BRATTLEBORO — You can find Larry Simons most mornings in his Halifax home's basement workshop, working on one of his art assemblages. He says he begins and ends most days in that creative space.
“Live It Up,” his art show of 24 wood and mixed-media assemblages and sculpture, is on display now until Sept. 11th at Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts. His pieces sell from $1,200 to $6,000 each.
“Art speaks for itself. If you look at it and like it and it draws you back, then it's a success. I don't have any messages in my art - it's a purely visual thing,” Simons explains.
When asked about the show, Petria Mitchell, who owns Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts with her husband, Jim Giddings, says, “It's coming full circle.”
The couple bought their first gallery space from Simons and his wife, Donna, who operated A Candle in the Night in the building for decades until closing the store in 2020.
“Jim and I bought our first gallery space downstairs from Larry and Donna Simons in 2014 and then bought and moved into the upstairs space in 2020, opening in Dec. 2020,” Mitchell says. “It's so interesting that we're having Larry's show here now.”
“Working with Larry has been a pure joy,” she says. “He creates glorious assemblages composed of anything and everything! The beauty and humor experienced from simple discarded objects is a wonder to behold.”
“Larry's basement workshop houses thousands of categorized and organized objects, which quickly guide you on an intriguing esthetic journey,” Mitchell continues, describing Simons as “the ultimate scavenger” who through his art “guides you on an amazing field trip into texture, color, and shape.”
The Commons sat down recently with Simons during the show's installation. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
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Victoria Chernok: Who were your early influences?
Larry Simons: Wassily Kandinsky - the father of abstract painting. I liked Dalí and Picasso before I realized what really turned me on.
Abstract art set me free, tastewise. I didn't have to recognize something - there is beauty in form and color. It's infinite, like music - there is no end to the variations.
V.C.: The only art class you ever took was an art-appreciation course in college. What stays with you from that class?
L.S.: That class focused on art as a concept for the first time. I grew up in Bloomfield, Conn. and did a lot of art as a child, but didn't realize it was art.
V.C.: How did living in Aspen, Colorado affect your creative process?
L.S.: I went there for a six-week writer's workshop and stayed four years! Driving through those canyons - that was sculpture for me. The idea that art arises out of need, lack and deprivation (The Principles of Art, by R.G. Collingwood) hit home for me the first time I drove through a weather-chiseled canyon out west. Who needs sculpture when you can look at this? I remember thinking. But as soon as it was out of sight, a desire arose in me to fill the void.
V.C.: Tell me about your summer job in Provincetown, where you managed a friend's import shop during college.
L.S.: That's where I started to judge the beauty of things. Years later, when I started my own import store, I just bought the things I liked looking at. It was a great summer, and the artwork in P'town was very cutting edge, because the galleries were showing the work of young experimental artists.
V.C.: When did you move to Vermont?
L.S.: I moved to Brattleboro in 1970. After four fun years in Aspen, I landed in Brattleboro, where I first worked at the Leather Bench.
In 1973, a friend and I opened A Candle in the Night as a gallery on Main Street, and then I began traveling the globe to stock it. I sent back a wide variety of handmade jewelry, clothing, woodcarvings, baskets, weavings - even raw wool and gemstones. We imported goods from 22 countries.
Donna brought in all the furniture later and she turned it into a home furnishing store. The store was open for 46 years until we retired in January 2020, just before Covid descended. That was just dumb luck.
Along the way, I developed a deep love for hand-woven textiles and Oriental rugs, which became the most important component of our business and the reason that I was able to stay involved for so long. The business of business also filled my head for all those years, and in 2005 I felt a calling to get back to working more with my hands.
I stopped doing art in 1973. I hadn't done anything in 32 years, since I was busy running A Candle in the Night with Donna. I've made 193 pieces since I started again.
V.C.: You use found wood, metal objects, and driftwood in your art. Why are you drawn to those specific materials?
L.S.: It came as a result of me falling in love with Louise Nevelson's art close to 60 years ago. Another early influence was the sculptures constructed by unknown artists out of the flotsam and jetsam in the mudflats across the bay from San Francisco.
During the summer of 1965, I got a job in a leather shop in Hyannis, where I learned to make sandals and belts, and I began by fashioning little sculptures out of the leftover scraps. Afterwards, I started adding sticks and stone or whatever I found lying around to create pieces on beaches, in the woods, or in fields.
Assemblage art is spontaneous and it will only happen that way once on any given day. The same materials will produce different results on any other day. For me, the value is in the process.
The metal that appears in my pieces is frequently rusty. I love the hue of rust in conjunction with that of weathered wood.
V.C.: You describe yourself as a “recycler by nature,” and you typically work on many pieces at once. What is your process like?
L.S.: Everything I use in my art has had a previous life - bobbins, chair spindles, tool handles, toys, croquet sets, and wooden patterns from steel mills, for example. I spread out the bits I've collected throughout my studio so that I can see as many as possible. I start assembling them in various combinations on my work tables, and I move things around until something feels right.
Each piece can take from a few hours to a few years to complete. Most pieces are in process for months, and I can have as many as 10 different pieces going at once.
V.C.: What drew you to start making American Flags?
L.S.: I'm not sure why I started doing flags. Jasper Johns has done paintings of American flags, but that's not what got me started on them. I do like the graphic of the American flag - it's really a beautiful flag. I've made at least three dozen so far, and most were commissions.
I prefer to work with the colors of objects I find, rather than repainting or recoloring anything, so my American flags require tracking down pieces of the necessary red, white, or blue. In much of my work, like the flags, I line up similar elements, creating a tension between the rigidity of the vertical or the horizontal.
V.C.: What does your “Live It Up” show mean to you?
L.S.: This is the biggest show I've ever had, and I find the notion amusing that I'm an emerging artist at age 76. I'm happy to see it happen and to see it happen here because I occupied and owned this building for so long.
I'm a very visual person, and I look for art in everything. Life is art. It was either Marshall McLuhan or Andy Warhol who said that “art is anything you can get away with.”
I say art is anything the artist says it is and that everyone is an artist. Art doesn't have to be pleasant to look at if that's not the artist's message. But I want mine to be, and that's my only message. Art can be putting out a nice plate of cheese and crackers.