Loraleh Harris is a petite, energetic woman with the kind of charisma politicians would envy. On a recent evening she’s standing in front of an abstract painting in the gallery she has opened in downtown Winooski. The Block Gallery is a brand new enterprise, located beside McKee’s Pub & Grill on East Allen Street at the “top” of the roundabout. The space was formerly a pack-and-ship store. “You should have seen this place when we started,” Harris remarks. “It took tons of paint and work, but here it is.”
The glass-fronted Block Gallery is filled with light, making it feel more spacious than its 800 square feet would suggest. Crafts created by Vermont artisans, from lamps to jewelry to woven scarves, are displayed in orderly fashion on glass shelves or refurbished furniture. Harris points to an impressive, art deco-styled metal and glass case in one corner. “We got it at RecycleNorth [now the ReStore] ... We just spray-painted the bejeezus out of it,” she explains. The handsome piece is now silver and black and showcases earrings by Lochlin Smith.
Harris’ passion for the place is evident. Less apparent are her reasons for opening a gallery now, in a grinding recession, and in a town where a number of creative businesses have already failed. “I chose Winooski because rents are bottoming out, and I could afford a beautiful space here,” Harris says matter-of-factly. “I think Winooski’s up and coming,” she adds. “It’s the melting pot — it’s great. The retail isn’t built yet, but I keep [saying], ‘If we build it, they will come.’”
By “they” Harris means both collectors and artists. This entrepreneur has no delusions about what it takes to keep the gallery doors open. “The economy is really bad,” Harris grants, but counters optimistically that she’s “good at sales.” In fact, Harris is opening an art gallery in a recession precisely because many artists are struggling now — she believes she can help some of them by selling their work.
This can-do attitude has made the Block Gallery attractive to many Vermont artists seeking representation. “I put the word out, and I’ve been amazed,’ Harris says. “They’ve brought in really high-end, beautiful work. I mean, look at this!” she exclaims, pointing to a handmade bench made of local cherry and flame birch by Mike Lamp of West Barnet Woodworks. Its elegant turned spindles and carved leaves arch gracefully. “This is a guy from the Northeast Kingdom,” Harris says. “I grew up with him. All these people from the Northeast Kingdom have shown up and helped. It’s really hard to show and sell your work [there], so they’re excited about this.” Harris hopes to show works by only Vermont artists, whom she actively seeks, frequenting craft fairs in pursuit of “fresh faces.”
Harris suggests that what sets her apart in Vermont’s gallery scene is her interest in talented emerging artists as well as seasoned ones. Nick Heilig is a young pen-and-ink artist whose drawing “Bigger Than It Really Is” was highlighted in Art Map Burlington’s Art Hop issue this year. Harris points out his smaller works and bookmarks in the gallery. “Can you believe this?” she marvels, “Look at these drawings!”
With plans to start advertising and email marketing in the near future, Harris feels she’s preparing “key business items” to launch her gallery. She hopes to attract buyers with monthly gallery openings that feature new artists, and “good old Vermont word of mouth.”
Harris says she believes in “democratizing” art — that is, offering items at a wide range of prices. “We’ve got bookmarks for $5, up to a painting by Rick Benson for $6500,” she says. “It’s all high-quality, beautiful work. It’s really important to me that anybody can come in and buy something.”
Indeed, Harris’ aesthetic brings together fiber arts, jewelry, woodworking, ceramics, and paintings in a harmonious mix that she fervently believes will appeal — so long as she can get people in the door. “It’s heart and soul,” Harris says, looking around her gallery with satisfaction in the waning evening light. “You can feel it.”