Vermont crafters open up their creating places

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane E. Foulds
Globe Correspondent / May 13, 2007

BRANDON, Vt. -- There's a surreal quality to Eleanora Eden 's teapots. With their undulating sides, you can almost picture them animated, dancing with a cup and saucer in a kitchen come to life. Galleries usually order them in the "striations" pattern, since it's one of the few Eden can produce in any quantity.

Her other pieces defy mass production. They are too complex, too difficult to replicate, too spontaneous. Her studio shelves hold "mountains of designs" that don't make it onto her website and "don't go to the craft shows," she says, all the more reason to go directly to her. Yet the post and beam house in Bellows Falls that she and her husband have been building for 20 years is so far off the beaten track that finding it can be a chore. So each spring, she plants signs at nearby intersections to guide visitors.

Eden is one of some 2,000 Vermonters who make a living from crafts. It's a solitary vocation, pursued in quiet, out-of-the-way locations. Getting exposure requires migrating to fairs, launching websites, and schlepping their work to market. So it seems fitting in a way that at least once a year, the market schleps to them.

On the last weekend in May , Vermont holds its annual Open Studio Weekend, a spring ritual that gives the public license to show up at private homes unannounced and glimpse a different mode of life.

"When you see a person's work in a craft gallery, you really don't get the whole picture," explains Martha Fitch , executive director of the nonprofit Vermont Crafts Council . "It's about how a person sets up a creative space. Just stepping into a studio really educates another person about what is possible."

The 350-member organization keeps an illustrated website for armchair travelers and issues a free indexed map with directions to 288 studios. However, many of the state's leading talents are not members and are not listed, though their welcome mats are also out.

The following artists, council members and not, fall into the "not to miss" category:

Robin Mix is a glass artist with an international reputation whose cane-embedded murrhini vases are in the permanent collections of several large museums. After studying in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden, Mix built a studio in an old Tunbridge farmhouse, only to have it burn to the ground about six years ago. He salvaged the brick exterior, rebuilt the interior, and continues to work in a setting he calls "one of the prettiest valleys in the state."

Al Stirt , something of a legend in woodworking circles, describes himself as a "bowl maker." He is often on the road teaching workshops and attending exhibits, and he disappears on month long canoe trips in Labrador and northern Quebec. His studio up north in Enosburg Falls is on a secluded dirt road, making the rare visitor all that more welcome.

Lucy Bergamini 's jewelry is peerless for its delicate latticino , a technique that turns beads into translucent, candy-cane-like gems filled with spiraling threads. She has moved her Vitriesse workshop into a renovated barn in the far reaches of West Pawlet , and expanded her line to vases and sculpture. Visitors can watch the glassblowing and browse the showroom for treasures.

"I'm not really accessible unless you have high clearance and four-wheel drive," she jokes, though the buyers keep coming. More recently Bergamini, 45, has been experimenting with mobiles, though they have sold so fast that she has been unable to get one photographed.

Michael Egan 's work has a similar Venetian flavor, yet his Plush Quartz Art Glass is easy to reach. Located on scenic Route 100 at the entrance to the Green Mountain National Forest, Egan's gallery makes a good destination for a beautiful drive, especially when the leaves are turning. His door is open weekdays except Tuesday; passersby can drop in and see his works or watch him blowing or stretching canes, the long ropes of molten glass that he fuses into vases.

In the easiest-to-find category are Sarah Ashe and Tom Dunne , who share a studio in Middlebury. In 1998, Dunne left his job running the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity to devote himself full time to making bowls from burls and exotic woods. (Husband and wife lived mostly in New Orleans until Katrina.) Ashe creates illuminated lamp sculptures from handmade paper, fragile forms that suggest the airiness of floating parachutes.

Judith Reilly is one of about 14 professional artists working in Brandon, arguably the epicenter of Vermont's crafts community. They exhibit in eight local galleries, a wealth of venues for a community of fewer than 4,000 residents. Reilly has converted part of her house into gallery space, where she displays her brilliantly hued fabric paintings. Most are town or country scenes with primitively lopsided houses.

Joan Curtis lives a block away in an art-saturated house that gives you a sense of the spirit that drives her iconoclastic, mixed-media sculptures.

"People come and see my work and say, 'Oh, you've spent a lot of time in Mexico and the Southwest, or in California,' " she said, "but in truth, I've never been there."

A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Curtis is "an inveterate art observer" and is inspired by strolling through museums.

Jen Violette blows bright contemporary glassware in simple opaque colors, usually with detailing in a single contrasting hue. After studying under pioneering American glassblower William Morris , she began experimenting in sculpture, making solid pieces like her classic pears, which look real enough to eat. Violette, who is building a studio out of her Wilmington barn, has pieces on display at the Vermont Welcome Center tourist area off Route 91 in Guilford.

You can find potter Natalie Blake in Brattleboro, a town that may be headed for its own creative renaissance. Plans are afoot for a downtown art center that will house a gallery, cafe, and studios for the many artisans in this southernmost corner of the state. Blake, who is leading the effort with glassblower Randi Solin , turns out sgraffito-etched porcelains in electric Mediterranean hues. The town will see "a big boom" in the next five years, she says, with festivals, exhibits, and performances year-round, an open studio that never shuts down.

Diane Foulds, coauthor of "Vermont: An Explorer's Guide " (Countryman, 2006), can be reached at dianefoulds@burling

If You Go

What to do

Open Studio Weekend
Over 260 locations across Vermont. May 26-27, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Shopping sampler
Eleanora Eden Studio
102 Hall Bridge Road, Bellows Falls
Hand-painted teapots and earthenware $50-$200.

Robin Mix
4 Cushman Road, Tunbridge
Glass art vases and sculpture $250-$2,500.

Alan Stirt
1267 Enosburg Mountain Road, Enosburg Falls
Bowls and platters. By appointment only. $200-$4,000.

Jen Violette
12 New England Power Road, Wilmington
Blown-glass vessels $25-$250, sculpture $600-$3,000.

Lucy Bergamini Vitriesse Glass
1258 Bett's Bridge Road, West Pawlet
Blown-glass jewelry, vessels, sculpture, and mobiles $30-$5,000.

Michael Egan Plush Quartz Glass
5523 Route 100, Granville
Glassblowing and cane-making demonstrations. Daily except Tuesday 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Sculpture, art glass, housewares, jewelry, and lighting $25-$1,000.

Sarah Ashe and Tom Dunne
36 South St., Middlebury
Lamps from handmade paper $170-500, turned wooden bowls $75-$5,000.

Judith Reilly
21 Conant Square, Brandon
Prints, cards, and fabric wall hangings $3.95-$1,800.

Joan Curtis
10 Union St., Brandon
Sculpture, figures, paintings, and drawings $100-$1,200, most averaging about $350.

Natalie Blake Studios
74 Cotton Mill Hill, A330 Brattleboro
Porcelain vessels with sgraffito decoration $200-$3,000, most $400-$800.

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