AFTER IRENE: GALLERY WALK

OK, so is Vermont open for business, as our governor, our state tourist office and our friendly chambers of commerce want us to believe?

Perhaps just parts of Vermont are open for business. The ones with intact shops and roads.

For us in Windham County, where the entire tourist town of Wilmington went under in the flood, perhaps it’s better to ask if poor Brattleboro, blessed with three exits off the Interstate and bookended by tragedy (a fire at one end, two murders in between, and a flood at the other end) is open for business.

As the peak tourist season — fall foliage — approaches, it’s a good question to ask. And a good guide, I figured, would be last Friday’s Gallery Walk.

Here we are with an amazing resource: a regular monthly street party that includes art galleries in every store on or near Main Street, plus the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center, plus street vendors, plus musicians, jugglers and stilt walkers, plus free munchies — it is an event which draws people from every town as well as tourists from far away.

Rain or shine, snow, sleet, or hail, Gallery Walk happens on the first Friday of every month. That means that the most recent one was held in the wake of the great storm of 2011, Hurricane Irene. The hurricane hit us on Sunday, and Friday brought Gallery Walk.

So many people were hurting then. So much economic devastation had been caused by the flooding of the Deerfield River and the Whetstone Brook. Would people show up for something as frivolous as Gallery Walk? Could they show up — could they even get out of their houses or their towns?

Or would Main Street be empty?

Main Street was so empty when I got there at 5:20 pm that I was shaken.

My cousin Joan, who was visiting for Labor Day Weekend, and I were supposed to meet artist (and master caterer) Sharon Myers in front of the Key Bank at 5:30. With 10 minutes to spare, Joan and I waited in Pliny Park, where the Asian Cultural Center of Vermont immediately raised my heart and my spirit

Dressed in colorful kimonos, a group of Japanese and non-Japanese had set up an Obon and Tanabata — the double festivals of summer — in the park.

“Obon is a celebration of ancestors and reconnection with Spirits,” says their Web site at accvt.org. “Tanabata is a star festival for communities to make wishes for the future (happening each year when the paths of two of the brightest stars, Vega and Altair, meet in the sky). Join us and walk a lantern-lit path to the Table of Remembrance.”

Tables offered free sushi, star cookies and cool green tea. Incense filled the air. Lanterns glowed. There were flower petals on the concrete making a path leading up to the Table of Remembrance, where people could light a candle to remember someone they had lost.

I whispered to Joan that between us, we had lost so many people (parents, husbands, brothers) that we could light the whole park with candles. She nodded. So instead of picking just one dead relative to honor, we sat on a bench and watched the colorful parade of people coming through.

To me, someone who was afraid of a barren Gallery Walk, the Oban and Tanabata festival meant that Brattleboro wasn’t alone. It wasn’t dead. It wasn’t deserted. It meant that as much as Brattleboro is a confluence of waters, it is also a confluence of people and cultures and sometimes soothing softness, light and beauty.

Sharon came walking down High Street, saw us and shepherded us to the Key Bank, where Brattleboro-West Arts had set up an equally heart-raising event.

This group of exceptionally talented artists — and Sharon is one of them — had planned to hold a Gallery Walk event celebrating the Whetstone Brook, which is the thread that holds them together along the now disappeared Route 9. (Just as the Rock River, which also turned into a destructive beast during Irene, holds the Rock River Artists together in Williamsville and South Newfane, two towns now in tatters. Artists and rivers and views and beauty: something to think about.)

A raging, destructive Whetstone had not been in Brattleboro-West Arts’ plans. Being artists, however, they immediately changed their focus to the flood.

The brilliant musician and composer Ned Phoenix, around whose collection the Estey Organ Museum has been created, had been asked to write a fiddle piece about the river. Before he played it, he told the gathering crowd that the river was named for its flat stones that could sharpen knives.

He then said that he had added a third movement to his piece, in which you could hear the Whetstone rise and rage.

Another member of Brattleboro West Arts, potter (and former doctor) Walter Slowinski, had walked along the brook at the height of the storm taking dramatic pictures which he posted in the bank’s window, along with some of his ceramics.

Walter himself was sitting on a nearby bench, barefoot, with a basket of peaches he had grown himself. He was handing them out to anyone who wanted one.

“If I do say so myself, I grow the best peaches in the county,” he said.

And while I can’t comment on the county’s many other peaches, I can say that his were exceptionally sweet and juicy.

We left the artists to hit Main Street and see what was going on. A Candle in the Night was displaying some quirky painted furniture-like sculptures. Two young, glittery female stilt walkers were attracting a lot of attention. By 6:30 pm, the sidewalks were full of tables where people were selling raffle tickets for worthy causes. The sidewalks were also full of people.

We passed by the Latchis Theater, and I mentioned to Sharon that it was closed due to flooding in the basement. After all the videos on YouTube and the comments flying on Facebook, this was the comment that brought the devastation home to her.

“You know, it hasn’t really hit me until now,” she said, laughing in what I believe was shock. “Brattleboro is completely without movies.”

We went down to the museum, which had a good crowd for its terrific shows, including the main one, “Glass in All Senses,” which dazzled Joan.

According to the museum’s Web site, brattleboromuseum.org, “The artists in Glass in All Senses investigate the ways in which glass can enhance or alter our perceptions. As the exhibition’s title suggests, the focus is not just on visual perception, but on all of the other senses as well as sound, touch, taste and smell.”

Although yes, there is a work of glass in the show that you can eat, the wonders of the show, for me, are the large glass flowers that Robert duGrenier created. He put tiny perfume bottles in the center of each flower, When the show opened, you could drown in the intoxicating scents. Now they have all but dried up and blown away, and you have to work hard to catch a rising drift of scent. But the flowers remain beautiful.

Just before we left the museum, I spotted Alex Aldrich, the executive director of the Vermont Arts Council, coming in for a tour of the renovated main hall.

When walked out of the museum, we walked into a Gallery Walk full of life. Shin La, where we had dinner, was packed. The other restaurants were packed. The bars were packed. It was a glorious thing to see, downtown Brattleboro coming alive at night in the middle of so much tragedy.

We ended the evening by touring the beautiful gallery upstairs at Vermont Artisans. While Joan and Sharon investigated the art, I rested in a rocking chair and petted a huge sculpture of a hound. That’s where gallery owner Greg Worden took the picture that leads this piece.

When we got into our cars to go, I was happy to see that downtown was still bustling.

Brattleboro has taken some hard hits. But as I learned during this Gallery Walk, it is powerfully, beautifully, wonderfully unbowed and open for business.

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