Painting the Town

Vermont Studio Center began life in an old red mill on the Gihon River in Johnson and soon spread into 30 village properties as it became the largest artists' colony in the country.

by Amy Souza

Vermont Studio Center founders Jon Gregg and his partner, Louise von Weise, with their Airedale terrier-collie mix companion, Peg, before a huge painting in Gregg's studio.

On a cold January day, sun pours into Jonathan Gregg's painting studio and illuminates his most recent work, a set of canvases exploring how clouds of rich color can grow into human-like figures outlined in black. His current paintings are really big taller than Gregg himself. His life's work is even bigger.

In 1984 Gregg and his partner, Louise von Weise, founded the Vermont Studio Center in this 14,000-square-foot refurbished grain mill they'd been living and working in since the late '70s. VSC (originally called Vermont Studio School) began as a nine-week summer program hosting 75 artists in shared studio and living space.

Today, VSC's campus includes 30 buildings in the village of Johnson and is the largest artists' colony in the country. Armed with an operating budget of $1.7 million, VSC brings 600 residents and visiting artists from all over the world to this tiny hamlet for one- to two-month stays.

In contrast, two other renowned colonies Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H. have larger budgets, but each serves just 200 artists a year. And they've been around for 100 years.

Faith in the universe, 1960s idealism and business acumen are Gregg and von Weise's recipe for success.

"We have good entrepreneurial instincts crossed with strong spiritual practices crossed with strong artistic practices," says Gregg.

Gregg grew up in New York City but traveled to Vermont throughout his childhood. In 1971, after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a master's degree in architecture, he decided to move here for good.

Von Weise hails from Texas but had moved to Vermont in the 1960s as part of that decade's back-to-the-country movement. One day as Gregg was driving from his home in Eden, he happened upon von Weise stranded on the side of the road with her broken down Volkswagen bus and nine children (two of them were hers). It was love at first sight.

The couple lived in Jeffersonville for a while, but bought the rundown gristmill when it went up for sale. The mill became their living and working space, housing their family and Gregg's architecture and building firm.

In the early 1980s, Gregg's brother and sister died and Gregg and von Weise were thrown. "Life is short," they agreed, too short to continue on their current path when all they really wanted to do was paint. They set out to find a way to focus on their art and to create something of a utopian community.

"I love the word community," Gregg says.

"So many interesting people came to Vermont in the '60s," says von Weise, "but they're all gone now. We wanted to stay in Vermont and make a community that was as diverse and vibrant as what had come in the '60s."

The old red mill on the Gihon River was the first of VSC's 30 buildings in Johnson.

The red, four-story grain mill bordering the Gihon River is the heart of the colony. In addition to housing Gregg, von Weise and their Airedale terrier-collie mix dog, Peg, it holds VSC's administrative offices, a small gallery and the dining room where the resident sculptors, painters and writers gather for gourmet meals. Meals are served for just 30 minutes, so if the artists want to eat they have to show up. Because there are just enough tables for the residents, people dine together, making the room a hub of interaction. Artists working in different media share stories with each other, with VSC staff (who are all artists themselves) and with visiting artists who come to VSC for a week at a time. "There's some subtle social engineering going on here," says Gregg.

The center's full-time staff of 11 is augmented by a dozen artists who stay in Johnson for a year, working 30 hours a week in exchange for room, board, studio space and a small stipend.

"I wish I had had that when I was young," says von Weise. "The networking of people here is just amazing."

Only 10 percent of VSC residents pay the full fee of $3,300 for a month's stay. Most receive some form of aid, and nearly 200 residents attend free, thanks to fellowships that last year totaled $1.3 million. Most of the residents are mid-career artists, but the admissions board aims for diversity by including some undergraduate and graduate students, as well as people von Weise calls "white- haired artists like me."

Artists hear of the center from other artists and each year 2,500 people compete for 500 residency spots. In November, it launched a website to attract more artists from other countries.

"We'd like it to be about one-third international artists each year," says Gregg.

Though not exactly a Luddite, Gregg eschewed the use of computers for most of his life.

"I was a confirmed-and-proud-of-it anti-computer person," he says.

Von Weise, a graphic designer who cuts and pastes the old-fashioned way, still doesn't use a computer hers is the only office without one and Gregg says she never will. "I'm 56; she's 61. It's not going to happen."

Two years ago, Gregg broke down and bought an iMac so he could surf the Internet and check out what was happening on the new frontier. He recently traded in his desktop computer for a portable PowerBook that he can use to show potential donors the new website.

That doesn't mean he's a convert.

"Just yesterday we had something happen here that hadn't happened in 18 years," he says. "We were in the dining room and I looked over and someone had opened up a laptop."

Gregg says he was immediately struck by the fact that this electronic device created an interruption. He graciously asked the person to close the laptop or take it somewhere else, then turned around to see another resident had a laptop open across the room. Gregg made a note to discuss dining room rules at the next board meeting.

"We're navigating through space here," he says.

Only 10 percent of VSC residents pay the full $3,300 fee for a month's stay, and nearly 200 attend free. Gary Clark (left), development director, and Andrew Hankinson, assistant director of development, see to it that the necessary funds are available.

When VSC opened, artists had to work three to a studio and share living space. "We began expanding and first we tried to make it one studio per person," says von Weise.

In 1984, VSC put in a bid on Chesamore Hall, originally the Lamoille County grammar school and later the first building of Johnson State College. Another contender was Union Bank, but when the bank's management heard VSC was bidding, it dropped out and lent VSC money to refurbish the building.

"They're an enlightened community," Gregg says. "They're concerned about preservation of the town, and they knew they wouldn't preserve the building if they bought it."

VSC continued to grow, purchasing and renovating properties that were in disrepair and leasing other buildings from the town. The VSC campus includes the old fire station, the old town gymnasium and a number of old homes, some of which were donated to VSC. All are within walking distance of Johnson village.

"We know a lot about how to build cheaply. We focus on function and try to put our money into space and light," says Gregg. "If the average cost in Vermont is $100 per square foot, then we try to push that to $85 per square foot. We squeeze every available cent out of every available dollar."

Though it is a nonprofit corporation, VSC voluntarily pays property taxes, which add up to about $35,000 a year.

"We made that decision so that the town wouldn't hurt for us being here," says Gregg.

In many ways, the town has benefited from the presence of VSC. Staff members and international residents volunteer at the local elementary school, and VSC has been integral to the preservation and building efforts of the town. VSC applied for and received a grant to refurbish the clock tower atop the Masonic temple and a grant to help design and build a new town office complex that includes a community center.

"They're a great partner in the community," says Chris Parker, head of trustees for the village. "The new town offices didn't cost the taxpayer a cent."

VSC doesn't allow residents to have loud parties or to set up their easels on neighbors' lawns without asking permission. "You can drive through town and not know we're here," says Gregg. "We do that intentionally. We feel like we're guests."

"I think most people understand the value and relationship VSC has with the community," Parker says. "That may not be true with old conservative Vermonters, but I think they're very much in the minority. Johnson has a good sense of community, and VSC is definitely part of that."

Words like joy and loving-kindness are part of Gregg's everyday vocabulary, but he stresses that his desire to create a humane and compassionate community is not the product of a Pollyanna worldview. His childhood was scarred by family problems and a mother who committed suicide. "All that ... has produced the desire to create something," he says, "so let's try to build something that's sane."

"Communicating with Jonathan is always a joy," says Parker. "He's an interesting man. His thinking may be received suspiciously by some locals, though. He used to be the type who wouldn't care what people thought. But now he understands that to get things to work, he may have to act and respond differently."

Gregg knows he runs the risk of sounding New-Agey. Still, he says, "It's OK to talk about human values other than on September 12."

Gregg says although a colony like VSC is possible in other parts of the country, Vermont definitely attracts residents.

"There's enough intellectual awareness here and yet you can go out the door and go cross-country skiing. And it's close enough to New York City so visiting artists can come for a week's stay without too much hassle.

"Being in the middle of a village works well, too," adds Gregg. "I can point over there [to the people in Johnson] and say, they all get up and go to work."

Work is what's stressed here. "Most people here have an 80-hour work week," Gregg says. "People work 12 hours a day, seven days a week." A stay at VSC, Gregg adds, is not about furthering one's career, and he advises residents to check their egos at the door.

"I tell them to just relax. Work hard, let it go," he says. "People get so attached to the fact that they're going to accomplish something."

VSC staffers often wear more than one hat. Kathy Black (left) is program director and also does admissions; Louise Cross, office manager, doubles as the accountant; and George Pearlman is operations director and works on admissions.

VSC is set up to be purposely noncompetitive, nonhierarchical, nonjudgmental and tolerant. "That comes from my being very competitive, hierarchical, judgmental and intolerant," Gregg explains with a wry smile.

For six years, VSC operated with only a group of advisers until forming a board of trustees in 1990 to run a capital campaign. Today 20 trustees provide financial and operating support, and many of them came to VSC first as residents. "Everyone says it's the best board they've ever been on," says Gregg. "It's more fun, there's no rancor, and everyone's committed."

When Gregg has visions of making the center free for all who attend, some trustees urge him to think again. "They say, 'Don't discriminate against the rich.'"

Two years ago, Gregg suffered a heart attack. Today, he pays even more attention to exercise and healthy eating. "I think it sort of shocked the board," says Gregg. "It had a galvanizing effect on all of us. Because of that wake-up call, we realized the board had to run the place."

The center is in the midst of a $7.5 million endowment campaign, and recently, von Weise and Gregg became VSC employees. The couple have maintained a lifetime lease on their living space, though, which includes dining privileges; "so we can be fired," says Gregg, "but they're not getting rid of us."

Though VSC might add more buildings to its campus, the number of residents will stay the same or decrease. "We look at the dining room as the limiting factor," Gregg says. "We think the size is right in the number of people and, in fact, passed a board resolution not to get bigger."

Gregg says his biggest challenge is letting go of his own self-centeredness and trusting that other people will care about VSC as much as he does. "I could say the biggest challenge is getting the endowment, but the more I can be patient and open and trusting, the more that will just follow."

Though evidence points to the contrary, Gregg argues he doesn't have "vision." He claims not to even like the word. His architectural training taught him to just put one foot in front of the other and that's what he does. "It's like when I'm painting. When I start out, I don't know where I'm going." •

Originally published in February 2002 Business People-Vermont