Sue Higby has this to say about the “creative economy”: “All arts organizations are struggling, so the term is a little silly,” she opines. Higby should know: She’s director of Barre’s Studio Place Arts, an almost 7-year-old harbinger of the city’s current Renaissance. A member gallery and education center, the facility’s three floors are inventively curated, with rotating exhibits by mostly Vermont artists; smaller rooms are rented out as studios. Over the years, SPA has also become a popular venue for community events.
“What’s so great about Barre is, we’re a town that uses our hands — we’re all about handmade, from the stonecarving tradition to SPA and all of the wonderful artists in this part of the state.”
Higby says that the new restaurants, brewery, coffeeshop and bakery in town, opened by young entrepreneurs, further illustrate the creative . . . something. She also rejects the terms “urban renewal” and “gentrification,” with all their social and economic baggage. “Maybe we’re creating ‘downtownification,’” she suggests. “Downtowns are places where you can leave your car, stroll around and really enjoy a diverse selection of small businesses.”
Higby points out that Barre also still maintains the kind of core businesses that make a town function: “We have real jewelers who repair, a cobbler shop, two of the best hardware stores . . . it’s one of these old-time cities, with a lot of pride in workmanship. Some people,” she claims, “are calling Barre the ‘new Brooklyn.’”
Revitalizing a downtown is no simple project, Higby concedes, but she believes her town provides an example for other struggling communities in Vermont. “There’s excitement here about the regeneration,” she declares. “I’m kind of bursting with pride.”
The famous hardness of granite, and subsequent difficulty of working it, is an apt metaphor for Barre’s challenges. And nowhere is this better illustrated than at the Vermont Granite Museum. The facility itself, nestled between Rt. 302 and the Stevens Branch of the Winooski River at the “gateway” to Barre, is impressive for its sheer size alone: Once owned by the Boston-based Jones Brothers Company, it was the largest granite manufacturing plant in the world, serving an enormous monument business.
As its website suggests, grand plans have been drawn up for an exciting, state-of-the-art museum that would take visitors back in time, to Barre’s “granite capital of the world” heyday. The site also indicates the presence of a Stone Arts School, with a comprehensive curriculum aimed at teaching students each step of the granite-carving process.
But that website is outdated — one page refers to an art exhibit that closed in 2005. The museum’s progress appears to be in limbo, owing in large part to lack of funding. Board members have reportedly disagreed about what direction to take, particularly with the school — the industry-oriented training program no longer exists.
That’s the bad news. Here’s the good:
The Stone Arts School is back, with a new director, Jerry Williams, and an emphasis on its middle name: arts. Williams firmly believes a fine-arts school is the way to go. After all, imports are “killing the granite industry,” he points out.
“Before, it was more of a voc-tech model,” Williams says of the school’s previous incarnation. “What we’re going for now is . . . more along the lines of mid-career artists learning techniques they may not have learned before.” His only two students this summer illustrate the “practiced professionals” point: one is a portrait painter from Florida who had never done stonework before; the other is a Virginia sculptor whose previous work was in softer stone.
“Going from a softer material like marble to the hard stuff, granite — just that shift requires a different skill set,” Williams explains. And granite is the “outdoor medium of choice,” he adds. “We want to reincorporate it into landscape and architecture, to take it out of the cemetery and use it for artistic purposes. Not a lot of people are trained to do that.”
Asked whether he has in mind a center like the Carving Studio in West Rutland, Williams suggests the Stone Arts School is more “disciplined,” with a specific mission to teach figurative techniques. “Some people in the academy want to learn the fundamentals of sculpture, and the figure is the best place to start,” he says. “Once you’re confident with that, you can pretty much go off in any direction.”
Williams, 52, knows what he’s talking about. His private business, the Barre Sculpture Studios, has been around since 1985. His commissions have included everything from angel monuments, to giant granite teddy bears for a Dallas sculpture park, to massive linear abstractions, to functional pieces such as tables.
Williams says his core staff at the Stone Arts School comprises four or five instructors — “the local sculpture community within the industry.” He expects to eventually bring in other teachers for “more specialized things,” and to offer a full curriculum including modeling, casting and blacksmithing.
With instructors currently outnumbering students, Williams’ grand plans would seem to fly in the face of the granite museum’s obdurate challenges. “We’re at an embryonic stage, just setting up the infrastructure,” he acknowledges, but then insists, “The school will eventually be a destination. [Our student] from Florida said this place reminds him of Santa Fe 30 years ago. This could become a thriving arts center — we just have to keep plugging away.”
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