Thursday February 28, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Ann Stokes’ passion for the arts had found expression in many ways -- as eager audience-member, patron, poet, friend and host of an artists’ colony ... you name it.

But one day, when she was in her 60s, that passion found a new form of expression. Inspired by the natural beauty around her home in West Chesterfield, N.H., she picked up a paintbrush, dipped it into some paint and let what she was feeling come out.

"I’ve been sort of full of art. Suddenly something happened. ... All the colors that were in me were just bursting out. They just had to come out," recalled Stokes.

She has continued to paint in the 15 years or so since that morning, expressing what she feels in a colorful way as she works in a tree house on her property in spring, summer and fall.

"She’s amazing," said friend and fan Arlene Distler.

Distler’s own artistic journey tells of a similar renaissance. She grew up in an artistic household, nurtured her talents and eventually graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. Then life interposed.

"I got married a year out of college. ... Not only was I raising a family, but I was doing it as a homesteader," said Distler, who kept in touch with her art by drawing a lot with her children. And writing became her the outlet for her creative soul.

But painting still held her.

"Painting didn’t let me go. I would go to art shows and I could feel my muscles start twitching," said Distler.

In the late-’90s, when Distler was in her 50s, her partner Marty Jezer and artist Ric Campman encouraged -- "harangued" is the word Distler lovingly uses -- her to start painting again. She began taking classes and has continued to do so on and off in the last 15 years. Painting was back.

"I just recently starting working with watercolors and pastels," Distler said.

Distler’s and Stokes’ stories are two of the fascinating testaments to the creative spirit that lie at the heart of a new exhibit opening this Friday during Gallery Walk in Brattleboro.

"Two Roads Diverged: Painting and sculpture by women who have started -- or returned to -- making art later in life" will be featured at the Catherine Dianich Gallery in the Hooker-Dunham Building through March, coinciding with Women’s History Month.

The idea for the exhibit began when Distler met a dear friend, who had just started making art again.

"Just seeing how happy and excited she was made me think ‘I know more people who are in this situation,’" Distler recalled.

So she set about to curate the show -- her first such effort -- and began to connect with women who fit the bill. Turns out, our arts-drenched town was a good place to look. "I really didn’t have to go too far," said Distler.

Before she knew it, she had nine women -- six painters, two sculptors and a collage artist -- who will be featured in this show, which opens with a reception this Friday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The artists featured are: Barbara Baribeau (painting), Arlene Distler (painting), Kathleen Gatto-Gurney (sculpture), Marcia Hammond (painting), Marya Koskoris (painting), Lynn Martin (painting), Meris Morrison (painting), Ann Stokes (painting) and Muriel Wolf (collage).

"The work is so different, each person from another, which is one of the interesting things about it," said Distler. "I wanted it to be people who don’t show a whole lot, but whose work is exciting."

Though their life journeys are as different as their artwork, the exhibit, as a whole, does tell some collective stories.

One, is a reflection of the richness of great art teachers in the area. Gratitude for Ric Campman, Marilyn Allen, Kim Colligan, Allen Steinberg, the River Gallery School, the Senior Center art program came up again and again in the artist’s statements.

A second has to do with the vitality of the creative spirit and how that finds expression in the hands of women who have seen a lot of life.

"There is this deep knowing that these women have. This is not always seen in the work of a younger artist," said Catherine Dianich, owner of the gallery. "They’re more willing to take chances, less willing to follow rules. ... They’re uncowed by obstacles."

"I think painting scared me when I was young, not understanding how to use it for my own expression," wrote Marcia Hammond in her artist statement. "However, now for the last 15 years, I find painting to be the freedom medium for me, and I think it may be oils. We shall see."

When Distler pitched the exhibit to Dianich, it was an easy sell.

"I am, as always, interested in art that’s going to move people in a profound way," said Dianich. "I don’t think this has been done before in this town, so I love this idea."

There are so many other artists who meet the criteria that this exhibit could be an annual or biennial show, Dianich said.

But first things first. After Friday’s reception, "Two Roads Diverged" will be open for viewing in March on Fridays and Saturday, from noon to 3 p.m., and by appointment (call 802-380-1607).

The exhibit is made possible by a grant from the Crosby Fund of the Vermont Community Foundation.

A portion of proceeds of sales of work will go to one of the following organizations, to be chosen by the artist: The Warrior Connection, an organization that helps women veterans dealing with PTSD through expressive art therapies; the Women’s Freedom Center, which helps women suffering from physical or emotional domestic abuse; the program for women at AIDS Project of Southern Vermont; Stone Soup, an arts program of the Senior Center.

For more information, visit www.catherinedianichgallery .com.