ago, “I didn’t realize other artistic types were here,” she said, noting she learned of their existence “by going on the tour.”
“For years and years I went on the tour,” she said, “and people would say to me, ’Why aren’t you doing the tour?’”
Now that she is part of it, Georgie said she transforms her home into a gallery for the event: “Every wall, plus my studio” has paintings on it.
Throughout the weekend, she will demonstrate her artistic process. She will show a finished painting, she said, alongside a work in progress.
“I show the difference between what needs to be done between the first rendering and the finished version,” Georgie explained.
“I paint on site,” Georgie said, explaining, “usually I’ll stand in somebody’s front yard or field for a few weeks. Vermont is so beautiful, I want to paint everything.”
To help narrow down her choices, Georgie has developed a rule: “I see something, and I wait a year. If I’m still thinking about it, I go back and paint it.”
She characterized the state as “the perfect outdoor art studio.”
Turning ‘cool things’ into furniture
Dan DeWalt, the fifth stop on the tour, also gets much of his inspiration from the outdoors. Although he is a trained, fourth-generation furniture maker, and fine period antique furniture restorer, DeWalt said he has “really gravitated more and more” toward his unique custom-made pieces using found objects.
“I spend a lot of time outside, year-round,” he said, “and I see all these cool things.”
On the Rock River Artists Tour website, DeWalt wrote that his recent works “have been fashioned using old figured lumber, barn siding, fence posts, flywheels and harness parts.”
When he sees a “wonderful thing” on his walks, DeWalt said, “I grab it, put it in my ‘cool thing’ collection, and then pull from it” when the time is right to turn it into art, allowing the shapes and textures to organically guide the design process.
One example of a “cool thing” DeWalt noted was a “massive redwood root” a friend brought him from the West Coast “five or 10 years ago.”
Another is “two pieces of barbed wire, each with some old pine stuck in them,” and he said the wood also looks like barbed wire.
He said he is happy to make pieces from “a perfectly fine pile of fancy lumber,” but “using found objects is changing the game.”
In his latest batch of work, he invited the objects “to lead me around,” and he utilized the “unintended consequences from found materials.”
DeWalt said he helped start the Rock River Artists Tour. He described neighbors visiting neighbors, admiring one another’s work.
“People are doing quality work, and we should do a group tour and show,” DeWalt said of the early conversations he had with other artists along the Rock River.
“It worked!” he said.
DeWalt also appreciates the opportunity to receive guests to his studio.
“Most of my work is custom work,” so “very few people come into my shop,” he said.
Of his tour mates, DeWalt said, “We’re all people who actually survive doing our art.”
“What’s really cool is, when people really get a slice of” life as a working artist, DeWalt said, adding the artists’ studios on the tour are “extensions of our homes.”
“They are places where we do our art, and they reflect our personalities,” he said. “They see our art,” he added, “but they see what kind of people we are.”
DeWalt noted some studios are meticulous, while others are chaotic. “I work in my bare feet” sometimes, he added.
Most of DeWalt’s work is done by hand, on a workbench. He said people, upon entering his studio, “are always kind of surprised.” They ask him, “Where are the machines?”
The tour artists are “lucky enough to live in a really beautiful area,” DeWalt said. “We don’t wake up in a place we hate, then go to work.”
“Our art reflects that.”
Making art you can live with
Matthew Tell demonstrated to a visitor recently one of the techniques — chattering — that he uses to create some of his textured pottery pieces.
As a drinking vessel turned on the wheel, Tell held a banding iron gently against its exterior. The iron began vibrating, leaving a shallow, striated pattern in the clay as the sturdy mug went all the way around.
Most of Tell’s pieces are functional, pottery for serving, for eating, for gardens, for “flower arrangements, garden pedestal tables, and birdbaths.”
“My forms are based on floral and organic forms,” and pointed out to a visitor a large, colorful platter sitting on an intricately carved wooden bench. “That’s my sunflower design,” he said of the platter.
Tell said he uses no toxic ingredients in his homemade glazes, which he characterized as similar to Japanese shino glazes. He said they are made of corn ash.
Firing in Tell’s wood-fired kiln takes 16 to 20 hours, and he stokes the kiln every 20 to 30 minutes.
“I do three to five firings per year, and I use two-thirds of a cord each firing,” he said, adding that the owner of a local mill is happy to give him the scrap for the kiln, because it cannot be sold with the regular lumber.
Tell says he sort of fell into pottery by accident. In his last term of his senior year in high school, Tell took a clay course.
“I fell in love with the stuff,” he said.
Searching for a “good liberal arts pottery program,” Tell found Marlboro College, where he studied with Michael Boylen and Malcolm Wright.
Tell also fell in love with the area, and after briefly moving away, he returned to southeastern Vermont, eventually helping found Brattleboro Clayworks.
A professional potter since 1983, Tell said he was invited to join the Rock River Artists Tour “the first few years” of its inception. He notes his studio lies just outside the tour’s current boundaries, and were he to ask to join today, he might not be allowed.
“I was grandfathered in,” he said.
Tell said in past years, people have been enthusiastic upon reaching his studio, perhaps because “they’ve earned it” by making their way through the deep woods where South Newfane, Marlboro, and Dummerston meet.
Because his stop is slightly off the beaten path, visitors might get confused by their unfamiliarity with the rural locale, where few cellphones offer reception.
Along North Pond Road, approaching his driveway, Tell puts “encouragement” signs on the side of the road, with messages like “Keep going!,” “You’re Almost There!,” and “Really, You’re Almost There!”
“Urban people think the dirt roads go on longer than they really do,” he said.
Upstairs from Tell’s studio is his gallery. During the tour, he said he does not want people to feel rushed. “I leave them alone until they have questions,” he explained.
Plus, he will likely be downstairs during the tour, working on new pieces, and guests can watch him work if they like.
Creating the luster
Richard Foye, who said he has “been involved with the tour right from the beginning,” will also offer demonstrations throughout the weekend, and his pottery is quite different from Matthew Tell’s.
His pieces, using a 16th-century Japanese technique called raku, results in vibrant, iridescent colors not often seen on traditional glazed pottery.
The colors are a result of combustibles, not additions to the glaze. “Strictly speaking, traditional raku glaze had no color in it,” Foye wrote on the tour website.
After the initial firing in his outdoor kiln, which reaches temperatures up to 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit, Foye puts the pieces in smaller ovens along with straw, pine cones, and other organic materials.
The combustible materials burst into flames, and because he has covered the ovens, no additional oxygen can come in.
“That creates the luster,” he said, noting the iridescent blues and greens come from copper in the glazes. Foye said cobalt, iron, and chrome are other metals used in pottery glazes, each creating different colors in the finished product.
As a hummingbird buzzed above the yellow daylilies in Foye’s yard, he pointed out the carmine-colored feathers on the bird’s neck. Suddenly, as the bird changed its position, the red turned to black.
Foye explained “it’s the exact same physical process” how we see the colors in the glazes of his pottery and those of the bird’s neck: light waves slow down within the crystalline structures of the interference colors. When our eyes see different light waves, our brains interpret that as seeing different colors.
Foye attributes his foray into pottery to Putney-based potter Ken Pick, a roommate at the University of Vermont where Foye was a philosophy major.
During their senior year, Foye said Pick began spending time in the pottery studio. Upon coming back to their shared room, Pick shared tales of how much he loved the art. “Ken got me so excited about pottery, I had to check it out,” he said.
For 10 years, Foye, who has a master’s degree in teaching from Antioch University, taught pottery at the Fletcher Farm School for the Arts and Crafts in Ludlow. He said his students became interested in the technique, so he learned it to teach them.
Raku, Foye said, “became the thing to do in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Beginning in the 1980s, Foye noticed “80 to 90 percent of the pieces I sold were raku,” so “the message was quite clear. I have stuck with it since.”
Although Foye said the tour provides a “significant” portion of his yearly income from pottery sales, money is not his only motivating factor.
“The tour has educational value,” he explained.
Foye said he appreciates the “rough simplicity,” “serendipity,” and “delightful surprise” of raku, and notes its qualities come from “the way you prepare and use the clay, not just in the firing” of the pieces.
“You relinquish control,” Foye said, noting raku is like raising children. “You send your kids to college, then it’s out of your hands. You send them out, and you have no idea what you’re getting back,” he said.
“Hopefully, it’s something good.”