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New Haven duo crafts reputation with folk art

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By KATHRYN FLAGG

NEW HAVEN — Middlebury pedestrians braving drab February weather may have glanced a spot of color and whimsy in one Main Street window this month.

A spotted wooden dog, seemingly perched precariously on one paw, “juggled” a series of brightly painted wooden balls strung through a thin wire. Another canine teetered on a makeshift miniature bicycle, appearing to chase a chicken suspended in flight and a flurry of feathers.

Add to that batch some wooden hens, little birds and a series of fabric appliqué creations, and you’d have the cheerful display that graced the window at the National Bank of Middlebury all month.

Who is to thank for this flight of the imagination on a cold February day? Look to New Haven artists Mike and Marlene Forte.

From their home, the couple whittles and paints and stitches away, crafting one-of-a-kind folk art pieces that are on sale at the Vermont Folklife Center or through their Web site, www.bluebellfolkart.com.

Art, Mike Forte explained, has been a lifelong pursuit for the couple, but it’s only been in the last three years that they’ve started selling their creations seriously.

“We’ve always been creating artwork,” Forte said. “It’s taken a long time, and evolved. … It sort of takes a long time to find how you like to work and express yourself.

“It’s a long process,” he continued, before laughing, “Plus, the house started getting filled up with stuff.”

It’s a busy home, after all.

The Fortes are three-fold home entrepreneurs. In addition to their art gallery, they run two more businesses from their New Haven house: Forte Computer Services, and the Natural Canine, an Internet-based company that specializes in herbal and homeopathic remedies for dogs.

Forte, who spends much of his time tinkering on computers, battling computer viruses and zipping around the county on house calls to fix ailing hard drives and home networks, said that his folk art pursuits provide a welcome respite from his work on the computer bench.

But there remains something of the technical in Forte’s work. Among his most charming creations are his automata, or mechanical toys. The scenes are crafted from wood and acrylic paint, like most of Forte’s creations, but are powered by simple gears and wires.

They’re popular collectors’ items in England, Forte explained, but have a history that stretches as far back as ancient Greece. In Mike’s case, he started on his own automata kick after Marlene gave him a book one Christmas devoted to the simple machines.

The automata bring to life the wooden figurines that Forte carves — typically from pine, using a skill saw and file — to life.

They’re rough, imperfect figures: Forte said that spontaneity rather than close attention to detail is important to him in his creative pursuits.

“I like to spend the time on the creative part,” he said. “When the piece is done, there’s a lot of energy in it.”

The Fortes pull their inspiration from the world over — and their own neighbors’ homes here in Addison County. Marlene looks to a number of books and magazines from Great Britain, and Mike admitted that he’s found ideas more than once on house calls for his computer business.

And, frequently, they find inspiration in their own backyard — specifically, in the antics of their two dogs. It was Molly who inspired a whole series of “circus dog” figurines, after all. The Fortes have dubbed her “Molly the Circus Girl” for her playful performances, and have memorialized the tricks in a range of art pieces.

In one figurine, a pup leaps through a ring of fire. There’s a high wire act, a levitation act, and a particularly whimsical figurine of a dog preparing to launch himself from a canon.

Forte has trouble pinpointing his favorite creations. One of his most frequent favorites is an automaton of St. Francis accompanied by a bluebird and a large, friendly wolf. Like the Fortes’ display in the bank window, the figure is awash in blues and greens and bright colors.

Marlene specializes in the appliqué fabric creations that eventually become wall hangings or pillows, while Mike works primarily on his wooden figurines. Both paint.

The two dream of someday owning a store or gallery that would let them pursue their folk art full time. That, Mike Forte said, would be the culmination of creating art together for the whole of their 34-year marriage.

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