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Nearly all of Jim Giddings’ art work was destroyed in the fire.

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Up in smoke

A studio burns, the community rallies, and an artist struggles to discern his next steps

Artists interested in donating work for the auction should email jimgiddingsfirefund@gmail.com by Sept. 22. Monetary contributions payable to the Jim Giddings Fire Fund can be made at the Sept. 29 event or mailed to the Jim Giddings Fire Fund, in care of Brattleboro Savings & Loan, 221 Main St., Brattleboro, VT 05301.

BRATTLEBORO—“I miss a lot of the paintings,” said artist Jim Giddings.

A week after fire destroyed his studio, Giddings sat in the gallery he runs with wife and fellow artist Petria “Petey” Mitchell. They scrolled through photos of the fire’s aftermath on Mitchell’s smartphone.

Investigators ruled that the Aug. 29 fire at 562 Stark Road was not suspicious. Multiple departments responded to the blaze. Firefighters used approximately 8,000 gallons of water to bring the fire under control.

In photos, Giddings stands inside the studio’s charred skeleton surrounded by piles of burned paper. Other photos depict him inspecting sketches and pastels stored in a large metal flat file.

Most of its contents were unsalvageable, he said.

The flat file contained mostly pieces Giddings describes as “not good enough” for an exhibit.

Bright lines of color peek through layers of paper charred brown: a beach scene, two friends at the former Mole’s Eye Cafe.

“So we’ve got all these little scraps,” Giddings said.

A Sept. 29 benefit event is planned to help Giddings rebuild.

45 years of work

Giddings has described the fire as the loss of 45 years of his artistic efforts.

Giddings works mostly in oil stick on paper. He co-owns Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts at 183 Main Street in Brattleboro. He also is a framer.

Most artists say the process is the important part of art making, not the finished product, Giddings said. In the artist’s statement on the gallery’s website, he writes, “When I begin a painting, I have no idea what will develop. My ideas change throughout the process; the process changes my ideas.”

But for Giddings, some of the burned paintings also represented milestones in his artistic progression.

While not successful in and of themselves, these paintings answered questions Giddings was asking himself at that point in time, he said.

He feels now is a time for reflection. Instead, “things are moving too fast for me right now,” he said.

Giddings said his reaction to the fire is taking two courses.

The first is feeling awe over the “incredible support” he’s receiving from the community, which he said has been “an amazing response right from the beginning,” adding that people have shared his grief and their sympathy in “very generous ways.”

As an example, he said that on the Wednesday after the fire, two people he didn’t know stopped him to talk. Others left flowers, food, and a note at the gallery door.

‘I went pretty low today’

The second part of his reaction is much more difficult: overwhelming emotions that have been temporarily kept at bay by wrangling with the logistics of the fire’s aftermath, such as contacting his insurance company, deciding what to do with the building’s charred remains, and designing a new studio.

“I went pretty low today for the first time,” he admitted last week. The emotions hit while Giddings read through an inventory of his work.

The couple recently attended a barbecue where every conversation centered on the fire. They left early, he said.

An artist friend who is out of the area at a residency has offered Giddings the key to his studio, Mitchell said.

Giddings and Mitchell heard from a local attorney who is dealing with the estate of Jesse and Lynn Corum. Approximately 30 years ago, the couple purchased a pastel from Giddings, she said. The person handling the estate has offered to return the painting, she said.

Mitchell said Giddings has woken up the past few mornings with a gasp of “Oh, that one was there too.”

Mitchell added that the couple isn’t accustomed to being on the receiving end of a fundraiser.

“It really is hard to say ‘yes’ to the other side of giving,” she said. But, “I’m just seeing Jim being cradled.”

Seeking meaning

Giddings said he’s still sitting with a few ideas that have yet to solidify.

In one sense, he mused, “I’ve lost nothing. A creepy little studio building, really.”

Many of the paintings that burned the public had never been seen, or they had been seen only briefly at a showing before he returned them to storage.

But in another sense, Giddings said, he’s lost 45 years of work. Work that he’s built a life on. He struggles with expressing what the loss means.

Giddings said he’s afraid the emotions will hit once he’s standing in his new studio: new walls, new desk, new chairs, and blank paper.

“Empty and blank,” he said. “That could be a version of hell.”

Giddings said he’s remembering watercolor paintings from a 25-year retrospective he held at the former Windham Art Gallery in 1995.

Now Giddings works with oil stick on a clay-coated paper.

“It’s the perfect paper for me,” he said. He lost a large supply of it in the fire. Mitchell jumps in to say she found a small stack in her studio just that morning.

Giddings describes his work with the oil sticks as “putting paint on and taking it off” the paper.

Learning by painting

Pointing to a painting hanging in the couple’s gallery, Giddings shows areas where the layers of paint are thick and to areas where he has scraped most of it off. He points to a crow in the upper left corner — a common symbol in his work. The painting also contains numbers that look like stencils and pencil marks deep enough to remain visible after multiple coats of paint and scrapping.

“Every time I do a painting, I learn just enough to get to the next one,” Giddings said.

A number of large water colors from a fall open studio in the mid-1980s were lost to the flames.

“That whole group is really missed,” he said.

Giddings later found one from the show in Mitchell’s studio.

In the couple’s loft, Giddings said there’s a box of sketchbooks he hasn’t looked at in years. If it wasn’t for the fire, the sketchbooks would have remained forgotten. When asked if the box has taken on new meaning, Giddings answered, “I think so. They’re an opportunity to hold onto something a little bit more.”

The fire feels like a “giant interruption” in his own artistic progression, he said.

“I don’t know what it’ll be like to start new — I haven’t gotten there yet,” he said.

A supportive community

The Sept. 29 fundraiser, planned for 5:30 to 9 p.m. at 118 Elliot St. in Brattleboro, will begin with refreshments and a silent auction of art donated by local artists and collectors, followed by a live auction of more work at 7 p.m.

Giddings and Mitchell estimate that raising $10,000, in addition to a projected insurance settlement and donations already received, will help restore the space.

Giddings said he wants the community to know how much he appreciates the support he has received.

He reads from a section of a public thank you letter he has written: “Thank you to all those who have stopped us, texted us, written and called with your warm wishes, your grief and understanding, pledges of help and support, your stories, your love and sharing.”

“I’ve always believed truth and beauty live within the small places, which is another way of recognizing that each single person’s touch is as meaningful and significant as the next,” Giddings said.

According to Giddings, his studio building and some of the contents, such as furniture, were insured, but not the artistic works.

Mitchell and Giddings are in the middle of insuring their larger studio but it’s hard because the building doesn’t fit the “normal parameters” the insurance company looks for.

A lot of artists don’t insure their work, Giddings added. Establishing value, proving fair market value, and other requirements has kept him from insuring individual pieces.

“So, it’s a nightmare,” he said.

A ledger of the works he creates didn’t burn, but he says it’s not up-to-date, and he isn’t sure what comes next. He’s not painting a lot right now. With so much to do — like knocking down the old studio, designing the new studio, framing and matting approximately 30 paintings, taking down the gallery’s current show, and cording wood — it has been hard to find the time.

“[Painting is] what I want to be doing more than anything else,” he said.

“Watercolor is my favorite medium,” he added.

Mitchell sat up: “Really? I didn’t know that.”

Giddings has worked with oil paint sticks for approximately 25 years. He loves them. But he loves watercolor more.

A small part of him thinks it might be nice to start over again with watercolors.

“It’s just way too early to say,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #374 (Wednesday, September 14, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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