Approximately 30 artists and representatives of art organizations gathered on April 29 at Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts in Brattleboro to share ideas about the local art scene.
Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons
Approximately 30 artists and representatives of art organizations gathered on April 29 at Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts in Brattleboro to share ideas about the local art scene.

N.H. artists take a field trip to Brattleboro

A group of 30 visitors hear a range of artists and arts entrepreneurs describe the successes and challenges of making a living in the creative economy — and building a creative community

BRATTLEBORO — Making art can be a lonely business. So what do most artists want? As it turns out, it's a sense of community.

That was the driving consensus of the 30 artists from Windham County in Vermont and southwestern New Hampshire who came together at Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts at 183 Main St. on a wet Saturday morning to sample delicacies, learn about new opportunities to show their work, and to schmooze. Definitely, to schmooze.

The Artist-to-Artist Field Trip was organized by Arts Alive, a nonprofit organization based in Keene, New Hampshire whose mission is to “support, grow, and connect a sustainable arts landscape in the Monadnock region.”

The gathering included an afternoon printmaking workshop with Daniel Chiaccio of First Proof Press, who has an artist's printmaking shop on the basement level of the building, which has become its own nexus for the arts.

Among the 19 New Hampshire artists were several painters, a water colorist, a filmmaker, an illustrator, a musician and bandleader, a photographer, an “arts appreciator,” a sculptor, a poet, a ceramicist, a few arts administrators, and an art therapist.

They were seeking fellowship, but also new markets for their art.

“As an artist, I'm always looking for places to show my sophisticated yet whimsical work,” said painter Soosen Dunholter of Peterborough, New Hampshire. “I've maxed out my own community. Everyone there already has a piece of my art.”

Creating a scene

The artists first filled their cups with coffee or tea, piled plates with quiche, croissants, and other delicacies, sat in a large circle, and introduced themselves to the executive directors of several successful Brattleboro arts organizations.

These included Petria Mitchell and Jim Giddings of the host gallery, Teta Hilsdon of Wheelhouse Clay Center, Jamie Mohr of Epsilon Spires, Kay Curtis of the Harmony Collective, Emily Wagner of In-Sight Photography Project, and Joshua Farr of the Vermont Center for Photography.

Each was keen to point out that collectively, they represent a center of successful arts economic activity in downtown Brattleboro, which also includes HatchSpace for woodworking, the Brattleboro School of Dance, the print shop, and several other galleries.

“We're all in this triangle, this creative triangle, which has its own traction,” Mitchell said. “I think we're all just becoming really aware of it and understanding that we need to utilize it, whether it's co-advertising or something else.”

She began by pointing out that she and her husband, Giddings, both still have careers as painters. And that both of them had had long careers with the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.

“So I said to Jim, 'OK, let's see if opening a gallery would work after retiring from the museum after 32 years,'” Mitchell said. “And he said, 'Absolutely not!' And I said, 'OK.'”

But, Mitchell continued, “We did it!”

In 2014, Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts was born. “It started as a collective, but that ended in about three weeks,” Mitchell said.

“So we're what's referred to as a commercial gallery. And it's going OK. We have about 30 to 32 artists who we're working with. And we have a rotating schedule of our exhibitions. The last couple of months, we've decided to do a bunch of group shows, so everybody can have some airtime.”

The joy for both Mitchell and Giddings comes from working with other artists.

“We understand how to bridge both worlds,” she said. “We worked with a lot of commercial galleries before we decided to open one. We know what the drawbacks and beauties are of trying to be professional artists and wearing all these different hats. Yes, it's nuts. But we love what we're doing.”

Mitchell acknowledged that Brattleboro was currently having a hard time.

“With the people who have businesses, everybody's trying to do succession planning,” she said. “And that's something I think about a lot and talk to people about. And yes, Brattleboro is taking a really big hit from the economy.”

But, she said, “there are so many artists in this town who are also collectors, it is a real honor to know that we're all kind of swimming the same water.”

One-woman show

Mohr introduced Epsilon Spires, the former First Baptist Church, at 190 Main St., as a gallery space with studio spaces and a performance space. It screens films, hosts music events, and holds gallery shows. Seventeen artists, whose mediums range from “jewelry design to watercolors to writing,” are currently working in the building.

The nonprofit's only employee, Mohr said that the organization's website is incredibly important.

“We're primarily an event-based venue,” she said. “I designed our website and I manage our website, which is a job in itself. But I find that having a website as an event-based venue has been incredibly important because we get people from as far away as Philadelphia coming to some of our events.”

She described some of those events as “kind of unusual and niche, but people who are into it are really into it.”

“They are willing to travel and want to check it out in a small town and see what that's like,” Mohr said. “So having that web presence is really important for outreach.”

Being online gives Epsilon Spires an international component.

“International artists approach me about showing work here,” Mohr said. “Just having that online presence, keeping it up to date, keeping it dynamic, keeping an eye on Google stats, on who's visiting from where, how much time they're spending, which events they're paying attention to, which pages they're spending more time on, has been really important for us.”

But one complication is that Epsilon Spires “also opened in 2019, right before the pandemic,” she added. “So we're still establishing our identity as a venue.”

The venue, of course, had to close for the pandemic. But ingenuity took over.

“We had a virtual platform where we we were able to orchestrate virtual screenings,” Mohr said. “Before people were exhausted from Zoom, we did some Zoom meetups, where people could discuss the films that they'd seen with the director, or with someone knowledgeable about the subject.”

At Epsilon Spires, “we were trying to create a space where there wasn't one, where people could come together and discuss art or have cultural experiences,” she said. “In a way, the pandemic forced me to pay more attention to the potential for virtual platforms. So it's another tool in the toolbox.”

Mohr told the visiting artists to walk up High Street and see the mural that Epsilon Spires helped facilitate.

“That was a collaboration between Epsilon Spires and the [First Proof Press] printmakers downstairs, and also some new Afghan artists who have moved to the area, muralists who were part of the ArtLords movement,” she said. “And it was a really exciting way to change and rethink our public spaces.”

She described that “very long-form project” - one that required the artists “to execute a mural that's basically the size of a football field” - as “not easy to get the permits, or to raise the money.”

But, Mohr said, “it was something that really inspired so many people in this town about how we can re-envision our spaces and work with others to create something beautiful.”

Something old, something new

Farr, speaking about the nonprofit Vermont Center for Photography, said it was now celebrating its 25th year. Once in a small space on Flat Street, VCP has expanded and now is downtown off High Street. He and an operations manager work full-time, alongside a half-time development director and a number of board members and volunteers.

“Covid was an interesting opportunity for us to really sort of slow down and think about where we wanted to be and what we wanted to be and how we wanted to do it,” Farr said.

The pandemic “gave us an opportunity to raise some money and build out this new space,” he said. “So we have two exhibition spaces, we have a gallery that's a mixture of solo exhibitions and group exhibitions and various things.”

VCP also offers the Print Gallery, which he described as “actually just a sheet metal wall with unframed prints that we made with magnets,” which Farr described as “a quick, easy, accessible, affordable way of showing a cohesive body of work by one artist for a month.”

The nonprofit also offers a publicly accessible digital lab, as well as a traditional darkroom, “spaces that folks can come use,” he said. “You don't have to be a member. Anyone can use this lab.”

And VCP is well-known for PhotoThrift, a thrift store of donated photography equipment of varying vintage.

“We can take anything and everything even remotely related to photography,” Farr said. “There's a lot of stuff out there that has been sitting in people's garages and attics for several decades. Our goal is to try to get some of that put back into use.”

VCP does artists talks, including “photo slams,” where 12 to 15 artists sign up to show 20 images to an audience for 20 seconds each.

“We also have portfolio reviews and different kinds of membership options,” he added. “We're woefully understaffed, but it's kind of full steam ahead.”

Next, Walker spoke about In-Sight Photography, which teaches photography to young people between the ages of 11 and 18. Walker said the organization, now in its 30th year, has been reinventing itself.

“Thirty years ago it was a radical idea to put a camera in the hands of a kid,” she said. “Now every kid has a camera in their hands.”

In-Sight's mission is to remain accessible.

“So we have a sliding scale fee structure for our classes, we provide all of the equipment, we go out to local elementary schools and provide actual classes free of charge,” Walker said.

“We also try to hold as many free arts events and opportunities to show your work in the gallery as we possibly can,” she added, acknowledging that she is not a photographer but an artist and educator.

“And so for me, advocating for the arts and opportunities is super important,” she said. “That's how I got into this work.”

Next was Hilsdon, who said that “Brattleboro just has a tsunami of clay interest.”

Forty years ago, she helped found Brattleboro Clayworks, which is a collective of 10 members. She remained a member for five years and left for other work. Then, three years ago she helped found Wheelhouse Clay Center with her business partner, Shari Zabriskie.

Wheelhouse is a privately owned, for-profit business. Its main business is providing studio rentals to people who already know how to do clay.

The space at 48 Harmony Place has three kilns and studios, where people can come and work with clay or take classes.

“I have been a potter for a long time, although it's usually not how I made my living,” Hilsdon said. “But you need a studio if you're going to be a potter.”

She observed that “plenty of people can make pots at home on their kitchen tables, but they don't have a kiln,” and that the messy task of mixing glazes is “not the typical homeowner thing to do.”

“So that's why people who love clay need a studio,” she said. “And that's our main business: providing rentals to people who already know how to work with clay. But we also teach.”

She added that “knowing that the town has a lot of pottery interests here, it was a business opportunity as well as a sense of mission to bring clay to the people.”

Hilsdon and Zabriski, both professional potters, found a space off the Harmony Lot that they could afford.

“It's a basement-level space, 3,800 square feet, pipes covering the ceilings, and all of those pipes have leaked,” she said. “That's why we can afford it.”

Hilsdon said that she and Zabriski “created a business that had accessible class prices and studio rentals. So we come to the business with trying to give people different ways of entering into the clay arts.”

Pulling together

The last speaker was Curtis, who said she has been an artist her whole life. But when she came to Brattleboro from California, she found that she “couldn't make the kind of money I needed to support my three kids here in Brattleboro.”

So she started the Harmony Collective and found the perfect formula to make it succeed.

“There is an initial $200 fee you pay to come in, and then you pay $60 a month,” Curtis said. “And then the gallery takes 15% of sales.”

In addition, members are also expected to work at least eight hours per month in the gallery, “taking care of the space and of customers,” according to the collective's website.

That formula, she said, covers the rent, the electricity, and “anything that comes up.”

“It amazingly worked,” Curtis said. “We were able to pay our rent each month. It's actually such a perfect formula that I never think about money. It always works.”

The collective gallery has 33 members who have formed not only a business relationship but “an experiment in community.”

“Everybody is in that gallery so that they can have a group of other artists to hang out with,” Curtis said. “People have met best friends. They plan things. They've taken trips to foreign countries together. All kinds of crazy things have happened because people met each other in that group of 33 people.”

If one artist leaves, another one “organically” takes their place, she said.

“Our 33 artists are generally people who would not be in a fancy gallery,” Curtis said. “We have a woman with cerebral palsy who paints with a stick attached to her forehead. And she sells some stuff every day. She's very popular.”

Among the members are artists with disabilities who are unable to fulfill the work requirement, “so other people cover for them on the desk,” she added.

“We're watching people come in and learn how to be artists,” Curtis said. “So when somebody comes in and the work is not framed well, we can gently push them along, like, 'Here's where you can find inexpensive frames if that's all you can afford.' It's not just me, it's everybody in the group advising everybody else in the group on how they can cause themselves to have better sales.”

At the end of the morning, satisfied and knowing much more about Brattleboro, the New Hampshire artists moved downstairs to make prints while the Brattleboro participants rushed to open their galleries and workspaces.

'Getting back together with other people'

The field trips are the project of Arts Alive's Nina Taylor Dunn. She began them in January with a trip to Dublin and Peterborough in New Hampshire, then continued the next month with a trip to the Keene Public Library, which has a makerspace. That event drew 20 artists.

The March field trip, to Jaffrey, New Hampshire, drew only about two or three people, but that was on a workday, Taylor Dunn explained. This was the artists' first foray across the river.

Jessica Gelter, the executive director of Arts Alive, said the trips came out of a survey Arts Alive had done after the pandemic.

“Before the pandemic, we were doing artists-to-artists workshops, where we gather artists at a venue and have a presenter teach some arts-business skills,” said Gelter, a Brattleboro resident. “It was pretty formal. Then the pandemic happened, and we started doing them virtually.”

This fall, Arts Alive “decided to survey our arts community and see what they wanted or needed for their practice to evolve up or improve or get back to what they wanted it to be,” she continued. “And one of the things we heard loud and clear was that people just really wanted to get back together with other people.”

That's when Taylor Dunn had the vision of doing arts field trips, Gelter said.

“It was her idea to make them casual and create an atmosphere that would feed people,” she said. “We stripped away some of the formality and the classroom persona.”

The workshops always include a tech activity like the First Proof Press visit, “so folks can get their hands dirty and enjoy their creative selves with other people,” Gelter continued.

“Our hope, really, is that folks get to connect with new folks and new resources, all at the same time,” she said.

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