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The Arts

Out of the shadows

After 31 years of taking care of the museum, retired Building Manager Jim Giddings gets his first BMAC exhibit

BRATTLEBORO—Artist Jim Giddings retired from Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC) in December after serving 31 years as building manager and art handler.

“Jim has had a longer association with the museum than any employee ever,” says BMAC Director Danny Lichtenfeld, who says he thought perhaps that greatest tribute to all Giddings had done for the museum is to present a solo exhibition of his works created during his tenure: 1982 through 2013.

You see, while transporting, hanging, and focusing lights on the work of other artists for BMAC, Giddings managed to maintain his own painting studio and exhibition schedule.

“Out of the Shadows: Paintings by Jim Giddings” reveals some of the transformations Giddings’ painting underwent during that time he also worked for the museum.

This exhibition is no belated tribute. Such a show was only possible once Giddings had left BMAC, as the museum has a rule that no one on its payroll may exhibit there.

Giddings and his wife are also opening a gallery of their own.

With Giddings’ work, BMAC is presenting two other exhibitions: “Flora: A Celebration of Flowers in Contemporary Art,” which examines the influence of flowers on 13 visual artists, and “Water Studies, Brattleboro,” a site-specific audio-visual installation by New York City-based artist Jennifer Stock.

According to Giddings, BMAC was generous in giving him this show when he left. “But my whole career with BMAC was an important, fulfilling part of my life,” he notes.

Lichtenfeld says it’s “a very special honor for us to exhibit Jim’s work. Not only are the paintings exquisite, but there is no one who has invested more of himself in this museum over a longer period than Jim Giddings.”

Lichtenfeld says he considers his former employee an accomplished artist who made choices in his life to pay his bills while reserving free time to pursue his art.

“Sometimes here at BMAC we would only focus on Jim’s important role as building manager, and not that he was a talented painter,” says Lichtenfeld. “It’s to Jim’s credit that as building manager the museum is such a great space. It’s fair to say that Jim invested more than anyone in our building’s well-being.”

Lichtenfeld adds: “In fact, he was even married to his wife, painter Petria Mitchell, here in the museum — the first wedding we ever had in BMAC, back in 1995 when (Chief Curator) Mara Williams was still the director.”

Giddings explains that only in Lichtenfeld’s tenure as director of BMAC did he get the title of building manager.

“Before that, my position was more janitorial,” he says.

He explains that he became connected with the museum when he led a drawing class in 1982. In the beginning, he had relatively minor responsibilities — packaging work, some art handling, and doing layouts for museum literature.

As time went on, he stepped up and took responsibility for overall building maintenance. And he says his job changed with the title.

Giddings recalls that Lichtenfeld, when he came on board, let it be known he envisioned the museum playing a larger role in the community, and it soon began hosting weddings and concerts. With more work taking place in the facility, Giddings got busier — to the point where he needed an assistant.

“In fact, it all became a little overwhelming. My work here was supposed to have been a little job with which I could maintain flexibility to paint. But the workload just kept growing” with BMAC’s stature he says.

And that wasn’t his only gig. Giddings also makes picture frames and teaches workshops on frame-making and oil and watercolor painting.

He says he loved being with the museum, but is looking forward to having more time to paint. He had to scale back to earn a living.

“It was simply [a question of] which of my jobs should I drop. Since my Social Security has started to kick in, I found I could financially make leaving BMAC work,” he says.

“Out of the Shadows” is intended to be loosely organized around the years he worked at the museum, which he tallies as quite a long time.

“The show was curated by Mara, not me, although I had some input. This exhibition reflects her decision and her aesthetic. I was grateful for her expertise. I had trouble figuring out what to include or leave out, and when I would propose something, she would say, ‘No, no, this would be better,’ and in a very short time she put together a very fine presentation of my work over quite a few years.”

Giddings says that his painting over the years has moved away from realistic landscapes to images that are much more abstract. But no matter how abstract his pieces, he says, they always hint at a narrative: Each has a thread of a story, one that is never obvious, and one with which each viewer can weave a story.

On BMAC’s website, Williams notes that Giddings’ works from the 1980s include “lushly painted landscapes suffused with summer colors, and seascapes dotted with people sunbathing and swimming. Yet close inspection reveals that surface, not scene, was his principal artistic concern.”

By contrast, Williams says Giddings’ newest creations depict “clotted, mud-caked roads and woods, [and] are physically and psychologically nuanced, requiring careful observation to unlock their riches.”

Giddings writes on the website that, “for me, painting is a path to discovery. When I begin a painting I have no idea what will develop. My ideas change throughout the process; the process changes my ideas.”

Viewers will find that crows are a recurrent motif.

“I am aware that that iconic bird carries a lot of symbolic weight in all cultures,” Giddings says, “but I am not sure that my work is referring to that. Of course, I realize the crow is a special animal, and it is black. This leads me to a dark palette, which must carry some significance. I have tried painting other birds, like chickens, which I also paint black to keep them from seeming cute. But chickens do not carry the symbolic weight of the crow.”

And if people sometimes call his work dark? He says he does tend toward a dark palette, but that he certainly doesn’t consider what he does monochromatic.

“People sometimes believe dark means depressive, and they will ask me, ‘Are you all right?’ I’m fine. I certainly do not feel the darkness must be equated with sadness, and I want people to find joy and pleasure from my work. I hope people can find great pleasure in what I do.”

Not only have Giddings’ subjects and methods changed over the years, so have his media. Where 15 years ago he was working with watercolors, he moved on to pastels and now favors oil paint stick.

“But I have not abandoned watercolor. You could say I am a watercolorist at heart. I use oil paint stick in a watercolor fashion.”

For instance, to lighten a color, he rubs the paint down to the paper or clapboard so it can shine through the paint to brighten its color, as in watercolor technique.

Is Giddings now reveling in all his free time to be able to paint since he has left BMAC?

“Yes and no,” he says. “I have been really busy lately. My wife and I are working constantly as we start our new art gallery on 183 Main St., next to Candle in the Night.”

Construction has begun at the space, but Giddings still can’t say when Mitchell/Giddings Gallery will open. He can promise it will have its own website, also under construction, and that’s kind of a big deal for him: He says he may be the last of that breed of artist who has shied away from the computer.

“I feared it might eat up my life,” he says.

With that concern, he’s had no website for his work — not even an email address. He supposes that makes him old-fashioned, “someone who believes that people will come to your art work if they want it.”

He credits local galleries for always having provided him space when he needed it, but says he is well aware that the world is changing — and that he has to move with the times.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #248 (Wednesday, April 2, 2014). This story appeared on page B1.

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