By MICHAEL FRETT
GRAND ISLE – “Artists are exceptional people,” a short post from Grand Isle Art Works reads. “They have the ability to channel their happiness, anxiety, or just plain quirkiness into art.
“This past year,” it continues, “was no exception.”
The post in question can be found on the gallery’s website, above a poster advertising an upcoming exhibit showcasing local artists’ work from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Titled “Art in a Time Like This,” the exhibit, scheduled for June and July, serves as a denouement of sorts for what has been an unprecedented year for the artists whose creations feature in Grand Isle Art Works’ historic island home.
According to the gallery’s owners, the exhibit will highlight artists who transitioned to new mediums, who found new, maybe less whimsical voices during the height of a pandemic that shuttered much of the arts world and led many to feel more isolated.
“People are expressing themselves differently,” Ellen Thompson, a fiber artist and educator who owns Grand Isle Art Works with her husband Jim Holzschuh, said.
A destination in the islands
For the farmhouse perched near Route 2 in Grand Isle, pandemics are nothing new.
More than 200 years of history have taken place in Grand Isle Art Works’ current home, at least three of which fell within the height of the Spanish influenza, the last great “unprecedented” epidemic to grip the U.S. in the early 1900s.
The farmhouse, dating back to 1797, was also old enough to have witnessed more than a few recessions and depressions, the coming and going of the Merino sheep and the height of the railroad in Vermont, and the administrations of 45 of the nation’s 46 presidents.
“John Adams was just moving into the White House in 1797,” Holzschuh said, “and if you’re from the Boston area or know anything about Boston, there’s a ship in the harbor called ‘Old Ironsides’ – or the Constitution – that was commissioned in 1797.” (He initially denied he was a history buff when asked but later acquiesced. “You’re right, I am a history buff,” Holzschuh admitted after recalling a very particular historical detail involving the U.S. flag and the War of 1812.)
The farmhouse’s history as a gallery is significantly shorter. A little more than a decade ago, Holzschuh and Thompson purchased the farmhouse and created Grand Isle Art Works with the hopes of both adding a destination to the Grand Isle map and opening an outlet for craftspeople like themselves.
For the couple, the gallery was also an answer to a very specific problem unique to the allegedly retired South Hero couple.
Holzschuh would later joke that he had never actually retired, despite supposedly having retired from not one but several careers. Thompson, meanwhile, still works as an educational consultant after having left public education some years ago.
For some time, Holzschuh and Thompson have raised a small herd of angora goats under the moniker Yellow Dog Farm in South Hero. The name, they said, comes courtesy of the pair of yellow labs who, in Holzschuh’s words, were “the keepers of the keys” on Yellow Dog Farm.
Angora goats are well regarded for their long, lustrous and wavy hair, also known as “mohair,” that can be easily dyed and used for making fine garments.
Angora goats also produce a lot of hair. Every year, a single goat can produce more than a dozen pounds of mohair. In at least one article, the University of California posits angora goats “may be the most efficient fiber producers on Earth.”
In other words, Holzschuh and Thompson suddenly had a lot of goat hair on their hands.
Thompson, who had knitted when she was young, began knitting and weaving, and learned how to spin their goats’ hair into material the couple could sell. Holzschuh, a woodturner who seemed to have inherited a bit of his craftsmanship from his farmer father, began making the needed tools for fiber art.
They became a regular presence in Vermont’s craft shows as members of the Vermont Hand Crafters, the state’s largest juried craft organization, selling both the materials and tools for creating fiber art and hand knit garments made from their homegrown yarns.
It was, they said, a lot.
“We had a lot of product,” Thompson said. “About ten years ago, we decided we were tired of lugging things around, so we ended up looking for a gallery.”
With that in mind, the two purchased the 1797 farmhouse, drawn by its history and its ability to provide a unique destination in Grand Isle, and began welcoming Vermont artists into a handful of rooms on the farmhouse’s first floor.
Eleven years later, works by more than 70 artists can be found in almost every nook and cranny of the historic farmhouse and, despite having to weather the farmhouse’s second pandemic, Grand Isle Art Works remains open to the public.
“Art in a time like this”
For artists, the COVID-19 pandemic has not been kind.
The threat of COVID-19 and public health measures intended to control the disease’s outbreak led to the closure of both gallery spaces and public art shows for much of the duration of the pandemic. While some artists found success in pivoting to online sales, many did not.
Grand Isle Art Works did close down for a few months early in the pandemic, the result of state public health orders limiting most nonessential business to curbsides.
Buoyed by a Paycheck Protection Program loan and donations from the community, the gallery was able to squeak open during the summer, but its eventual reopening was quiet without the regular tourism traffic businesses in the Champlain Islands thrive on.
Grand Isle Art Works remains relatively quiet, but while Holzschuh and Thompson are optimistic the possible subsiding of the COVID-19 pandemic could bring more travelers later on in the summer, they say the effect the pandemic has had on artists has been palpable.
“Artists have been dramatically affected,” Thompson said. “A lot of the artists that are in our gallery are full-time artists, and if our gallery slowed down, then you can bet many of the others have as well.”
The effects of a pandemic extended beyond business, though. Artists were isolated and left to contend with a year that not only saw a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, but a constant stream of political and social upheaval, according to Thompson.
Many artists may have “looked inward” to reflect on “the way the world was,” Thompson said. Others may have found new ways to express themselves as artists. Thompson, for example, took up pottery, while Holzschuh began turning out a steady supply of wooden eggs that had proven popular online.
In a few highlights from Grand Isle Art Works’ cadre of Vermont creators, one artist’s more whimsical work with kites became more grounded work with acrylics, Thompson said. Another artist transitioned from vibrant watercolor to abstract works involving driftwood salvaged from Lake Champlain.
They are the kind of effects the gallery is will showcase later this month when “Art in a Time Like This” opens.
Grand Isle Art Works is planning to exhibit those works in an area once occupied by the gallery’s café, a casualty of the pandemic. Accompanying those works will be descriptions penned by the artists themselves, describing what it was like to create art in, well, a time like this.
“I hope people are inspired by what they see and, I know this is going to sound very lofty, but reflect on the resiliency of the human spirit,” Thompson said.
“These artists were isolated, often by themselves, and yet one of the things they did was they reached into their art in different ways,” she continued. “It’s that ability to say, ‘This is tough. I’m all by myself. What am I going to do? I’m going to make something beautiful.’”