WILLIAMSVILLE — It all started in 1993 when artists in Williamsville and South Newfane glanced over each others' shoulders to discover vision, accomplishment, and shared commitment to fine art and craft.
The Rock River Artists formed, and the Open Studio Tour was soon a cherished event in the region's summer arts lineup.
The 2018 Rock River Artists Open Studio Tour is Saturday, July 21, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday, July 22, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. A tour that has earned a following well beyond Southern Vermont, the annual two-day offering features 12 accomplished artists in a range of media from functional ceramics to thread on fabric; collage to inlay; and fine woodworking to painting in oils, acrylics, and India ink.
Browsing the Rock River website is like traveling back to a time when artists and craftspeople who dedicated themselves to their talents could more easily make a living: “The annual tour allows visitors to get a behind-the-scenes look into the unique locations where each artist's work is made. Come take a trip through our rural villages - visit rustic studios down country lanes, or high up in the hills with spectacular views; visit studios with lush gardens and landscaping; and studios tucked away in the woods, or along the river's edge - and see how and where art is made in Vermont.”
At a recent meeting of the Rock River Artists, members sipped tea and homemade kombucha and noshed on salsa and healthy chips while covering all the nitty-gritty that will go into making this year's event - the start of the organization's second quarter-century - a noteworthy one. A couple of artists shared a local IPA; one had left his shoes in the car.
Collectively, the Rock River Artists have drawn visitors from around the U.S. and beyond; individually, they've been marketed through dozens of arts and craft galleries across the country and have made the lineups of several of the Northeast's most prestigious juried fine-art and crafts shows.
Their works have been enjoyed in museums and exhibitions; they've been highlighted in blogs, articles, and documentaries and featured in myriad publications - from several on marquetry to an anthology focused on mid-life and older women.
They share an eagerness to fling doors open for us - to address our curiosities and let us bask in the passion and energy infused in their work. They also share a connection to nature. Their art sings of natural elements and resources.
Raku artist Richard Foye lives just up Auger Hole Road, where his studio sits a short grassy walk - past a line-up of vintage cars - from his handsome old home.
“Everything I see and listen to around my yard is an influence,” Foye says. “Five types of frogs and toads singing every night and 40 species of birds all day.”
Foye uses all sorts of local material to make his raku: “Straw from my pasture, pine cones and moose dung from the woods, and pine needles, as well.”
Farther down Auger Hole, painter Georgie Runkle uses “abstraction and clean, rich color to capture the essence of Vermont's quickly disappearing covered bridges, barns, and sugar houses,” while fellow painter Caryn King up on Parish Hill is always looking “to share my emotions about animals with paint. Often my paintings of animals are the cows, sheep, and chickens I see here in Southern Vermont.“
Steven Meyer, relatively new to the Rock River lineup, says, “I am heavily influenced by the Vermont landscape. The vernacular architecture in our region suits me and my medium very well. The ink wash tells a true tale about these old homesteads dotting our hills and valleys.”
'The funkiest of objects'
Custom cabinet maker Dan Dewalt, who once felt bound to emulate clean lines and subtle curves - “think Hepplewhite or Shaker” he says - is now “drawn to the most unusual and funkiest of objects - ones that would normally be seen as 'ugly' or waste - because in those unusual shapes can be found nature's most alluring designs.”
Echoing the influence of his fellow Rock River Artists, Dewalt adds, “My environment informs my work by dumping my raw materials in front of my nose every time I turn around. I do my art because I see things and am compelled to work with them until they morph from a thing into a work of art.”
One of the group's earliest members, Roger Sandes, paints down a hollow along the Rock River.
“Making art is my purpose in life,” he explains. “It's always in my imagination, waiting for realization. For 50 years, I have produced figurative works on nature-based, multicultural, and art historical themes.
“I incorporate symbols of life and fertility - icons integral to art in all cultures since primitive times - highlighting their natural beauty and form. I hope to create objects of contemplation that both attract the eye immediately and reward subsequent, deeper examination.”
Fellow founder and fiber artist Deidre Scherer lives and works on a side dirt road overlooking Baker Brook.
“My work is moved by the beauty and support of my Vermont environment. Although I use elements such as garlic from my garden, this influence is a deeper space, a felt space. I am drawn to look at the human side, the elders, and the hand-work.”
Inspired by nature
Marquetry and inlay artist T. Breeze Verdant was on the roster of early Rock River Artist Open Studio Tours. Having moved back to Williamsville a while back, he's on the tour again in a studio that is a satellite to his main roost in Brattleboro's repurposed Cotton Mill.
Verdant's work is inspired and sourced by natural elements and phenomena, from wood salvaged from the Bartonsville Bridge that Tropical Storm Irene destroyed in 2011 to celestial bodies and undulating waters.
What's behind Verdant's work? “I've heard it said that 'If music gets ahold of you, you're screwed,'” he says. “Art is the same way. The ideas keep revealing themselves. It's either create, following some contrary part of yourself, or give up on life.”
None of these artists looks anywhere near ready to give up.
Other artists on the 2018 Rock River Artists Tour include Ellen Darrow, pottery; Chris Ericsson, furniture and jewelry; Matthew Tell, pottery; Mary Welsh, collage.
Visitors are encouraged to start their tour at the Old Schoolhouse in South Newfane village, where participating artists present a group show. A classic 19th-century structure which formerly housed the village's one-room school, the Schoolhouse itself is worth a visit. Maps of studio locations, all within short driving distance from the Schoolhouse, will be available there. And it's free.
To satisfy an appetite after a day of soaking in the villages' creative vibe, visitors are encouraged to hit the Williamsville Hall on Dover Road at 6 p.m. for BBQ provided by the acclaimed Top-of-the-Hill Grill in Brattleboro, an enterprise of Williamsville's Jon Julian. Adults are $12 and kids $8. A vegetarian option is available.