The landscape of Addison County has long been admired by locals and visitors alike. Now four artists have created a Middle-bury gallery exclusively dedicated to it. Painters Douglas Lazarus, Jake Geer and Robert Popick and photographer Trent Campbell opened the Art Studio Gallery last weekend. It is located in a house built in 1787 by another painter -- that is, Gamaliel Painter, a captain in the Revolutionary War.
Painter was also a founder of Middle-bury College and a delegate to the convention of 1777 that declared Vermont an independent republic. Today his old house is a beautifully restored wood-frame Cape at 7 Seymour Street, just a few dozen yards from the heart of the village.
The Art Studio Gallery foursome has ideal surroundings upon which to lavish their aesthetic affections. Addison County boasts some of the most dramatic views of the Champlain Valley, as well as tidy dairy farms, Otter Creek and the New Haven River, picturesque old mills, five covered bridges, wetlands alive with winging ducks... and just about any other subject a Vermont landscape artist could possibly desire. In a recent interview with the Addison County Independent Lazarus said of the area's newest attraction, "It's one of the only galleries I know of that specifically celebrates the locale in which it is situated."
He probably should have acknowledged various galleries in, say, Provincetown, Santa Fe and Paris; nevertheless, Middle-bury certainly deserves to be added to that list. It's also a popular destination for leaf peepers, fly fishermen and well-heeled alums of the college -- another plus for the gallery's location.
If there is a new idea associated with Art Studio Gallery, it might be faith in the premise that a group of artists can get along well enough to mind their own store. It's not uncommon for craftspeople to have full-time galleries attached to their studios, but few fine artists are humble enough to take that approach. Lazarus, Geer, Popick and Campbell are all highly skilled and well established in their genres, yet they are working together rather than in competition. They appear to genuinely respect each other and are co-promoting each other's work. That's a breath of fresh air also worth celebrating.
Photographer Trent Campbell estimates that over the last 10 years he has traveled 30,000 miles crisscrossing Addison County -- whose area is 818 square miles -- in his quest for engaging images. Besides his fine-art work, he has logged miles as a photojournalist for the Addison County Independent. He has both color and black-and-white work in the gallery. "Spring Snow" portrays a bicycle lying on the ground covered by the white stuff. Campbell has focused on the back wheel, frame and seat with a sophisticated composition of askew triangles and semicircles. About two inches of damp, clinging snow enshroud the bicycle, making its details loom large over the soft white background.
The vibrant colors of "Water Fall" are a startling contrast to the black and white of "Spring Snow." The water is an electric blue, and a crimson maple leaf floats on the water's placid surface. The photo's title is a puckish bit of irony; Campbell's reference to fall means very late in autumn, as the dark reflections of totally denuded trees are seen as silhouettes beneath the bright red leaf.
Although Lazarus bristles at being compared to modern photorealists, his paintings display the same sort of exactitude for which urban photorealists like Richard Estes are known. Lazarus might prefer to be compared to 19th-century realists, such as Thomas Eakens, who were ostensibly less reliant on photography. However, since the advent of the camera obscura 400 years ago, mechanical techniques have assisted the rendition of realism. Lazarus has attained the same degree of accuracy in many of his works, regardless of how he achieved it.
"Swimming Hole, New Haven" has a no-nonsense approach to light that is razor-sharp and has none of the romantic impulses found in neoimpressionist work. The bathers in "Swimming Hole" are likewise completely naturalistic. Lazarus is supremely confident in rendering the effects of light on water and has earned an international reputation for it. In 2001 Waterways Trust Scotland enlisted him to complete a series of oils examining that country's canals. Last year he was commissioned to complete a series of views of New York's historic Erie Canal as it appears today.
Although Popick's "View of Thompson's Point" portrays a bit of Chittenden County real estate, it was no doubt captured from a vantage point in Addison County. He's been painting in the Champlain Valley for more than 30 years and is a substantial watercolorist. "Thompson's Point" is a large-scale watercolor with superb transitions of intensity. The foreground is somewhat dark, punctuated by patches of light in meadows and on a farmhouse. The lake has a whitish glimmer, and the Adirondacks recede through successive layers of atmosphere in aerial perspective.
"Fifth Season" is a smaller piece, a wetland in early spring with a meandering stream and a few tenacious birds coasting overhead. Popick accurately describes the earthy hues of mud and brown grass without overstating the dreariness of Vermont's "fifth season."
When Geer was discharged from the Marine Corps four decades ago, he enrolled in Middlebury College. He graduated with a fine arts degree in 1968 and began painting scenes of the Champlain Valley while also working as a graphic designer. Landscape painting has been his sole occupation since 1992. He seems to have a particular affinity for the geometric angles of rural architecture -- basically barns. He also has a wry sense of humor, as demonstrated in "Paint Sale Barn." This painting is practically a geometric abstraction; the barn has been distilled into a series of triangles, squares and rectangles. The paint-sale reference denotes Geer's clashing harmony of reds above and blues below. A judicious use of grays and blacks serves to flatten the painting.
"High Noon" is a more naturalistic aggregation of barn, sheds and silos. The midday sunlight throws shadows across the roofs and creates a series of rhomboid shapes, each with a slightly different tonality.
Art Studio Gallery intends to exhibit only the work of Lazarus, Geer, Popick and Campbell. That means it is devoted to high quality, artistically conservative work. True to its allegiance to Addison County, the gallery already has a nonprofit fundraising event planned for later this month. These guys are not revolutionaries, but like the Painter who occupied 7 Seymour Street two centuries ago, they are community-minded and laying the foundation for a promising future.