Ralph DeAnna, curator of the celebratory show in its final days at the Windham Art Gallery, considers himself a lucky man. In only a year after arriving in Brattleboro he had a place where he could exhibit his paintings. When he desired. Without worrying about whether or not he was painting in a style that was fashionable. Without risking a gallery owner not paying for work sold, as sometimes happens in “the big city”. Without having to sit on work until a gallery owner deems you “right” for them, and then lays claim to all your artistic output. There is a place for a traditional gallery, but it is often a difficult road for an artist to travel.
A chance meeting with Arin Fancher led DeAnna to a critiquing group that was meeting weekly at the Centre Congregational Church. It was this group of artists that eventually became the nucleus of the co-operative Windham Art Gallery’s founding members. From a modest first home on Flat Street, then at the current space on Main Street a year later, the gallery has been a gift to artists and the community at large. George Becker, once director of the Windham Council on the Arts, became a devoted champion of the cause, and a liaison with the community that could make the artists’ vision happen.
The idea for the current show, a tribute to Becker, grew, according to DeAnna, at Becker’s 98th birthday party. Becker asked all those who wished to give him a birthday present, to instead make a donation to WAG. “I realized”, DeAnna says, “how much George has done over the years for the gallery. A tribute show was long overdue”. And furthermore, DeAnna noted, WAG had its fifteenth birthday in September, a real milestone. “This show is also a way of celebrating this marker. We’re an institution now, we have a history”.
DeAnna was able to contact thirty-five of the gallery’s sixty original members. Thirty-one agreed to bring or send work for the show. Three former members, Melinda Harris, Roy Lewando, and Norman Krampetz are showing posthumously, their work made available through donations by friends or partners of the deceased. “We’re a family”, DeAnna explained.
The level of work in the show is consistently high, owing no doubt to the fact that the artists here have been cajoling their muse for many years. The excitement in this show is not that of watching an artist explore unknown territory, or of catching talent on the rise. These are mature artists who ply their art with a sure eye and hand. The gallery does itself proud to have played a part in the development and sustenance of their very individual artistic pursuits. Personal favorites were a painting and a tile piece by Carole Keiser, Mallory Lake’s two dark and sensuous pastels, Mia Scheffey’s “Open Window”, and “Fire Drawing III”, Arin Fancher’s set of semi-abstract watercolors, Deidre Scherer’s riveting self-portrait, Karen Becker’s “Juvenile Great Horned Owl” print, and Melinda Harris’ collaged torso. There are many others I admired for their sophistication, their technical expertise.
To honor Becker, four of the contributing artists chose to show work they had exhibited in the gallery’s first years: Jim Gidding’s “Gray Ocean Surface”, which was shown in the gallery’s September ’89 opening show, is almost a trompe l’oeil that also works as a two-dimensional abstract; Doug Trump’s early painting on cardboard from his then-in-gestation oeuvre, conveys a hallmark sense of mystery with minimal means; Helene Henry pairs then-and-now sets of collages that are a testament to a deep and persistent vision, four truly personal and vigorously elegant pieces. Rick Zamore shows three charcoal drawings from the early days with a recent, atmospheric oil painting, a real contrast but connected by an astute eye, and masterful rendering.
Most of the show’s work, however, is of recent vintage. At least this is what I surmise after speaking with DeAnna. If there is one criticism I have of this show, it is that it would have been nice to have dates with all the titles.
Among the artists showing in the “Happy 99th!” tribute to Becker, some have achieved renown, some have been able to make a living through their art (a rare phenomenon!). All have stayed true to their muse. “We never fell into the trap of pushing a style. To have conviction about your work, but be fine with others going their own way — and not only that, but to actively support and promote their work – that is not common!” exclaimed DeAnna.
George Becker lent a helping hand to artists in the region fifteen years ago and made their, and his, dream a reality. The artists in this show have flourished, in no small part, due to his generosity and devotion. That spirit of generosity has long held sway at the Windham Art Gallery, allowing the work shown on its walls, or placed on its pedestals a breadth and depth that is extra-ordinary. This show is proof positive, Mr. Becker, that your energy and time have been well spent.