Rockwell Exhibit Finds New Home at Battenkill Gallery

The Mears family has owned and operated The Sugar Shack on the banks of the Battenkill in Arlington for more than two decades, constantly adding to its inventory and diversifying the experience for its visitors. From humble beginnings in their original building where a generous dose of Vermont hospitality was served up along with maple syrup made on property, pancake mix and a few Vermont food products, the business has continued to grow. The store now features everything from homemade pies, cookies and fudge to Vermont souvenirs, tee shirts to teaspoons and seasonal favorites like cider donuts each fall. Several years ago a restaurant, Jonathan’s Table was added to the venue providing the Arlington community and visitors alike with fine food served in a friendly atmosphere.

With the kids grown and Patti Mears set to retire after more than 30 years as a high school social studies teacher, the Mears’ acted on yet another opportunity to not only grow the family business, but this time to preserve an important Arlington cultural resource in peril of being lost. They recently purchased the collection of Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post prints from Joy Henrichson of the longstanding Norman Rockwell Exhibit at the Arlington Gallery. With Henrichson’s building for sale, the Mears’ and Joy saw the benefit of keeping the Rockwell/Arlington connection intact at their Battenkill Gallery, a new attraction on site at The Sugar Shack. No sooner had they begun to install the collection in summer when buses began to arrive as early as Labor Day weekend. The Arlington Gallery Exhibit had been a popular tourist destination and regular stop on many motorcoach itineraries for years. Now the Mears believe it will continue to thrive in its new home.

An Arlington resident for years, Norman Rockwell was noted for his paintings of everyday people and situations. His art tells stories of middle class America and possesses a humor that has delighted generations of Americans. He was a meticulous craftsman, his illustrations showing careful observation and great technical skill. One of his most famous works, “The Four Freedoms”, depicting freedom of speech, of religion, freedom from want and fear, was painted in Arlington with his neighbors as his models.

Works in this category include ceramics by Karen Karnes, known as the “grandmother of American ceramics”, as well as textiles woven over the past thirty years by self-taught weaver Carol Crawford, and unique jewelry and distinctive pieces created with the revolutionary new material Precious Metal Clay by professional jeweler Jennifer Kahn and master artist Celie Fago. Their work and their intriguing stories are all representative of the theme Living by “Making”.

His connection to his friends and neighbors in town is an important reason why in addition to the scores of reproductions of the artist’s Saturday Evening Post covers, the exhibit includes photos and stories of the local townsfolk, who were models for his paintings, Ritchie Mears’ uncle among them. A short introductory video includes interviews with models and Arlingtonians who knew Norman.

Plans for the future include expansion into two other buildings on the property: the sugar house will double as the site for a small theater and gallery where a collection of Post covers that show Rockwell’s connection with each of the 50 states will be displayed. In the fall of 2010, the couple expects to focus exclusively on Arlington in another of their buildings. When completed visitors will be able to view “before and after” photos of many of the local sites found in Rockwell’s Arlington area illustrations and can expect to see the faces of other well known Arlington residents.

In his biographical introduction to Norman Rockwell the Illustrator published in 1946, Jack Alexander describes his friend this way, “Rockwell’s Common Man was earthily American – his characters wore the natural dignity of the ordinary man who prefers to carry his own weight if given the chance – Rockwell liked his characters.” Alexander further explains that, “The reason rural Vermonters make such good models, Rockwell thinks, is that they are a proud breed who would die before trying to be like anyone else, and have their individuality marred by attempts at imitation.”

Rockwell says of himself and his illustration work, “I guess I am a storyteller and although this may not be the highest form of art, it is what I love to do.” Americans must have loved it too since this iconic artist was also prolific, producing more than 4,000 illustrations, his work spanning more than half a century. Fourteen of these years were spent in Arlington from 1939 to 1953 on River Road where he and wife Mary raised their boys in their country home on the Battenkill, something for this small Vermont town to celebrate.

As for the proud new owners of the collection, the Mears say, “They are happy to be in Arlington, Vermont located in the heart of the beautiful southwest region known as The Shires.” They feel fortunate to live and do business in a place they love for the same reasons in the 21st century that Norman Rockwell loved it in the first part of the 20th, its people!

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