R.I. artists' collective brings 'Bostonish' work to a small town
WESTERLY, R.I. - Take some jewelry artisans, a handful of potters, a couple of glass specialists, a mix of sculptors, painters, and mosaic makers and what have you got? A nifty little cooperative gallery that is home to scores of pieces of art of all creative stripes.
The Artists' Cooperative Gallery of Westerly, a nonprofit organization of about 40 members, offers exhibits, lectures, workshops, and classes. Visitors can also buy pieces, ranging from postcards for about $3 to paintings and other works for several hundred dollars. This is quality art on the cheap in a historic town smack dab on the Connecticut border less than 100 miles from Boston.
"It started out basically as a hobby shop," said Robert Wilkinson, a photographer and 10-year member of the group who lives a few miles away in Niantic, Conn. "One person started hanging stuff, then he left and a few artists got together and said, 'Let's run a gallery.' "
That was in 1992. Since then, he said, the quality of the art at the gallery, housed in the Brown Building, a former department store, has evolved to the professional level, and all of it packed into a space roughly 20 feet wide by 40 feet long. Artists are encouraged to take risks with experimental work that "they can run up the flagpole to see who salutes it," Wilkinson said.
There are works small and large here, from items such as artisan jewelry by the cooperative's president, Mary Anne Sherman, who shares a studio in the back of the building with three other member-artists, to unique quilted wall hangings by Nel Udo.
"It's a great opportunity to show your work," said Zoe Rice, of Waterford, Conn., a potter who also manages the pottery studio at the Stonington Community Center. "The exhibits change once a month, so the works here are all new, all fresh."
Members pay dues of $240 a year, and as part of their duties each has to manage the gallery for one shift per month, serve on at least one standing committee, and help with two show committees per year. The gallery hosts a big regional show each spring; this year's is scheduled to open May 7 and run for the month, Sherman said.
"The artists here are from all over; we have someone from Sweden, someone from the Netherlands, in addition to local people," said Sherman, whose work is also on display at Handworks Gallery of American Crafts in Acton. "The age range of our artists is from early 20s to late 80s. In the 16 years of the gallery, I think we've covered every possible medium."
During one recent month's exhibit at the cooperative, the range was eclectic and energetic, from a black-and-white pinwheel stone mosaic looking like a circular chessboard by Peter Ogle for $200 to "Tabby," an oil painting of cat and vase by Beth Drainville of Hope Valley, R.I., for $475.
On a daily basis, the gallery offers its artists pretty good exposure for their work. But once a month, they get a boost from the very popular Wednesday Art Stroll in downtown Westerly. During the Stroll most galleries are open from 5 to 8 p.m., offering refreshments and the chance to browse or buy.
If you happen to be either a connoisseur or in the market to buy, Westerly is a good place to be. There are about 21 galleries, studios, and other art venues either in the downtown or within easy walking distance.
But the town also offers something extra: It is one of nine Rhode Island communities that have tax-free arts districts, which went into effect in 1998 to encourage artists to live and work in those areas. The state's sales tax is 7 percent, so buy a piece of art here for $500 and walk out saving $35.
"Westerly has a big-city art feel in a small community," Rice said. "It's very much Bostonish here."
Contact Paul Kandarian at Kandarian@globe.com