It’s no secret that Burlington is a creative community — this much can be understood by simply looking at jackets and backpacks Burlingtonians embellish with the Grateful Dead logo.
In an attempt to better understand Burlington’s artistic spirit, I reached out to a number of local artists and creators to get their insights on what makes Burlington’s art scene so special.
Creativity is displayed on every corner of this little city, which is home to a thriving, diverse and constantly evolving artistic community.
“What has remained the same over the last 30 years is that there’s always been this naive excitement, artists have been excited to create,” said Christy Mitchell, the south end’s S.P.A.C.E Gallery owner and founder.
During our interview, I found myself schmoozing with Mitchell in a conversation that felt more like a friendly chat over lunch than an interview.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the twelve studio spaces in the gallery where there lay a barely-organized cornucopia of brushes, paints, and papers.
They were scattered around a desk that was surrounded on all sides by massive, in-progress works of art.
Mitchell’s inclusion of artist studios in her gallery was in response to an epidemic of Burlington gallery closings due to of financial troubles.
Her solution to this problem was to use the rent she collected from the studio spaces to cover the overhead costs of keeping the gallery open.
“The art scene in Burlington seems positive and inclusive; I think the only problem is people not knowing about things going on,” Mitchell said.
With this model, her space is one that can stick around regardless of art sales, Mitchell said.
Local artist and sculptor, Beth Robinson, a self-proclaimed fan of the S.P.A.C.E. Gallery, praised Mitchell’s unique business model. Robinson has been exhibiting and working at the gallery since its beginnings in 2009, she said.
“Christy’s answer to the financial problems of a gallery was brilliant, it means she doesn’t need to display only commercially-viable art which opens up a lot more possibilities for people to express themselves,” Robinson said.
Her relationship with the S.P.A.C.E. became more unique during her second year at the gallery, when she began to curate an annual Halloween show.
Robinson’s first Halloween show consisted only of friends who were “dark artists,” a title she gave to others whose art explored horrific themes.
During her second year, Robinson opened the show up to submissions from the public, and received over 200 entries. The show grew in size and popularity each year, and is now consistently one of the S.P.A.C.E. Gallery’s most successful and lucrative events.
“It’s insane how excited people get about it,” Robinson said.
Another huge name in Burlington is the Burlington City Arts Center, a central institution in the community for artists and exhibitionists alike.
To get an insider’s perspective on the world of BCA, I sat down with local painter and UVM art professor Cami Davis.
“The community has exploded since I returned from graduate school in the early ‘80s,” Davis said. “Once upon a time, all the artists knew each other, it was such a small community.”
Davis’s view of the Burlington scene contrasted with the view of newer Burlingtonians.
They described the community as small and tight-knit. While described she said she thought of it as more of a large, creative, and diverse community.
I then asked Davis about her experience with exhibiting at BCA, a topic she seemed ecstatic to discuss.
“I found it to be one of the most interesting venues that I’ve ever participated in, mainly because it had such a sense of community,” she said of her recent installation at BCA: “Airs, Waters, Soils (Places).”
The installation displayed a series of jars filled with water, soil, stone and plant samples taken from Lake Champlain and its tributaries in an attempt to explore “issues pertaining to clean water in the Lake Champlain Basin,” according to Davis’ website.
The jars were accompanied by large, expansive paintings that used a color palette of earth and water tones in order to connect and interact with the water samples.
“To me, BCA is so effective in connecting artists to the community,” Davis said. After hearing such a favorable view of BCA, I met with the director and head curator of the gallery — Heather Ferrell — to see how she views BCA’s place in the Burlington community.
While exhibiting my power of terrible timing, I managed to meet with Ferrell three hours before her first ever opening reception for her exhibition.
Despite having tons of little things to fix before the big opening, she still made time to chat about her gallery and its place in Burlington’s tight-knit artistic community.
“The art scene is a thriving and vibrant hotbed of activity that’s very impressive for a city this size,” Ferrell said, “it’s one of the things that attracted me to this position and relocating my family here to Burlington.”
BCA makes numerous efforts to aid local artists and the community as a whole, she said.
“BCA helps artists with presenting exhibitions, supporting artists financially, helping sell their work, organizing off-site exhibitions and connecting artists and community,” Ferrell said.
Considering she is making so many efforts to help out other people in the community, it’s no surprise Ferrell said she felt the community feel made the art better.
“I don’t see this as a competitive environment, I see it as one that’s environmentally rich,” she said.
Upon arriving at the show that night, I saw just how tight-knit the Burlington arts community was.
On the first floor was a photography exhibition on the American South by Shane Lavalette entitled “One Sun, One Shadow.”
In the corner, I saw Lavalette discussing his work with a group of locals.
Wylie Sofia Garcia’s “With My Voice, I Am Calling You Home,” a painting exhibit that focused on themes of domesticity, meditation, and personal place-making occupied the gallery’s second floor.
A group of strangers were comparing the use of diverse arrays of color palettes throughout the paintings.
In the mixed-media show on the gallery’s top floor entitled “The Past Present” by Molly Bosley and Athena Petra Tasiopoulos, artists sought to explore humanity and its relationship with history.
Passionate discussions about the pieces and their possible meanings continued, and I ran into Mitchell, a pleasantly surprising crossing-of-paths that further illustrated just how tight-knit and interconnected the Burlington art community is.
After speaking with so many vital and active members of the Burlington arts community, attending a major artistic function and exploring a number gallery spaces I had never seen before, I can say with some confidence that the Burlington art community is truly as warm, inviting, tight-knit, and ambitious as everyone said.
Not once did any person I talked to mention ever feeling ostracized, intimidated, or unwelcome among their fellow artists.
Time and time again, I heard stories of being welcomed without question, consistently receiving support from fellow artists, and never sensing the slightest bit of competitive nature.
Our artistic community is not only something Burlingtonians should feel proud of, it’s a community we should give back to, a community we should support, and a community we should all strive to join.