Joan Furchgott, co-owner with her husband Brad Sourdiffe, of Furchgott Sourdiffe Gallery in Shelburne drives the 40 minutes to work from their home in Lincoln at least five days a week. So she’s likely to be the one welcoming visitors to the cheerful purple-and-green Victorian on Falls Road. But after a gracious greeting, Furchgott doesn’t follow customers around or press them for their tastes. “I’m not into the hard sell,” admits the friendly 53-year-old, her South Carolina origins evident in her unhurried speech.
That pressure-free environment helps account for the pleasure it is to walk through this gallery. Motion-sensitive spotlights click on as visitors step from room to room in the former residence built in the 1890s, its windows bordered with colorful stained glass. The art is a refreshingly eclectic mix, ranging in style from the crisp, blue-shadowed barns of Lincoln artist Kathleen Kolb — whose work is also shown regularly at the David Findlay Gallery in New York — to the Joan Miró-inspired, cell-like creatures of Hal Mayforth. The East Montpelier cartoonist is a contributor to Newsweek and other national magazines.
“I’m a real lover of art history all the way through,” Furchgott says, explaining her catholic tastes. An artist in her own right, she studied art history and studio art at Bennington College, and is returning to drawing now that the couple’s two children are grown. In choosing art for the gallery, she says, “I’m looking for a certain caliber of work — [artists] who can convey what they’re doing in a way that’s technically adept, and in a style that’s distinct.”
Her point is well illustrated by the first work visitors currently see on entering: an arrestingly abstract oil called “Risk” by Burlington’s Beth Pearson, depicting bent geometric shapes in thickly textured brushstrokes. “I love her humor that comes through — she’s a writer, too,” Furchgott explains. “She has a real sureness — the liberation behind it is wonderful — and her palette is surprising,” she adds, referring to the painting’s deep reds and teals.
That is probably as detailed as Furchgott gets in articulating a painting’s appeal; mostly, she says, she’s guided by her instinct. She encourages the same tendency in visitors, whether they come to buy or just look. “Some people want someone to tell them what’s good. [But] there’s a lot of fanfare over art that’s not that good. I think people should trust their own instincts more.”
Fortunately, she adds, “Most people in Vermont are buying because they love something, not because it’s a good investment. It makes it more pleasurable.”
Furchgott and Sourdiffe met in Vermont; he’s a Bennington native who studied studio art at the University of Vermont. The couple lived in San Francisco for three years, working in an Old World frame shop. Furchgott cut mats; Sourdiffe learned the rare craft of restoring antique frames from the store’s Filipino framer, who’d been taught by his Chinese uncle. When the couple moved permanently to Vermont in 1982, they operated a framing and restoration business out of their house, and also worked at Shelburne Frame & Art Shop. In 1991, they bought the latter and reopened it as Furchgott Sourdiffe Gallery, offering artworks along with full custom-framing and restoration services.
Sourdiffe comes in only one or two days a week to run the gallery. Most of the time he works from home refurbishing old frames or building and hand-finishing custom ones, sometimes using wood specially milled for him by the aptly named Kurt Plank of Ferrisburgh. A back room of the gallery is covered floor to ceiling with frame samples, some of which Sourdiffe hand-finished in 23-karat gold leaf using the centuries-old process of water gilding. His restoration projects include the gilded frame of the 1837 George Washington portrait hanging above the Speaker of the House’s chair in Montpelier, and a Vermont state seal from 1864 in the St. Albans Historical Museum.
The Furchgott Sourdiffe Gallery is a mix of the old and the new, traditional landscapes and wild abstractions, craft and fine art. It hosts eight or nine special exhibits a year, and for sale beneath the paintings are finely crafted wood furniture pieces and artisan-made bags, jewelry and ceramics.
Furchgott won’t point visitors to anything in particular, but if they want to see what a certain painting looks like on their wall, they’re welcome to take it home and hang it up for a day or two. If customers like an artist’s style but not the painting on display, she’ll ferret out a few more works by the same person from the bowels of the old house.
True, purchasing a work of art in these lean times may seem like an extravagance — gallery prices range from $200 to more than $4000 — but Furchgott advises that art is not the place to skimp. “People don’t realize what a necessity art is,” she says, “until it’s not there.”