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In Focus: Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery

Descending the stairs into the Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery is like walking into a time warp. Once in the Gallery -- which also serves as the Theater's lobby -- you are surrounded by contemporary works of art in a setting that openly embraces its past. A large, complex mass of pipes, valves, and dials hangs from the wall. In shades of deep red, black, and venerable rust, it hovers in lyrical bulkiness, both sublime and mechanical. Is it a work of art? A welder's ode to the marriage of style and technology? Well, yes and no. It certainly is mesmerizing to look at with its multiple twists and turns, support brackets, bolted plates, and glass-covered gauges. But in truth, it's the heart of the Hooker-Dunham Block's sprinkler system.

The building was built in the 1884 by a man named George W. Hooker. Huge blocks of granite, no doubt from Black Mountain, make up much of the Gallery's end wall and guarantee that the layout of the space will not easily change. By 1897, the Dunham Brothers (of shoe fame) had taken it over and began adding significant additions to the building. They also added their name to the building's title. 100-plus year-old graffiti can still be found where workers wrote their names and dates. Knife blade gouges in one of the posts shows where a spirited game of mumbly-peg took place. It remained a shoe warehouse for decades. Leo Berman took over the building in 1984 and converted it into a complex of office spaces and apartments. In the mix, he dug out an old air shaft, put a ceiling over it, and created a little cinema. Wild Root Arts, a nonprofit arts organization, took over management of the venue in January 1999 with the aim of transforming these interesting but seldom-used rooms into a combination theater and gallery.

One of the first tasks was to do something about the dark and dusty space that served as the Theater's lobby. Fresh paint, wall-to-wall carpeting, and a track-lighting system were the first steps in this renovation. By April of that year it was not only a lobby but a bonified Gallery. The inaugural exhibit was the In-Sight Photography Project Student Show. In-Sight, an after-school photography program for Brattleboro youth, continues this tradition by mounting an annual April exhibit of student work, which has been consistently surprising, delightful, and abundant. Since then, the H-DT&G has hosted over forty diverse exhibits.

Because the Theater & Gallery is managed as a community venue, Gallery exhibits (like Theater events) are not adjudicated. This unrestricted availability has fostered a wide variety of exhibitors, including shows by individuals and by groups, by local and visiting artists, by professional and amateur creators, and in a wide range of genre, theme, content, and style. Like the In-Sight show, other annual exhibits have also served the dual purpose of art and community service. Since the fall of 2000, Retreat Healthcare (formerly Brattleboro Retreat) has brought an annual exhibit of patient art to the Gallery in celebration of mental health awareness. The works, created as part of an art therapy program, are unattributed and enigmatic. In last October's exhibit there was a black and white paper cutout of an energetic figure at waterline: was the figure triumphantly emerging from the depths or in desperation just about to go under? These exhibits routinely raise some intriguing questions: what is the relationship between art and health, between art and intention? Isn't all art, art "Visions and Voices" exhibit, presented by the Women's Film Festival, a benefit for the Women's Crisis Center of Windham County. Each March the exhibition, draws from area women and girls, professional and first-time exhibitors, featuring a widely different assortment of media. "Woman Form," by a first-time exhibitor, was a fragile-looking but sturdy chicken-wire sculpture, suggesting interesting gender variations on Jean Arp's concretions. One work this year invited viewers to participate in the completion of the work. Nancy Clingan's "Forgiveness Fence," a wire installation piece with photos of the artist and her mother and daughter, offered Gallery-goers an opportunity to write and add ribbon messages to their own mothers.

As a community art space, the Gallery has concentrated on local artists but has occasionally hosted artists from beyond the area as well. Subject matter has been from near and far. For instance, we hosted Forrest Holzapfel's photographs of residents, landscapes, and points of interest in Marlboro. Other work has documented distant lands -- Alice MacKenzie's "human and natural landscapes" from her journey along the U.S.-Mexican border, from Tijuana to Matamoros; Putney native Prairie Ashton Wolff's silver gelatin prints documenting the reclamation of abandoned space in Marin County, California, as a site for new art; and Jonathan Flaccus's drawings from Cambodia. Two exhibits over the last year have been inspired by Venice: Boston artist Leslie Anderson recently showed watercolors in glowing tones of orange, blue, and green, from her sojourns there. And Judy Hazilla presented "Invisible Cities," an exhibit of paintings and drawings based on Italo Calvino's tales about many different fantasy cities -- all of which were really Venice. On a different note, a vibrant exhibit of photos by Vaune Trachtman, "One Happy Day in June," chronicled three years of Seattle's Gay Pride Celebration -- a diversity of races, classes, genders, ages, lifestyles, and sexuality.

Visionary art -- art of the inner landscape -- has been especially strange and wonderful on our walls. There was "Visions Revealed," a multimedia group exhibit of imaginary works by Jerry Pfohl, Kelley Vaughn, Mark Pfohl, Adrienne Guevara, and Gretchen Abendschein; and "Demon Harem," an exhibition of silk paintings, ceramic sculpture, and mixed media by Natalie Blake. There have been quirky zinc plate etchings by Aaron Distler and exploratory wooden sculptures and paintings by Scott Brown, Wendy Karush, and Alec Goldschmidt. Especially mysterious were Elsa Borrero's "Photographic Dances," where images of painted models in natural settings are overlapped to create a transfiguring sense of identity and movement. A vision of the bestowed power of creativity was revealed in "The Camilla Line," a mixed-media exhibit by four generations of women artists named Camilla, a matriarchal lineage of art that spanned eighty years in one Vermont family, from realism to abstraction and from pastime to profession.

The juxtaposition of exhibits from month to month is sometimes striking. Last November, Charles Steckler presented his "Dioramas," whimsical little mixed-media set pieces both absurd and sentimental, ingeniously fabricated from the accumulated detritus of a selective packrat sensibility. The next month, "Mythopoeia," an exhibit of collaborative paintings by Gabriel Smith and John DiGeorge, was comprised of large-scale, mostly abstract paintings which were created specifically for the Gallery. Both were inspiring examples of shows well suited to this unusual exhibition space: the intimacy of the dioramas and the tailored grandness of the collaborations.

A different kind of fit has been a unique feature of the Gallery, and that is its connection to the Theater. The Theater & Gallery combination means that an audience for an event is an audience for the exhibit, a dynamic which has proven to be rich and interesting. This is true even when (as is usually the case) the exhibit in the Gallery is not directly related to events in the Theater. Sometimes, an indirect, serendipitous interplay exists between them, as was the case last September when Cosima Hewes' colorful, provocative paintings centering on women, pregnancy, and children, offered a very different perspective on sex and sexuality than that explored by Apron Theatre Company's production of Paula Vogel's challenging "How I Learned to Drive." Because of the contiguity of the two spaces, there is a great opportunity for exhibits to be planned directly in connection with events in the Theater. This has been true for the Women's Film Festival and for Retreat Healthcare, both of whom present exhibits in association with film series in the Theater. Another example was last June's photo exhibit about Helen and Scott Nearing, presented in connection with a staged reading based on the writings of these back-to-the-land pioneers.

This month's exhibit is a case in point. An exhibit of photographs in the Gallery accompanies Vermont Theatre Company's multimedia staging of "Double Exposure," a new musical play by local composer/playwright Zeke Hecker. The play, about a middle-aged couple whose marriage is disintegrating, centers around photography as a medium and as a metaphor (her passion is photography, his is women). As the story proceeds, questions about memory, truth, and beauty surface. These issues figure in the show's songs and in a series of projected photographs which frame the scenes. The images, some from the lives of the characters and some historic, are accompanied by voiceover observations about photography drawn from various notable writers, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Susan Sontag.

The Gallery exhibit, curated by Stephanie Peduzzi, features photographs by ten local artists. Disparate in content and style, this work ranges from Lynne Jaeger Weinstein's exquisite handheld cornucopias to Evie Lovett's images of the fleeting moments of childhood. Studies by Bob Cantius of inner-city and small-town landscapes as conversation contrast with Paul Miller's rustic still-life shots in wooden frames handmade from an old barn. Vistas of different resonances by Peter Wrenn and Larry Richardson narrow to Eric Slayton's sculpted shapes of nests or to Cia Devan's luminous close-ups of the hulls of ships. Also included are photographs by Kate Cleghorn, Roger Katz, and Vicki Kramsky. Alongside the work appear printed quotations from the play's voiceovers about photography. The exhibit will be on display through the month of May, with an opening reception during Gallery Walk, Friday, May 2, featuring live musical selections from the play, performed by stars Carlton Smith and Michael Duffin, with Phyllis Isaacson on piano.

Copyright 2003, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont

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