PEAKS, PASTURES, AND PERSERVERANCE
FROM ROUTE 15, JEFFERSONVILLE IS NOT PRETTY. Framed by abandoned silos in an empty field at one end and a cluster of gas-and-food stops at the other, it seems to say to the passing motorist: refuel, or just keep going. But venture in from the highway, and you will come upon what skiers and riders at nearby Smugglers' Notch would call a stash, albeit a cultural one. There on Main Street, seemingly against all odds, are two fine art galleries, the Bryan Memorial Gallery and Visions of Vermont.
Published in Vermont Life Magazine, Autumn 2011
Written by Susan Reid
How did this little arts haven come about? How did it take root in this decidedly remote part of the state, which is literally cut off on one side in winter when the Notch Road closes?
Look up to Mount Mansfield, Vermont's tallest peak, and over to the Sterling Range, and look to the rugged farms, open pasturelands and rocky brooks in the shadow of the mountains. Watch how the light plays on the slopes and fields, and you will have a sense of the pastoral tableau that has inspired artists for more than a century. The landscape around Jeffersonville -- Jeff to the 600 or so people who live there -- remains much the same today, and plein air artists continue to come, set up their easels and paint.
"It's all from the land," says Jane Shaw, co-owner of Visions of Vermont, which operates from the historic Varnum house on Main Street. "Landscape painters connect to the land around Jeff. This is the other side of the mountain -- it's not Stowe. This is where the painters paint."
SHAW IS PERHAPS TOO MODEST in giving all the credit to the land and painters. While she doesn't seek attention, Shaw herself is the central figure in the tale of the two Jeffersonville galleries; it is hard to see how it would have come about without her. Shaw grew up in Jeffersonville, where her father owned a construction company, and her family was acquainted with local artists such as Alden and Mary Bryan. But it wasn't until Shaw went away to Colby College in Maine to study art history that she grasped how many painters -- Emile Gruppe, Charles Curtis Allen and others -- were drawn to the landscape around Jeffersonville.
After graduation, Shaw worked in education and ran an import business that took her to such faraway places as Sri Lanka, but in 1980, she returned to Jeffersonville for good.
Her first foray into the art of Jeffersonville was an appreciation evening for Thomas R. Curtin, a family friend and painter who had died in 1977. Dismayed that nothing had been done to honor his work, Shaw went on a mission to gather about 100 of Curtin's paintings for a retrospective at a local inn. Largely a volunteer effort, the exhibit struck a chord with people in the community. Shaw remembers Alden Bryan being amazed at the response, and he started to see how the art that was created around Jeffersonville could be shown in Jeffersonville.
In 1984, Bryan opened a gallery on Main Street -- a tidy little building that he built in memory of his wife who had died six years earlier -- and the first curator at the Bryan gallery was Shaw. Around the same time, Shaw also "borrowed every cent" to purchase the Varnum house, a battered old century home a few steps down the street. When she bought the house, it had been vacant and unheated for four years. Shaw immediately set to work to restore it and soon opened an ice cream shop in the front parlor called Sweet Surrender. She covered the walls with art and sold Gruppe paintings along with ice cream. In the dining room, she opened a hair salon and rented space to a fledgling snowboard shop, called No School Snowboad Shop. Two upstairs apartments were created to add income, a patchwork of revenue streams that continues, with different pieces, to this day.
IN SOME WAYS, SPREADING THE WORD about art in Jeffersonville has become easier with time, largely because of the Internet. The Bryan, which Shaw ran for about two decades, now operates as a nonprofit. Supported by a strong cadre of volunteers, it exhibits more than 200 artists in revolving shows throughout the year.
The Visions of Vermont gallery, launched by Shaw in 2006, has grown to become practically a campus, including the original Varnum house, a restored carriage barn and a quirky "sugarhouse" replica. Mickey Myers, executive director of the Bryan since 2006, says the two galleries share a mutual respect and an understanding that, together, they make an arts destination.
Built with passion and perseverance, Jeffersonville's two fine art galleries are part of the fabric of the town now -- ennobling sentries on Main Street and a happy place for art lovers, artists and members of the community to congregate. Jane's husband, Terry, a ski instructor at Smugglers' Notch, often hosts apres-ski gatherings in the Visions of Vermont gallery, where the skiers, their spouses and children eat chili and socialize around the paintings of their beloved mountains. "We keep the spirit alive," says Jane. "Artists and skiers both feel it."