Featured Artist: Charles Rak
Charles "Chuck" Rak, a painter of portraits and traditional landscapes in oil on canvas, is at the top of his game these days: He has sold over 20 paintings since Thanksgiving! And his wife, Kim Rak (their last name is pronounced "Rock"), is also thriving with her one-of-a-kind line of clothing for women and children, as well as cottage-style bed linens, pillows, and other items sewn from vintage fabrics; in addition she offers custom design and alteration services. Her half of this split-personality business also includes a selection of antique and eclectic home furnishings and accessories, jewelry, small-batch personal care products, and much more.
In mid-November, when Chuck and Kim moved into their studio and boutique at 42 Elliot Street (Pink Flamingo's former home), they had been struggling to make ends meet for nearly six years, ever since their son's premature birth. Although they had similarly shared a storefront in the village of Jamaica for awhile, they had been operating out of their home for the past two seasons and had all along been relying on Chuck's skills as a caricature artist for their bread and butter.
I stopped by to meet Kim the week they were settling in (they sent word that they wanted to join Gallery Walk right away). I remember standing in the middle of the shop's just-getting-organized chaos and chatting with Kim and a visiting friend of hers about what they might name the place. When Kim suggested "Abundance," the two of us responded enthusiastically since it would serve as a suitable affirmation for a successful business venture. Kim even pointed out that it might be fun to have a name obliquely referencing the space's recent history as a supplier of ballet shoes and dancewear.
In any case, nearly five months later there is still no visible sign over the central doorway or on the enormous windows gracing the facade of the building. In fact, the only signage for passersby is a somewhat weather-worn relic sporting artfully painted sunflowers, an arrow pointing towards the door, and the simple word "Shop" -- it sits casually among samples of Kim's clothing, an array of accessories, and a couple of Chuck's paintings in the window to the left of the entrance. Most days, the prominent feature in the right-side window is Chuck himself, who may be seen applying color to his latest canvas as folks pause outside to watch.
Chuck grew up in the Waban section of Newton, Massachusetts, but his family also had a home on Cape Cod. His artistic talent, evident from an early age, was fostered by three summers of study with Andrea Gallagher, beginning when he was seven. Formal study continued at age fourteen with a summer at Henri Brenou's studio. This was also the year his parents were in the throes of an emotionally taxing divorce; his mother eventually bought a piece of property in Townshend, Vermont where Chuck lived from 1963 to 1978. He resided in Wardsboro for the following twelve years before relocating to Jamaica.
"I have always been right-hemisphere dominant, not a very verbal person at all," he offered about himself, continuing, "I was comforted by doing caricatures of my teachers from the back of the room during the time of my parents' divorce." This precociousness sometimes landed him in trouble, but it also helped to secure him a spot in the fine art program at the University of Arizona in Tucson; he eventually transferred to Mass. College of Art to spare his parents the travel expenses.
Chuck has been lucky enough to be a full-time artist since his mid-twenties, but it is the caricature work that has been his chief support. He can be contracted as an element of entertainment at special events, or sets up his easel at festivals, fairs, and even malls to ply this lucrative trade. When there's enough help on hand during Gallery Walk evenings, Chuck offers this service to the strolling public right in the shop as well.
Moving on to his real love, plein air painting on location (he always paints from life or a digital snapshot of it), we discussed his painting style: "I like the look of a brush stroke when it goes over the grain of a canvas. I'm the kind of artist who likes to look at a painting that looks like a painting as opposed to a photograph. I access the pleasure center of my brain through a visual means. The more you can participate as a viewer, the more that center is triggered." Work he sees in mediums that "settle like chocolate pudding" on the canvas makes him not only angry, he admitted, but hostile!
"I'm a traditional landscape painter focusing on the study of light -- my work is never avant-garde or esoteric," he explained. "The study of light keeps me sane and from ending up in a dead-end place with my art." Nevertheless, he seeks to improve himself all the time and experiment with his technique: "It's like mountain climbing. When you reach your fifties, you can see more things off in the distance rather than being profoundly callow and myopic like you were in your twenties."
In addition to offering his work for sale at the Elliot St. studio and shop, Chuck is available for art lessons and is thinking about offering a weekly session in basic oil painting. Of course, the drawback to such schedule enhancements is that he can paint generally only when his son is in school and, as mentioned above, prefers to work outdoors whenever he can. Chuck's biggest challenge, however, is keeping the work coming as fast as it's flying out the door. The paintings are going to new and old customers alike from both near and far. (One steady customer in New Hampshire has collected over forty of his works for a George Washington era home!) The shop's highly visible location across from access to the Harmony Place parking lot (between Sarkis Market and Brattleboro Books) has definitely been a great help in directing visiting tourists to the store.
The dramatically tall north-facing windows of the Victorian-style building give Chuck the perfect light for positioning himself near the sidewalk as he paints. And the wall where most of his paintings hang is an optimal 90 degrees from north and lit by full-spectrum track lighting to enhance the viewer's experience. The works are hung without frames, he explained, because "people would most often ask us to remove the frame when they bought a painting so they could give it their own treatment." I suggested that perhaps the effect of this no-frills display style was an appealing sense of "fresh off the easel," which isn't far from the truth in most cases.
Whatever the complex of circumstances leading to their new-found prosperity, Kim and Chuck Rak are very grateful to the Brattleboro community for responding so enthusiastically to their presence. I suspect that there really is a sign over their door that reads "Abundance" . . . it's just written in some kind of invisible ink!
Postscript: Although the Raks' businesses were flourishing in their Elliot Street space, their son's health concerns forced them to make ready for a move to a more beneficial climate. We wish them well and will miss their unique shop and studio in our midst.
Copyright 2003, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont