BARRE, Vt. - To bring out its beauty, stained glass needs light, preferably natural rays pouring through a window. That's what brought stained glass maker Chris Jeffrey to Barre in 2000 to rent a small studio in a new venture called Studio Place Arts, or SPA.
"I saw a little blurb in a paper about this building that was being converted into artist spaces, so I came to check it out," he says. "The space was really cheap, and I thought it would be so cool to get out of my basement and have a studio with windows."
At the time, he was still practicing law in Burlington, making stained glass on the side. "I did it in my basement as a hobby," he said. "In 2000 I turned 40, and quit my day job as it became clear that's what my real passion was."
These days, he regularly receives commissions, including a number that come through nearby
Jeffrey's story reflects the mission of SPA, a community center devoted to fostering interest in the visual arts as well as nurturing artists. At SPA, the public is not only welcome but invited. Admission is free, and visitors are encouraged to check out the galleries on all three floors, take a class, or just pop in to see who may be at work in one of the 11 studios on the second and third floors.
Executive director Sue Higby says the original impulse for SPA came from a group of artists in the mid-1990s who were looking for work space. The 1885 three-story red brick building they found, known as the Nichols Block, was one of the downtown's oldest buildings. It had been damaged in a fire and boarded up. But it offered an interesting opportunity right on Main Street in the historic town center. "Instead of just having a bunch of studios for rent," says Higby, "they could have gallery space and educational programs."
The Central Vermont Community Land Trust helped develop the plan and finance renovations. Among those working in SPA's studios are Georgia Landau, whose clay world includes women with pea pod bodies and bulldog butter dishes; nationally known potter Elizabeth Roman; and Janet Van Fleet, who uses round objects such as buttons, painted record albums, and computer parts to create everything from dolls to landscapes to galaxies of moving planets and stars. Van Fleet is also one of SPA's founders.
"Visitors to artist's studio are welcome by chance or appointment," reads the brochure on the door of Van Fleet's studio.
"I never know who's going to walk through the door," she says. "When we planned the place, that's what we were interested in - making the arts more accessible, demystifying the experience."
She remembers a small group, mostly women, who showed up at her studio one day. "One of them said, 'This is so neat; you must know how to use tools.' She said, 'I always wanted to know how to do that but I'm scared of that stuff.' I said, 'This is your lucky day, lady.' I pulled out my electric drill, and gave it to her, so she got to drill a screw into my bench."
"A lot of people want to know how stained glass is constructed," says Jeffrey. "I show them how the glass fits into the lead channels. Sometimes I take out a glass cutter and when I score a piece of glass and break it with my hands, they're fascinated. They had no idea how a piece of glass gets cut."
Children also make regular visits to SPA, whether for classes or just to peer into someone's studio. "The center's filled with very friendly people," says Higby. "There's not a lot of formality or rules here."
Exhibits change every five weeks, and next up is a members' show opening Nov. 20 that will feature work from more than 100 Vermont artists and artisans. Since the show runs through Dec. 29, it also doubles as a holiday shopping bazaar. "We have big shopping bags and people use it as a gigantic arts and crafts department store," says Higby.
Many of the artists bring in smaller works that fit with holiday budgets: miniature paintings, clay pins, carved wooden items, scarves and other clothing, and lots of jewelry, for example. "Last year we had eight gorgeous chicken portraits by Charles Woodard from Calais," says Higby, "and they all sold - he's busy right now painting farmyard animals."
Holiday shopping demands wrapping, and SPA accommodates with a wrap-a-thon the week before Christmas. "Think of artists as being the best gift wrappers on earth," says Higby. "People will come in a week ahead with bags of stuff to be wrapped."
Kathy Shorr can be reached at email@example.com.