Ferrisburgh couple sharing a vision on art, housing

FERRISBURGH — Ferrisburgh artists Denis and Judith Rey Versweyveld have shared a home for 48 years, and a passion for art for even longer.
But until two years ago, they had never directly collaborated on their art. Now, their latest show of their joint work — called “Shelter:Dwelling:House:Home,” sculptures of homes by Denis painted on by Judith, plus Judith’s paintings of homes — is on display in the Vermont Arts Council’s Spotlight Gallery in Montpelier through Oct. 29.
There are many elements in play for the Versweyvelds when they talk about the show, which shares much in common with a December show in Burlington that benefited that city’s homeless shelter.
Still, Judith, 67, and Denis, 74, said directly producing art together is an exciting step after all their decades together.
“We’ve both been involved with art for a long time, and we’ve both lived under the same roof for a long time,” Judith said. “And now finally after almost 50 years of marriage we’re starting to make art together, so that’s really fun. That’s worked out really nicely.”
Denis said the collaboration has “enriched” their lives.
“It really has,” Denis said. “Just the common interest is great, but actually making a particular thing that speaks about both of us and our sensibilities is pretty special.” 
The couple, New York natives who settled in Ferrisburgh in 1972, met at the State University of New York at New Paltz, where they were studying to become art teachers.
Their idea of a date back then?
“We would go places and draw together,” Denis said.
Denis also helped his more petite wife-to-be prepare her six-foot canvases. Denis gravitated toward sculpture, and eventually earned a master’s in fine art in that discipline.
Judith’s painting was interrupted for decades by family — their two sons are now in their 40s — and career — after briefly teaching, Judith, with Denis’ help, ran a preschool, and Judith has directed the Frog Hollow Craft Center in Middlebury and served as CEO of Danforth Pewter.
In 2004, she retired from Danforth and started painting again.
“I always wanted to think I could get back to it. So when I had the time, the materials were all over this place,” Judith said. “I just started doing it again. And then we started having shows. Well, Denis has always had shows and a lot of exhibits, but then I started doing them, too.”
In the meantime, Denis taught art at all public school levels and at the universities of Iowa and Vermont. When necessary, he also worked outside of his calling at Garden Way and Queen City Printers Inc.
And he always kept painting, drawing and sculpting, and showing his art.
“I haven’t sold a lot of work, but I sort of have consistently sold things throughout the years,” Denis said.
Now, in the past two years, their appreciation for art and for what they have together — a lovely home in the Ferrisburgh countryside and a happy marriage — have combined in unique fashion.
When Judith began painting again, she was drawn to houses. One of her first works now hangs over their living room couch, of a New York City apartment building like that in which she grew up. She soon started expanding on the theme.
“Here in Vermont we lived in a little old Cape Cod house that’s down the hill there. That, to me, is what a house is,” she said. “When you are an art teacher and you teach young children, that’s one of the first images that they will draw. So it’s something everybody can relate to.”
By 2008, she had dozens of paintings of homes and was ready to show her work. That readiness coincided with Vermont’s annual open studio weekend.
At the same time, recession had struck the nation. Their sons live in Florida and California and Judith’s sister lives in Arizona, three states where the housing crisis hit hardest.
“It’s really striking when you go to those places how bad things are,” Denis said.
Sitting in her home studio, Judith felt compelled to act. She put up a sign saying that proceeds from the sale of her home paintings would go to the John Graham Emergency Homeless Shelter in Vergennes and Habitat for Humanity, and priced them between $10 and $35. About 80 sold.
“I felt happy to be able to do that,” Judith said, adding, “The whole housing debacle, it probably doesn’t make that much sense to people here in Vermont. I don’t think we feel it as much. Some people do, unfortunately.”
She started doing more and more.
“I just got carried away with it,” Judith said. “I was just making dozens and dozens of these things and these little paintings, and I did some big paintings that are hanging over in the show in Montpelier. But then I said to Denis I would really love to paint on something three dimensional.”
“That’s when I got involved,” Denis said. “I’ve done quite a few.”
Denis said he, too, feels strongly about the housing issue, but admits he looks at the project from a more artistic angle.
“My approach to them has probably been a little more detached than Judith’s,” he said. “Mine, I think, has probably been about the more formal concerns of making art that is using buildings. And then she would humanize them again by painting on them.”
By December 2009, when Burlington architectural firm Truex Collins & Partners approached the Versweyvelds about a show to benefit the Burlington homeless shelter, Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS), they were ready. Many pieces sold, including “more sculpture than I ever had (sold) before,” Denis said.
“A significant amount of the proceeds from that show were donated to COTS,” Denis said. “There must have been 200 people who turned out for that, and it was very fun and exciting for us to be able to do that.”
The Montpelier show carries the same title and essence and displays many of the same pieces, as well as many new works.
“There’s some different work than we had in the show up in Burlington,” Judith said. “But it’s essentially the same theme.”
The Vermont Art Council’s Spotlight Gallery is not a commercial gallery, but if those who view the art are interested and want to buy, Judith said the couple agrees they will again donate some proceeds.
The couple also said they find it is not hard to agree on their joint artwork when they meet at the end of the day — they have studios at the opposite end of their home.
Judith said Denis has a keen eye and is “generally right,” but possibly more importantly knows how to make his points.
“I’ll look at something and say, ‘I don’t think I like that,’” she said. “He’s nicer about it than I am. He’ll take a half an hour to look at something, and I’ll look at something for two or three minutes. That’s the difference in our personalities. He’ll work on a piece for months and months, and I’ll be out there working on three or four pieces at the same time. But he’s very thoughtful when it comes to his (criticism), very constructive.”
But Denis said he also gets plenty of positive feedback from Judith.
“You do that for me, too,” Denis said.
“Well, we do that for each other,” Judith said.
“It’s kind of a nice time, actually, to be working in our studios separately and then come together and talk about the work we’ve done,” Denis said.
“We’re very lucky,” Judith said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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