After two weeks of Biblical rain, it's nice to be reminded why we live in Vermont, and this past weekend, some 300 hospitable artists, and seductively sunny skies, collectively did just that. It's too early to know if the Vermont Craft Council's Open Studio Weekend was a success for its participants -- typically, some artists get a trickle of visitors, others a steady stream.
In the latter camp, by her own report, was Fran Bull of Brandon. The former New Jersey resident -- a painter, sculptor, theater-set designer and singer -- has created her own slice of heaven on 200 acres in Vermont. Her lovely Gallery in-the-Field is just a year old, and to discover it is to be smitten. A bit north of town on Arnold District Road, the combination studio and gallery sits in the middle of, yes, a field, and its 360-degree pastoral view is unmarred by development -- so far. Bull's capacious studio and slightly smaller gallery are both graceful post-and-beam structures à la Monitor barn, a paean to and update on Vermont's classic rural architecture. The height of the roofline and clerestory windows suggest "cathedral," except the rooms are light, airy and white-walled. This is a place devoted to the glory of art, not religion.
But two shrine-like structures in the wide entry/hallway invite genuflection: Salvaged wood dormers, about 4 feet tall, are fashioned into retables and painted metallic gold; each frames a rustic Madonna and Child made from papier-mâche and fabric. The backgrounds are painted blood red. Bull created these structures, and the three enormous panels currently displayed in the gallery, for the set of Carmen produced last year by the Opera Company of Middlebury.
The acrylic-and-ink paintings, approximately 11 feet high and 7 wide, look as if their dramatic colors -- predominantly gold, fiery reds and black -- were the results of explosions rather than brushstrokes. "I worked on all three at once on the floor of my studio," reveals Bull. "I started with big rollers and added pigments to the wet ground . . . the paint kind of runs and pools and makes its own picture. You feel like a force of nature."
Indeed. In the language of abstract art, Bull's works convey the passion that Carmen director Doug Anderson was going for. In a written statement for the gallery, he explains: "I asked her for heat, sexuality, terror, raw beauty, tenderness and murder, sunsets and festivals . . . that inexplicable thing we'll call Spain." She delivered.
Included in the exhibit are two eye-level rows of color stills from Carmen by Middlebury photographer Ernie Longey. A videotaped version plays on a TV screen, broadcasting Bizet's emotive score throughout the building. Nearby, a mannequin models Carmen's red-and-black costume, created by Debra Anderson; she's positioned beside a baby grand piano, awaiting her aria -- if only she weren't headless.
Middlebury-born soprano Meredith Parsons McComb played Carmen last year. She'll have a different singing gig when the Opera Company of Middlebury puts on A Dinner Engagement in the gallery June 15 through 18. Bull, a mezzo-soprano, will also have a role in the comic opera by Sir Lennox Berkeley. Picnic lovers, take note: The grounds will be available before each performance, and those who don't feel like making sandwiches can order gourmet boxed meals from Chef Robert Barral, of Brandon's Cafe Provence.
This multimedia presentation is a win-win for both the opera company -- which needs alternative venues while Midd's Town Hall Theater is under restoration -- and Gallery in-the-Field. Undoubtedly a welcome facility in Addison County, the rooms can accommodate much more than two-dimensional exhibits. And Bull, gifted in music and visual arts, is an accommodating hostess for both.
Back in her studio, she's absorbed in a new project that could hardly be more different, called "A Hundred Howling Heads." At the moment the work-in-progress consists of narrow, highly expressive faces, about 10 inches high, made with Crayola modeling material and mounted on wooden dowels. Though in various colors now, they will ultimately be painted to look like cast bronze, Bull explains, and given spindly bodies. "The idea is a Greek chorus, maybe wailing, maybe singing," she says. "It has to do with lamentations for the time we're in."