BRATTLEBORO—Few of the many people who attend the Marlboro Music Festival realize that some of the fine string instruments that they have been listening to were made only a few miles away in the rural Vermont countryside.
Since 1981, Doug Cox, one of 16 area artists who will display their work in the Brattleboro-West Arts (BWA) annual open studio tour this weekend, has built more than 600 violins, violas, cellos, and baroque instruments. His instruments have received awards from the Violin Society of America and are used by professional artists in a wide array of professional settings.
“I absolutely love my Cox violin,” says Jaime Laredo, violinist, conductor, and music director of Vermont Symphony Orchestra. “It is a joy and a pleasure to play on. It feels and sounds like I am playing on a great old Italian violin.”
Nor is Cox alone in creating fine works of art and craft in the hills outside of Brattleboro.
“The area is rich in artistic vision, talent, and quality craftsmanship,” BWA proclaims on its website. “The historic Whetstone Brook corridor provides a rich seedbed for beautiful, quiet workspaces in this supportive community with easy access to metropolitan areas. It is no wonder that artists and craftspeople of local, national, and worldwide reputation have chosen to live and work here.”
BWA is a diverse group of artists and craftspeople living in the Whetstone watershed and dedicated to improving the commercial and artistic success of its members.
Working in the villages of West Brattleboro and Marlboro, these artists and artisans employ a variety of media, including painting, pottery, sculpture, furniture, musical instruments, textiles, poetry, garden arts, culinary arts, and video. They practice at the highest professional level of creativity, innovation, and technical standards.
Each year, select members of the group open their studios to the public. Visitors can observe the creative process in its native environment and have the chance to purchase artists’ work.
The open studio tour goes through the back roads of the area “to spots made special by the eyes and hands of working artists and artisans,” the website describes. The tour gives a diverse sampling of art and craft that make up the richness of this creative community.
Arts, community, and economy
“Brattleboro-West Arts was formed several years ago through a special meeting of the West Brattleboro Association, which discussed the business potential for the area,” says Cox, one of the founding members of BWA. “The question on the table was, ‘How do we improve the financial health of West Brattleboro?’”
However, the goal was not to increase prosperity at any cost, he says, but provide economic growth while keeping the jobs and income in the community.
The West Brattleboro Association had the prescience to put the group’s emphasis not on new business but on the assets the community already had.
One of its biggest assets quickly became apparent: the artist and craftspeople — “Folks like me: violin makers, quilters, and potters off the main road,” says Cox. “This was best way to get more economic bang for the buck.”
BWA was formed to provide a forum for these artists and craftspersons to get to know and be supportive of one another.
“Another reason for forming BWA was the closing of Windham Art Gallery in downtown Brattleboro [in 2009],” continues Cox.
“Since no longer would there be that space where we could share our work and ideas, we felt the need to form a West Brattleboro arts organization,” he says.
“An early decision was to try to be diverse in disciplines but narrow in focus in geography,” Cox says. “We assumed the downtown artists would form a group of their own, which I believe they never did.
“The artists in our area were a different kind of person from in the town,” he says. “Here everyone lived and worked from their homesteads, with a different relation to our art, with a different relation to the weather, the seasons, the topography.”
Brattleboro-West Arts began with about a dozen members and grew, Cox says.
“Now, it is made up of about three dozen professional artists and craftspeople, for whom our work is more than a mere hobby or vocation, but for sale,” he says.
“We have even had people who move here because of BWA,” adds Cox. “They now see the area as supportive of the business of the arts.”
In the last six months, the group has added six members. “In fact, we are a little worried that our group may be getting too large to give the proper support our members need,” Cox says.
The mission of BWA is to provide the tools for artists to become more successful professionally by networking with one another. A monthly potluck, sometimes with a guest speaker, gives the opportunity for the members to get to know one another personally as well.
Even the artists of the area didn’t realize who their peers were.
“We were truly surprised how many of those we would run into on the streets were working in the arts and crafts,” says Cox.
‘Our open house’
The group offers a variety of kinds of support.
At a member’s behest, a group of four or five artists volunteer to visit artists’ studios to help them think through what is working or not.
In conjunction with the Brattleboro Literary Festival, BWA will present “Making it in the Arts,” a conversation at Brattleboro’s River Garden on Sunday, Oct. 14.
Here, Dummerston writer and freelance journalist Joyce Marcel will explore what it means to make a living in Windham County. She will draw on her experience of having interviewed a large percentage of the working artists in the area, as well as around Vermont.
Cox believes this presentation illustrates one of the functions of this weekend’s Open Studio Tour.
“The short-term goal of the tour is sales,” says Cox. “The tour will provide people an opportunity to buy fresh works from the area’s artists and craftspersons.”
But the group sees the tour as “our open house,” he says.
“We kind of feel like gays and lesbians coming out, with the tour pushing us out of the closet to be more public,” Cox says. “We want people to see which of your neighbors are working in the arts.”
And that’s more than community spirit — it’s untapped business potential. The truth of the matter is that southern Vermont is not a particularly good place to sell art.
“A survey was taken several years ago discovered that 80 percent of local art is sold outside Windham Country,” says Cox. “Most sales come from distant galleries, or more and more online.“
“In light of this, the tour hopes to foster a closer relationship between artists and craftspersons and the community,” he says.