County natives deepen their love of art with their own gallery
VERGENNES — “You have the best office in all of Addison County.”
That’s what clientele often say to Justine Jackson and Sophie Pickens, the owners of Northern Daughters, a contemporary art gallery located in the heart of downtown Vergennes.
According to their website, the gallery strives “to be a space that merges the aesthetic of blue chip galleries with the familiarity and authenticity of a Vermont general store.” That authenticity of the gallery is derived from its two founders’ childhoods spent in Bristol, where the duo lived as neighbors, attended the Bridge School together in Middlebury, and were raised by mothers who are both artists and have instilled in their daughters a love and appreciation for the arts.
From a young age, Pickens would help her mother, the painter Pamela Smith, make papier-mâché statues during the holiday season that they would then display at Folkheart, the store the family used to own in Bristol. Every day, Jackson, whose mother is the painter Anne Cady, would go to an after-school arts program that her mother used to run.
During high school, Pickens and Jackson separated. Pickens and her family traveled and moved to Nepal, where she attended the Lincoln School in Kathmandu. She went on to graduate from Vassar College in 2006, where she studied Chinese and Costume Design. Jackson stayed in Vermont, and graduated from Middlebury College in 2010 with a degree in Latin American Studies. She spent her final semester in the Dominican Republic, and used that time to travel throughout Nicaragua, Ghana and other West African countries.
Then, roughly two years ago, they both found themselves living in Brooklyn, N.Y., and decided to meet at a coffee shop to catch up. While there, they realized they both shared a desire to return to Vermont. From there, the idea for a gallery was born and, according to Pickens, they “just jumped right in.”
When Northern Daughters opened last August, the community welcomed the business with open arms. Pickens, who now lives in Vergennes, said she did not spend much time in the Little City prior to opening the gallery.
“This has given me an opportunity to get to know the community,” she said. “The mayor stopped in right after we opened to make sure we had everything we needed. Everyone at City Hall has been very supportive and communicative. From the very beginning it felt like everyone was on our side.”
Pickens said that owning a gallery has allowed art to become one of the forefronts of her life, that it has allowed her to engage more deeply with artists.
“(The gallery) is an entryway to approach other artists, and the community in general, in Vermont,” she said. “It represents some part of who I am immediately in conversation and that allows for a different level of engagement.”
For Jackson, one of the most rewarding parts of owning a gallery is getting to act as the conduit through which both artists and community members can support and interact with one another. “A gallery is a way of supporting a lifestyle. If you can sell and promote an artist’s work, then (that allows them to) create,” she said.
Jackson and Pickens are committed to running a gallery that is a space that everyone in the community can enjoy.
“It is really important to us to have (the gallery) be a space that is accessible to everybody, that people feel comfortable coming in,” Jackson said. “It has been nice for us to have a space, to create the energy within it, share it, and also invite other things to exist in this space. We’ve had different programming — some classes, some music — and there’s certainly more to come.”
Pickens agreed, and said that having a space to offer a variety of programming to the public — everything from adult sex-ed classes to a murder mystery party — has allowed them to join and facilitate new conversations in the community.
“We want everyone to feel like there is something here for them,” Pickens said.
At present, Northern Daughters is open only from Thursday through Sunday, and on Monday through Wednesday by appointment. When she is not at the gallery, Pickens works at the John Graham Shelter, tends bar, and does freelance bookkeeping for a company in New York City. Jackson works for the artist Rebecca Kinkead in Ferrisburgh, where she helps manage her studio.
Kinkead is one of the artists featured in the gallery’s latest exhibit, “Dear Wild Ones.” The exhibit, which also features the work of sculptor Eben Markowski, runs through July 9, and is comprised of works that depict wild animals.
On July 13 (and running through Aug. 27) Northern Daughters will stage the show “See You at the Lake,” a solo exhibit of new work from Anne Cady. This show marks a departure from Cady’s typical landscapes, shifting the focus to boats.
The current exhibit is the gallery’s fifth. According to Jackson, they have a group of eight core artists that they work with on a regular basis.
“We’re pretty careful about the artists we work with. We want them to be people who we are inspired by in both their work and as humans,” Pickens said. “We’re really lucky to have a wonderful group of artists and we hope to continue to grow that very, very slowly so we can really know everyone who is here, be able to represent them well and be able to engage with them.”
Going forward, Jackson and Pickens hope to share the work of Vermont artists with those around the country. This fall, they will present artwork at the Affordable Art Fair in New York City.
“(This will be) the first time we’ve represented these artists outside of Vermont and we’re looking forward to doing that more in the future,” Pickens said.
When asked which of their past exhibits was their favorite, both Pickens and Jackson laughed. “That’s like picking a favorite child,” Jackson said.
However, if they had to choose, they said they would probably select their first exhibit, “Madonnas Make You Brave.” That exhibit featured the work of two artists: their mothers.
“It’s a safe answer,” Pickens said.
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