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  Issue Date: 5 / 2018  

A Cultural Retreat in the Green Mountains of Vermont

Iris Brooks


       About a year ago, I moved to a nature preserve in New York State. Along with the quiet–a perfect companion for creative and contemplative work–I observe the wild animals outside my windows. Some days there are families of deer basking in the sun, a solitary owl with a recognizable hoot, or squirrels gracefully leaping through the forest in acrobatic training for scampering in our ceiling, dancing with their acorns while displaying Olympic prowess. One day a group of wild turkeys stop their single-file procession with bobbing heads to luxuriate and dine in a patch of land, mingling with a clan of deer. It occurs to me there is no division between the territory for the turkeys and the deer. They just peacefully co-exist. And I wonder, why can’t humans emulate their wisdom?
        As our world becomes increasingly divisive with the concept of “us and them” growing to new heights, I retreat into the art world. And yet imaginative artists working in “fine arts” and others creative types exploring crafts are also often divided into categories. Is it naive to think of “creatives” (still not sure about the relatively new use of this word as a noun) as being branches of the same tree without segregation of art, design, and craft? I am musing over these questions as I head north for a cultural retreat in the Green Mountains of central Vermont, in the Mad River Valley, where pleasant encounters and unexpected new discoveries are a daily occurrence.
        People seem to take more time to talk to each other in Vermont. In my experience, they want to share stories, even if they are juggling three jobs to stay afloat and express their creativity. Dedication to an aesthetic approach to the world is paramount. This can be seen in walking around the small, historic villages of Waitsfield and Warren, where the predominance of artists and artisans is overwhelming.
        The Artisans Gallery, established in 1995 is a great place to get an overview of the local talent. Not concerned with boundaries of art and craft, they curate and exhibit over 175 artists in a gallery shop created as a collaborative venture by women who are artists with an impressive skill set. Today it is a place you can see handmade, ceramic birdhouses designed and constructed by Abby Dreyer as actual nesting boxes after extensive research about each bird. She explains: “I wanted to make beautiful houses that would be aesthetically appealing to people, but I also wanted to be conscientious and thoughtful towards the birds in hope that they would find them comfortable enough to nest in.”
        One of the other founding partners, Lori Holman Klein (who is also the buyer for the eclectic collection at The Warren Store, in a building dating back to 1839, when it was a stagecoach stop inn) introduces me to some of the high-quality pieces in the Artisans’ Gallery. It is hard to take it all in during one visit. The gallery exhibits stained glass by Terry Zigmund, who artfully incorporates copper wire trees and linoleum block printing with bold black-and-white lines capturing local scenes by Macy Moulton, who has a background in environmental science and visual art and is a participant in the Vermont Open Studio Weekend. Particularly striking are the iconic, wildlife photographs by retired naval aviator CJ Hockett. The Artisans Gallery is a place where you can find everything from a finely crafted wooden Vermont rolling pin and Alixandra Barron Klein’s clever, laser cut, inner tube jewelry using up-cycled bicycle tires to the moody, figurative paintings of Bill Brauer, inspired by Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology and motifs.
        Around the corner is the Mad River Glass Gallery and studio with an impressive body of work by Melanie and David Leppla. The extensive, evolved glasswork of this couple is highly recommended. Far from newbies, they have three decades of working with glass, assorted grants and fellowships from arts councils and centers, as well as prestigious museum shows. The Mad River Glass Gallery is housed in a spacious, well-lit facility on the Main Street of Waitsfield. The work is artfully displayed with informative signage explaining the significance of cairns–acting as guidance for pathways yet to be traveled–references to Norse mythology of acorns (placing an acorn on a windowsill is believed to prevent a house from being struck by lightning since Thor took refuge under an oak tree during thunderstorms), and Japanese inspired Kyoto lanterns, free blown and lit with a 25-watt bulb. The luminous colors, layered surface patterns, and elegant forms of their glass art exude a magnetic appeal. This studio and gallery is also part of the Vermont Open Studio Tours, which take place every spring (May 26 and 27, 2018) and fall (October 14 and 15, 2018).
        The concept of the Vermont Open Studio tour, hosted by the Vermont Crafts Council throughout the state, is to get behind the scenes and see how and where the artists work. Bright yellow signs indicate the studio sites for these self-guided tours, but there is also a free map, listing the participating studios. Sometimes the location is in the center of town as is the case with the Mad River Glass Gallery. Other times the studio is a chance to travel to an off-the-beaten path location, where visitors can interact with the artists at places like the Moosewalk Studio, outside of Warren, Vermont.
        The inviting setting of the Moosewalk Studios and Gallery in the downstairs of an artist residence adjacent to the Green Mountain National Forrest is a perfect space to view the wall art and then sit comfortably and chat with the artists. Gary Eckhart is an accomplished, internationally recognized, watercolorist, who focuses on the natural landscape and still life, capturing the rural beauty of Vermont and New England. His visually soothing pieces with masterful brushstrokes and attention to detail also elicit an emotional response. Originally he painted oils and because of an allergy, switched primarily to watercolors. His process involves sketching his subject matter, followed by a careful drawing on 300-lb., archival watercolor paper. His paintings come in a range of sizes, with the smallest being part of a body of work considered “whiskey paintings,” miniatures no larger than in 4” x 5.”
        Whiskey Painters of America often dip their brush into some form of alcoholic spirits in creating their watercolor art while sipping the alcohol during the creation of the piece. This exclusive group was formed in the 1950s with a limited membership of only 150 artists and Eckhart is the first and only member from Vermont. Whether creating a whiskey painting at a local watering hole with a miniature palette and brush, in the comfort of a studio, or plein air setting, the results are sought after from this club with members in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, who are told to “be proud of your creation” in their by-laws. In addition to his paintings, Gary Eckhart is active as a curator and with Valley Arts, the parent organization of the Vermont Festival of the Arts, which showcases the well attended, summer watercolor exhibition in the red barn adjacent to the popular restaurant, American Flatbread.
        Roarke M. Sharlow has been interested in photography since he was in elementary school, when he shot pictures with an Instamatic camera. He currently works digitally (avoiding toxic chemicals in the darkroom) with the aim of creating painterly digital images. Light, shadow, and textural embellishment from digital layering play an important role in his compositions, many of which focus on life in rural Vermont. Inspiration from the local environment is also key in the half-day workshops he offers, bringing participants out to photograph the natural world and old barns while training the eye with attention to both the overall scene and the details. Interested visitors can call the Moosewalk Studio to arrange for a photographic workshop.
        During the Vermont Open Studios, stained glass artist Andy O’Brien of the Luminous Moose also participates at the Moosewalk Studio with his colorful, small sun catchers, chimes, and compass roses. Traditionally used as a navigational tool, showing principle directions, the compass roses (or friendship stars) are emblems to help find your way in the modern world. O’Brien creates other pieces, drawing on the cosmic universe, such as one designed on Einstein’s birthday. Most of the larger stained glass pieces by Andy O’Brien are created as custom, commissioned works such as window transoms and panels, where he designs and selects colors according to the preference of his clients. For O’Brien, stained glass serves as a medium to balance his inner self with the outer world.
        Luke Iannozzi Pottery in the heart of Vermont’s Green Mountains (in between Waitsfield and Warren) specializes in both functional and decorative pots. If you are looking for a perfect, one-of-a-kind sushi platter with Zen-like brushwork, cheese plate, or a naked raku (slip resist) vase (he cautions not to put water in a raku pot), Luke’s studio is well worth a stop. By speaking directly with this inventive potter–who continues to evolve and experiment beyond typical crackle glazes–you can learn about how Iannozzi crafts his pots, with the addition of flour and sugar to create an interesting pattern of smoke, horsehair to create textured, swirling lines, or newspaper for a different patina. Some of his pots have fanciful names: Intelligent Life, How Did We Get Here - UFO, and Transition. Other refined raku pots bear emotive names such as Glimmer of Hope and Stress #3. Luke Iannozzi Pottery (where I was compelled to purchase a piece) takes part in the Vermont Open Studio tours and is also accessible for afternoon visits on most days.
        It’s difficult to believe the small, historic villages of the Mad River Valley in Vermont have a museum, let alone two of them worthy of a return visit. Not surprisingly, both are quirky and worth the trip. The Bundy Modern (4 miles south of Waitsfield) began as a country museum where the inside and outside mingle, bringing harmony and nature to a Bauhaus building with large windows, designed by Harvard-trained architect Harlow Carpenter in 1962. It was built with the accompaniment of a large sculpture garden (on the lawn and in the woods) to house the private collection of Carpenter. The structure later functioned as a progressive private school (1970 -1980) and then lay dormant for many years, before Wendell and June Anderson bought the neglected property and restored it, discovering outdoor sculptures in various states of decay and reclaiming some which had been used for target practice and others protectively stored in the barn at the Inn at Round Barn Farm. Wendell Anderson, who is not a formal gallerist, has plans to continue revitalizing the property, including sculpture walks on the inviting site, where visitors–after driving up a hill on a dirt road–exclaim OMG in response to their surprising first encounter with the Bundy Modern.
        The Bundy now hosts seasonal exhibits often on the cusp, straddling modern, contemporary, and popular art like the sculptural furniture of Johnny Swing with couches constructed from welding coins together, chairs made from oversized tacks, and sculptures incorporating smashed toasters. The upcoming exhibit is a father/daughter show titled, “Fragmented.” It will showcase work of British artists Jessica Craig-Martin and Sir Michael Craig-Martin, featuring portraits of conspicuous consumption. But the exhibit space is not limited to one large inner gallery. The expansive grounds (think mini-Storm King Art Center in Cornwall, NY), set on a plateau with mountain views, showcases large-scale, mid-century sculptures, some which were on the grounds when Wendell and June Anderson purchased the property in 2014 and others which have since been returned.
        The Madsonian Museum of Industrial Design on Bridge Street in the village of Waitsfield is a surprise on every level. This industrial design collection is in a one-of-a-kind, funky museum celebrating and appreciating design not just for its aesthetic sense, but also from a larger perspective. The sign welcoming museum visitors, reads: “It is becoming more and more important to think carefully about how we as a civil society use our resources. By making the everyday beautiful and well designed, and by recognizing and valuing that effort, we can reduce our throw-away culture and become one that surrounds ourselves with beauty, thoughtfulness and art.”
        The idea of surrounding ourselves with “beauty, thoughtfulness, and art” truly resonates with me and I become curious about the founder of the museum. He is world-class, visionary architect David Sellers, known for his improvisational, design-build approach and community related design, featuring cutting-edge, sustainable technology. This Yale-trained architect started the Madsonian to honor the best in industrial design and includes work by Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, and Eero Saarinen along with well-designed utilitarian objects from yesteryear in a mid-19th century home, which once belonged to a blacksmith.
        Wandering through the Madsonian, I alternate between feeling the nostalgia of an adult and the enthusiasm of a playful kid. There are classic toys from my childhood: Lincoln logs, Lego, and Tinkertoy, along with a scooter and sleds through the decades. Pioneer of America Industrial Design postage stamps have images of old telephones, sewing machines, typewriters, and cameras as well as actual irons, a coin-operated jukebox, pencil sharpeners, a giant spool of gum wrapper chains, and a full-size, fire engine red, old-time gas pump. My partner Jon is fascinated by the variety of vehicles. He appreciates the cars (especially the1934 Chrysler Airflow), motorcycle (1970 BMW with a Jawa sidecar), boat (vintage, aluminum Feather Craft), as well as a huge wooden vane from a wind turbine propeller. Another room in the historic building houses 3-D orbs of energized forms of light by artist Bill Parker. When touched, the patterns and shapes of light within the sculpture shift. These interactive artworks are mesmerizing. And touching the objects–which is a counter-intuitive experience for most museum encounters–is both refreshing and stimulating for the body and one’s inner being.
        For those who remain curious about well-designed objects from our past, the Madsonian Museum website is a place for additional exploration. The museum blog ponders things ranging from the history of the clothespin to the design of the relatively new, one hundred dollar bill. Or follow the work of Sellers, an architect who has collaborated with Patch Adams and the Cousteau Team, building eco-villages and medical clinics around the globe. Sellers, who has developed advanced concepts for pedestrian villages believes the door of a building should convey as much information as the whole structure. He continues to create work to stimulate our imagination with his efficient, House of the Future (also known as the Home Run House), a sustainable, net-zero “smart” structure with geothermal heating, flexible walls, windows, and moveable closets in a concrete and glass structure designed to last 500 years. It is a reminder that Vermont is a state where more than the mountains are green, and sustainability is important.
        In addition to food for thought, the Mad River Valley also has good food to eat. There is a range of excellent dining options beginning with the multi-course, homemade breakfast served for guests at the Inn at the Round Barn Farm. Special dietary needs are catered to as guests gather in the historic, cheerful dining room, which once served as a bullpen to the adjacent dairy barn. The varying gourmet offerings, listed on a blackboard include moist buttermilk pancakes with fruit compote (apricots, apples, and cherries) drizzled with Vermont maple syrup, huevos rancheros served with the option of housemade Habanero sauce, delicious roasted delicata squash as a side, and scrumptious scones, chocolate cinnamon one day or asiago cheese and herb the next. The board also lists the local weather and nearby suggested events such as an afternoon visit to the Mad River Taste Place featuring satisfying sweet and savory samples of Vermont products such as Jasper Hill cheese (brie-style wrapped in spruce), Quayls’ Chocolates (handmade in small batches in nearby Warren), and Ariel’s Honey Infusions (sustainably harvested and infused with organic herbs in winning flavor combinations such as chai).
       Other surprising finds for tasty fare include the Tucker Hill Inn and Mint. The friendly Tucker Hill offers dining by the roaring fire in their recently remodeled dining room accented with overhead wood beams or in the cozy downstairs pub, where the same menu is available. We appreciated the farm fresh mixed green salad, followed by the cauliflower “steak” layered with raisins, nuts, and an assortment of rainbow-hued vegetables, atop an aromatic Madras curry sauce. Succulent, roasted Brussels sprouts accompanied the seafood special of broiled brook trout. And a nicely textured, maple crème brûlée completed the meal.
       Mint Restaurant and Tea Lounge is a new, vegetarian eatery located in downtown Waitsfield, not far from the iconic covered bridge. The simple, relaxed ambiance with curly willow branches on the walls along with unexpectedly nourishing and tasty dishes–falafel salad with shaved cabbage, cilantro and lime followed by a ginger stir fry with a gentle sweet and sour glaze–make it great for casual dining. The owner is also active in IDEAS by Cognitive Studios, a hub for creativity with an aim of limitless learning, offering classes, presentations, conversations, and workshops with topics ranging from bookbinding to big Pharma.


        The Inn at the Round Barn Farm has much to boast about. The historic 1910 round barn–one of about seven surviving in Vermont from the original two dozen–has been lovingly restored. This Shaker-designed dairy barn once served as a milking parlor (1910-1969) while today the versatile space is a sought-after venue for celebrations, concerts, and community events. The tasteful country inn offers guest rooms filled with character (many with 4-poster beds, botanical prints, gas fireplaces, and books about Vermont) along with acres of adjoining land for hiking, snowshoeing, and photographing the landscape. The welcoming innkeeper staff successfully navigates the fine balance between providing information and privacy for the guests.
        Whether or not you agree with the Shakers and Quakers, who considered the circle as the most perfect formation for sewing, singing, and praying, the round barn is a vanishing landmark filled with New England charm. Driving up to the cheerful, yellow round barn and historic farmhouse converted into this appealing inn makes me smile. I take pleasure in the Inn at the Round Barn Farm on an aesthetic level, appreciating the proximity to Waitsfield and Warren, reveling in it as a home base to encounter art, architecture, and artisans in this creative community, while remembering the belief of the Shakers about round barns: “the devil can’t catch you in the corners.”
        Artisans’ Gallery
        The Bundy Modern
        Luke Iannuzzi Pottery
        Mad River Glass
        Madsonian Museum of Industrial Design
        Moosewalk Studio & Gallery
        Valley Arts/ Festival Gallery
        Warren Store Vermont
        Inn at the Round Barn Farm
        Mad River Taste Place
        Mint Restaurant and Tea Lounge
        Tucker Hill Inn
        Mad River Valley Vermont Chamber of Commerce
        Vermont Crafts Council

Iris Brooks–a longtime contributor to the World & I and many other publications– often reports on culture and travel with stories about prisoners in Palau carving wooden storyboards, water puppets in Vietnam, handicrafts in Ecuador, sacred rhythms in Bali, an arts festival in Tasmania about island cultures, and architectural adaptation in Iberia. She collaborates with imaginative photographer/videographer Jon H. Davis and their work can be viewed on the NORTHERN LIGHTS STUDIO website,
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