The moment you step into the Brandon Artists’ Guild gallery, the sense of creative connectivity is palpable. On one wall, there’s Liza Myers’ painting of a nest full of eggs; on the opposite — caught in flight on Michael Kin’s canvas — are the birds that could have left the eggs behind. And it appears those birds are headed into the misty watercolor landscapes of Bonnie Baird, which hang nearby.
On any given day, each of the guild’s 63 juried artists is represented in the roughly 3500-square-foot cooperative gallery in downtown Brandon. And that apparently makes for a hotbed of inspiration.
“I walk around here and steal all over the place,” jokes internationally known folk artist and Brandon resident Warren Kimble, an energetic 75-year-old with Harry Potter-style glasses. He’s quick to clarify that it’s only ideas he’s stealing, of course, not physical works of art. “Not copying, but, like, ‘Wow, I can take that and use it in my own work,’” Kimble says.
He’s earned the right to make such jokes. Kimble has given more to this gallery — and to the town — than even he cares to admit.
He says it was luck that the guild managed to blossom in a once-rundown bedroom community for Rutland, and it’s partially true: Some good timing was involved. In the late ’90s, when Kimble and a handful of other local artists were angling for a gallery space, a longtime Brandon property owner suddenly left town, freeing up more than 50 pieces of inexpensive real estate and attracting a fresh batch of newcomers to the area.
“The stars came together,” says Jeff Stewart, president of the artists’ guild. “But were it not for Warren, this just wouldn’t have happened.”
That’s because, in 1999, Kimble had a fortuitous encounter with the president of the First Brandon Bank outside a former five-and-dime on Center Street. The bank had just bought the place and planned to use it for storage. Kimble sensed an opportunity.
He started small, asking if a few artists might be allowed to use the windows to display their work. The bank president said, “Sure,” and Kimble probed a little more. “Well, could you push your storage in the back and let us use the front?” The bank president agreed.
So, with the front half of a building, a $5000 loan from the Chamber of Commerce, a bunch of pegboards and some cheap lighting, Kimble and crew created a gallery and named their group the Brandon Artists’ Guild. By 2003 they had enough support from the community to launch their first town-wide art project, “The Really, Really Pig Show.” Suddenly, residents and visitors were looking at 40 fiberglass pigs that had been painted and styled by guild artists, area school children and other locals. The show drew unprecedented attention to the Brandon arts scene.
Auctioning off those pigs drew in enough money for the guild to buy back the building from the bank and donate to arts education in the area.
“The pigs bought the building,” Kimble says. “And then every other town decided to do it, too, which was great. Ludlow did llamas and Bennington did moose and Woodstock did sheep.”
Brandon made a tradition of its townwide art project, decorating its streets each year with oversized rocking chairs, birdhouses, cats and dogs or stars. This year the town is planning to pepper the neighborhood with painted sunflowers.
The BAG gallery’s current exhibit is called “‘It was THIS big…’ the one that got away” and features guild artists’ work on the themes of fishing and exaggeration.
These days, at least one of the artists is always on hand in the gallery — since the guild is an entirely volunteer operation, members are encouraged to take shifts. Plus, their commission from sales increases commensurately with the hours they put into the organization’s various endeavors. Since its inception, the group has aimed to give back to the community, offering salons, lectures and potlucks. Its artists also teach classes at the local Boys’ & Girls’ Club and in afterschool programs.
The cooperative nature of the guild means artists are often bouncing ideas off one another. This is especially true for the dozen who have adjacent studios in the granary building just down the road from the gallery. Maybe that’s why seeing their artworks on display together feels like walking in on a conversation among friends.
“We see each other passing in the night,” Kimble says. “We grow from each other.” Decades into his own career, he says the vibrant artists’ community in Brandon got him trying new things, setting aside the whimsical paintings of cows and chickens that brought him success and trying his hand at larger, more abstract paintings of bones, shells and suns.
The other day, Kimble notes, fellow painter and guild member Michael Kin popped by his studio and was surprised to see the folk artist working on giant paintings.
“He said, ‘Wow, you’re doing big stuff!’” Kimble recalls. “And I said, ‘Mike, I got that from you.’”