By KATHRYN FLAGG
BRISTOL — The cement floors and creaking garage door betray the space’s original purpose — but the photographs, paintings and sculptures arranged throughout the new Gallery at 85 North Street in Bristol signal the little building’s wholehearted transition from storage space to fine art forum.
The gallery is the latest addition to Bristol’s blossoming arts scene, and the darling of artists Karla Van Vliet and Kit Donnelly. The Bristol residents celebrated the opening of the seasonal summer and fall gallery on July 4.
“We wanted to bring our philosophy into the world,” said Van Vliet.
She and Donnelly, who have been friends since meeting in an artists’ critique group several years ago, began concocting plans for the gallery while Donnelly was staying with Van Vliet at her home on Bristol’s North Street, just a quick jaunt from downtown. Both women have been artists for decades — and wanted not only to generate business, but also foster a space for artists and art lovers in town to congregate.
So the two turned their eye on the garage on Van Vliet’s property, which at the time was crowded and dim. But with artists’ eyes attuned to possibility, Van Vliet and Donnelly envisioned clean white walls and gracefully mounted fine art.
“We started dreaming about what we could do with this space,” said Donnelly.
The garage is no stranger to the business of beautiful things. Frances Jeffers, who owned the home at 85 North St. for 40 years before Van Vliet took up residency, ran a flower and vegetable business out of the garage. A Bristol fixture, she plied her customers with well-tended plants and homegrown charm.
The latest business venture, Donnelly said, is a nod to “independent, entrepreneurial women.”
With that gusto — and three weeks worth of hard labor spent cleaning, painting and outfitting the space — Donnelly and Van Vliet transformed a once-cluttered garage into a simple, bright gallery.
The two artists accomplished this transformation in large part with the help of a community grant from the Bristol Friends of the Arts.
“The original concept was very product-oriented,” Donnelly said. She and Van Vliet focused on seeing the place emerge as a reality — getting art on their walls, opening shop in time for the Fourth of July kick-off and hopefully making sales.
But as the new gallery emerged, artists expressed interest and the two proprietors began brainstorming ideas for the future. The gallery took on a life of its own, they said.
“It’s evolved into this process, and it’s still evolving,” Donnelly said.
THE SPIRIT OF THE PLACE
Of course, both Van Vliet and Donnelly’s art work hangs among the paintings, photographs and sculptures the gallery displays.
Donnelly’s most striking are her large acrylic paintings — the strong shapes stand out against the gallery’s rough, white walls. Smaller watercolors reflect her commitment to abstraction and deep interest in light and color.
Van Vliet’s work is more eclectic: Chinese brush paintings, chunky jewelry and bright acrylic paintings are all scattered throughout the gallery. An artist in many mediums, the Bristol native also holds a Masters of Fine Arts degree in poetry, and her work “Merging: Ink and Word” is available at the gallery.
But the gallery displays the work of 14 artists altogether — all but one of whom hail from Addison County.
The colorful, diverse collection reflects what Van Vliet termed the “spirit of the place.”
“People come in, artists come in,” said Van Vliet. “They just want to be here and be a part of it.”
That same spirit is prompting ambitious plans for the future. Now, Van Vliet and Donnelly are caught up in the throes of administering their new gallery. But both artists hope that in the coming months they can use the garage-turned-gallery as a place for poetry readings and music performances.
They’d like to plan an art walk in collaboration with other galleries like Art on Main and the Walkover Gallery in town, and come this fall the gallery could see “leaf-peeper” events. With an old woodstove on hand to cut the chill, the duo has even considered opening the seasonal gallery for one night in December for holiday festivities.
THE BRISTOL BUZZ
Bristol is no stranger to artful spaces and artistic undertakings — the Gallery at 85 North Street joins Art on Main and the Walkover Gallery on the Bristol gallery scene.
But the intent, Donnelly and Van Vliet said, was never to compete directly with these galleries, but rather to foster the arts scene in Bristol and provide more access to a greater number of artists.
“I think people are really excited about what’s happening in Bristol,” Donnelly said. “Especially with gas prices these days, nobody wants to go anywhere. The more we can make happen in Bristol, the better it’s going to be. And Bristol is only moving in that direction.”
The gallery’s first week of business proved to be a pleasant surprise for Van Vliet and Donnelly, who were happy to report that they made several sales. They hope the gallery will be a viable business enterprise — but more importantly, they look forward to what the space means for the arts scene in Bristol.
“Hopefully we’re only adding to that energy,” Donnelly said.
“We put our heart into our work,” Van Vliet added.
The Gallery at 85 North Street is open Thursday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., or by chance and appointment. The gallery is located at (you guessed it) 85 North St., and Van Vliet and Donnelly can be contacted at 453-5813 or 349-7551 for more information.