Arts & Leisure

Piglets in Brandon: Artists Guild celebrates 25 years

BARBARA EBLING AND Matt Gibbs pull Matt’s “Porcus Latinium” in the “Really Really Pig Show” Parade in 2003.

Renowned artist and Brandon resident Warren Kimble made a huge splash in the 1990s putting his distinctive twist on 19th-century folk-art styles, creating a whimsical world of white New England houses and wildly proportioned farm animals.  One of those animals turned out to have more significance in his life, and to Brandon as a whole, than he probably anticipated: the pig.

The humble pig turned out to be the initial source of the funds that enabled Kimble and other artists who had settled in Brandon to purchase and renovate the former five & dime at 7 Center Street and form the Brandon Artists Guild (BAG). 

“I was standing in front of the 5 & 10 and the president of the First Brandon Bank, which had just bought the building, came out,” recalled Kimble recently at his current studio in the Granary. “I said, ‘I heard you bought the building’ and he said, ‘Yes, but just for storage.’  I immediately asked whether we could use the front windows for artwork.  He said yes.”

By the late ’90s, it was, by all accounts, a decrepit building.  Old pegboard covered the walls.  It was not anyone’s idea of a professional art gallery.  But a group of artists and friends, including Kimble, Liza Myers, Dolores Funari, Jackie Foley, and David Martin, rolled up their sleeves and scrubbed the place down.

“We cleaned the place as much as we could,” recalled Kimble.  “The earliest meetings of the Guild were at a beat-up old conference table.  We’d meet and go to dinner at Sully’s afterward.” Sully’s was across the street in the space now occupied by The River Pub.

In 2003, however, Kimble had a brainstorm that set the BAG on a successful course for the next 20+ years.

“I heard the city of Chicago was putting big fiberglass cows everywhere,” he said.  “Saratoga Springs was doing horses.  Why don’t we do pigs?”  

And so they did.

Kimble recruited 40 artists from Brandon and its environs to decorate life-size fiberglass pigs.  They were able to raise $20,000 from local sponsors in two weeks to pay for the plain statues (at $500 a pop).

“It says a lot about our town that people would give that kind of money for a crazy idea,” said Kimble with amusement and pride.

IN AN EARLY successful fundraiser that garnered much publicity and helped put the Brandon Artists Guild on solid financial footing, forty decorated pigs were auctioned off in 2003.

The artists received unadorned pigs and returned fantastically reimagined sculptures that delighted everyone.  The sheer joy of artistic creation was obvious in the results, which ran the gamut from wings to underwater seascapes to farm scenes to musical scores to Latin inscriptions.  All the pigs were given names and biographies.

The show, titled “The Really Really Pig Show” in a sly reference to Ed Sullivan, was a major hit, generating massive publicity for the BAG.  On Memorial Day weekend that year, the pigs were unveiled in a parade through Brandon and then displayed around town.  That September, the pigs were auctioned off, raising over $100,000, a sum that allowed the BAG to purchase and renovate the old 5 & 10.  The pigs, one could say, provided the financial footing that has allowed the BAG to grow into the robust professional gallery it is today and weather all the economic twists and turns Brandon has had.

ONE OF THE finished pigs.

The pig show was such a success that in subsequent years, the BAG did birdhouses (2004), rocking chairs (2005), clocks (2011), and quilts (2018), to name just a few of their fundraising art projects.  And this year, to mark the 25th anniversary of the formation of the BAG, they’re returning to their roots with another pig show: “Brandon’s Art of the Pig.”

On a somewhat smaller scale than in 2003, the BAG’s artists and willing friends will embellish wooden pig-shaped cutouts, about the size of a cheeseboard, which will be sold off in a silent auction from Aug. 16 through Aug. 18 at the Brandon Town Hall, with a “Piglet Preview Party” at Café Provence on Friday, June 7.  Between the preview party and the auction, the pigs will be displayed in windows around town.  As per the BAG’s tradition, a portion of the proceeds will go to local schools to pay for art supplies.

At 25, the BAG can absolutely call itself a success.  Along with the advent of Café Provence, the BAG’s presence in town helped revive Brandon’s economy after the closure of the Brandon Training School in the 90s, giving Brandon a reputation for artsiness that has brought tourists to the downtown for dining and shopping.  

“The BAG is probably the best guild gallery in Vermont,” said Kimble.  A cooperatively run space, members who are accepted into the organization are expected to help run the gallery. 

A visit to the BAG today reveals a bright, crisp space filled with paintings, photographs, ceramics, jewelry, glass, fiber arts, and jewelry.  A wide variety of styles in a wide variety of media.

“The BAG has great sustainability,” said Kimble.  “We’re constantly bringing in new people and new art.”

Current BAG President Stacey Stanhope Dundon noted that despite the initially slim odds of the BAG’s survival, the gallery is thriving 25 years later.

“Why? Because of an art fundraiser held early on,” Stanhope Dundon wrote in an email to The Reporter.  “The Pig Fundraiser, which raised enough money, allowing us to buy our building.  It has been 25 years of the most supportive community and artists any small business could ask for.  I foresee another 25 great years in our future.  I am just happy to have been a part of it.”

ARTIST WARREN KIMBLE, one of the founders of the Brandon Artists Guild, leads a celebration of the Guild’s 25th anniversary at the organization’s annual dinner at the Lilac Inn in Brandon on March 25.

Liza Myers, who participated in the first Pig Show, wrote, “The Brandon Artists Guild ‘tipped’ Brandon.  Our lovely little village was having hard times, teetering on the brink of economic success or sliding into an economic morass.  Our efforts with the arts brought new life and pizzazz back to the town.  We were called the ‘Art and Soul of Vermont’ by Yankee magazine!  I am very proud and grateful to have been part of that effort.”

Robin Kent, a Brandon artist who now shows with Kimble and Medana Gabbard at the Vermont Folk Art Gallery on Park Street, juried into the BAG’s very first cohort of new members in 1997.

“It’s like raising a kid,” said Kent.  “It takes on a life of its own.  It’s standing on its own two feet now.”

New member Peter Root said at a recent event at the BAG, “People love this thing they created here.  It’s really special being invited to join.”

“I think we’ve evolved into what’s needed,” said Kimble.

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