Then and now: Arts in southern Vermont

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MANCHESTER — Manchester is known for its vibrant creative culture, but few people are fluent in the history of the arts in the region.

The Southern Vermont Arts Center is looking to change that with its exhibit, "Vermont Artists Then & Now," in the Wilson Museum and Galleries, which will open with a lecture by the same name on Sept. 28 at 5:30 p.m.

"Particularly since the beginning of the 20th Century, artists from all over the United States have come here not only for the natural beauty, but because there were kindred spirits both working in the arts and supporting them," said SVAC Board of Trustees member, Georgine MacGarvey. "Thus, the small artists' colony that created SVAC began in Dorset, Vermont."

Thursday's lecture will be presented by Dorset Historical Society Curator Jon Mathewson, and will explore the history of SVAC's founding members and their artists' colony in the region.

"Here at the Dorset Historical Society we have many of their early works and early promotional materials," said Mathewson. "My talk will be focused on who these artists were, and why they banded together for a group exhibit."

That artists' colony was founded by Dorset Artist Lorenzo Hatch over a century ago, best known for his engraving of Abraham Lincoln on the $5 bill. By 1905, Hatch had organized two modest exhibitions in his hometown, featuring artists like Edwin B. Child, Walter Shirlaw, and Caroline Holley alongside his own work.

Though Hatch left the United States soon after these exhibitions to design Chinese banknotes, dying in Peking in 1914, the colony continued to grow despite his absence.

By 1922 this colony became known as the "Dorset Painters," holding an exhibition at the Dorset Town Hall that same year. Only seven years later, the group began to call themselves the "Southern Vermont Artists."

"Jon is really going to flesh out the story, and provide more history to highlight the Dorset Painters," said MacGarvey. "It was that artist colony that founded the Southern Vermont Arts Center, and their mission was basically `art for everyone.'"

Indeed, the founding members of the Dorset Painters — E.B.Child, Wallace Fahnestock, John Lillie, Francis Dixon and Herbert Meyer — later became the core of the Southern Vermont Arts Center in its formative days.

Even during the depths of the Great Depression, over 100 artists exhibited their work through the organization by 1932. The assertion that art should be accessible to all eventually became known as the "Manchester Idea," according to MacGarvey.

"The group moved to Burr and Burton in 1924, at which time they kept growing larger and larger," said Mathewson, noting that the group was incorporated by the State of Vermont in 1933. "They got their own property [the Gertrude Weber Estate] in 1950, which would eventually become the Southern Vermont Arts Center."

The current exhibition, juxtaposing the works of these founding members with those of current artists, highlights the history of not just SVAC, but of the northshire arts scene in general.

"We have endeavored to create an artistic history of the Southern Vermont Art Center," said MacGarvey. "We offer it in celebration of the support of the community, without which this long history would have been impossible, as well as the rich tradition of creativity that this unique and beautiful region has birthed."

That rich history is part and parcel to what the region is today, according to Mathewson.

"I think that any time a greater sense of place is achieved, you appreciate where you are in the world a lot more," said Mathewson. "It gives deeper meaning to the different cultural events, buildings, and institutions that have come before us, and how they influence the present."

In his lecture, Mathewson aims to bring the exhibit to life.

"As a historian, I think that the different cultural strains of life in Dorset are very interesting," said Mathewson. "I hope that comes out in the lecture. I think it'll be a great time."

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.

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