Guild by Association

Art, crafts, fine food, pastoral views this 16-acre haven in Ferrisburgh harbors a menu of artistic and culinary endeavors

by Julia Lynam

Terry and Debbie Allen founded the Ferrisburgh Artisans' Guild to have a place where the public could enjoy Vermont art.

Aguild, in medieval Europe, was a society made up of highly skilled craftspeople dedicated to preserving and improving standards of their art or craft who pledged to help one another. The guilds were more than self-serving groups of artists; they were also integral parts of their communities at large, playing an important part in the social order.

It's an idea that is alive and kicking in Ferrisburgh. Debbie Allen, co-founder with her husband, Terry (who was profiled in our Feb. 1997 issue), her daughter Heidi Mahoney, and their associate Don DeVaney of the Ferrisburgh Artisans' Guild, explains: "We founded the guild to promote Vermont art and to have the public enjoy it. We've been here for more than two years now, and we're increasingly cooperating and collaborating with other community organizations like the state craft center at Frog Hollow and the local schools."

The guild occupies a 16-acre site on U.S. 7 in Ferrisburgh. The showpiece 1810 farmhouse houses the galleries where artwork by more than 160 Vermont artists fills several sunlit rooms.

"Vermont has more artists per head of population than any other state," claims Allen, "so we have no trouble finding exhibits." Like the old guilds, however, there is a very rigorous qualifying procedure, and a formidable jury of leading Vermont artists convenes twice yearly, in May and November, to select pieces for exhibition.

The guild is not just a gallery. There are a number of facets to this project, and the Allens have brought all the buildings on the site into creative use. A furniture studio occupies the old North Ferrisburgh Railroad Station, which was moved to this site in 1982. It's the workplace of furniture maker Dale Helms. Blacksmith Chris Caswell, a sixth-generation Vermonter who first encountered his trade on a summer visit to Shelburne Museum, has brought his own smithy with him.

Furniture studio and smithy are open to the public, and visitors are encouraged stop by to watch works in progress and learn about these ancient crafts.

The Spade Center, named in honor of previous owners of the property, was once a farm equipment storage building, but is now a spacious educational center, with a well-lighted art studio and a working pottery studio complete with a kiln for soda or wood firing. It offers classes for artists and potters of all ages, from preschool up, and is a place where local artists may take a class or teach one.

The second oldest remaining covered bridge in Vermont also graces the guild site. Built in 1824, it was moved to its current location from North Ferrisburgh in 1953. Just across the bridge from the gallery is Starry Night Cafe, a gourmet restaurant that has the region buzzing.

The guild is a non-profit 501(c)3 organization principally funded by the Allen Family Trust, a charitable trust set up by Debbie, herself a potter, and Terry, whose business interests have stretched as far afield as Russia, where his ventures included a Ben & Jerry's scoop shop. A trustee of Champlain College in Burlington, Terry recently published a book for budding entrepreneurs titled No Cash, No Fear.

Co-founder Debbie Allen (left), executive director Nuna Teal and Pamela Murphy, gallery director, chat in the West Gallery at Ferrisburgh Artisans' Guild. The guild eagerly collaborates with schools and other community organizations.

"I've been getting a crash course in business on the job," Debbie says. Although it's not a for-profit body, economic realities are prompting the Allens to take a wide view of funding, support and community involvement. Running the guild costs around $200,000 a year, much of it coming from the Allen Family Trust and other charitable trusts, grants and donations. Recent depletions of the stock market are making it difficult to sustain this funding, and the Allens are seeking other funding.

One source is the 300-strong Friends of the Guild, who join at various contribution levels. Some are recruited as Guild Emissaries, volunteering their time and talents to help plan special events and other activities that support the guild's mission.

That mission is threefold: to create an environment where artists can engage, enlighten and enhance the community through art education, participation and observation; to maintain a high-level juried gallery, where the finest Vermont artists can exhibit and market their art to help stimulate and sustain the visual arts in Vermont; and to be a catalyst for creative expression by developing the Education Center into a thriving community art and movement center.

This last aim is close to Debbie Allen's heart as she enthusiastically speaks of the guild's involvement with local schools:

"Ferrisburgh and Vergennes need this. The community is beginning to realize that we have a resource" she says.

"We offer kinder-art two days a week for children aged 1 to 5, and students from Ferrisburgh Elementary attend our after-school classes twice a week. They come by bus from school and their parents pick them up here."

Potter Jules Polk works his craft in the spacious Spade Center, which was once a farm equipment storage building.

Another collaboration is with the Walden project of two local high schools. The project director, Matt Schlein explains: "This is an alternative high school program based on the work of Henry David Thoreau, which involves a diverse group of students from Vergennes and Mount Abraham high schools. One of the premises of the project is to learn more about interacting with the community; one student already spends one day a week working at the guild, doing anything from filing to helping hang paintings, and the guild offers a great opportunity for the students to work with the artisans in their studios."

The guild's commitment to the community extends to hanging paintings, too. This winter the main building housed a show of local elder-art, and from Feb. 8, it will show art by students from Shelburne Community School. "It's a real affirmation for children to have their art hanging in a gallery," says Debbie.

Vermont State Craft Center director Bill Brooks has watched The Artisans' Guild as it evolved from the Allens' original dream. "At first I was worried about competition but I shut down that idea and joined in to cooperate in the belief that all would benefit: artists, students and the communities." That perception has proved correct, Brooks says.

"Their educational program and craft school serve students in the Ferrisburgh and Vergennes area who might not otherwise be served because of location, and the artists get exposure. Plus," he added, "they've done a great job renovating some historically important buildings."

Brooks, who lived in Washington, D.C., as a child but spent summers in Ferrisburgh, remembers arriving by train at the North Ferrisburgh Station, one of the buildings preserved on the guild's site.

Vergennes painter Eloise Beil is one of the artists who have gained a new place to exhibit at the guild. "I was fortunate enough to be juried in at the beginning, in 1999," says Beil, who has sold several pieces through the guild. "I really loved their program of inviting artists to spend a day working in the gallery. It was challenging, but wonderful!"

Activities at The Artisans' Guild have really helped to forge a sense of community among artists, she says,. "And we've all been blown away by the incredibly effective juxtapositions the staff makes of artists' work they paired Bob Green's pottery with my paintings from the start and it looks marvelous."

A final oberservation from Beil perhaps sums up much of the gallery's appeal: "The art is exhibited in a very gracious, domestically scaled interior it's large enough to be a gallery, but you can easily make the leap to see how the pieces would look in your home. They've created a subliminal comfort level that says art is something to be lived with."

Starry Night CafeDebbie Allen (left) and Nuna Teal enjoy an afternoon break at the bar in the Starry Night Cafe, a gourmet restaurant on the grounds run by Allen's daughter Floery Mahoney with chef Michael Maye.

In an old cider mill on the guild site sits this flourishing associated business and major attraction. In the two years since it opened, the Starry Night Cafe has built an enviable reputation for itself as a "must-eat-at" spot for tourists and locals.

Run as a partnership by Floery Mahoney, another of Debbie Allen's daughters, and chef Michel Maye, the cafe recently doubled its seating capacity with the addition of an octagonal dining room.

The food at the Starry Night Cafe is described as "French-Asian eclectic." Maye, born into a Breton-American family of restaurateurs, believes the French-influenced cookery of Vietnam to be the best in the world. His blending of Asian flavors with European food leads to such delights as wasabi glazed rack of lamb.

A Cornell Culinary Institute graduate, Maye found his way to Vermont via New York city restaurants Rain, Michael's and Gotham City Grill, and a San Francisco company that developed restaurants in Vietnam.

"Vermont was an accident," he explains. "I met my business partner when I was in the state to interview for a job at Simon Pearce in Quechee." Presented with a choice of continuing to work in Vietnam, at Simon Pearce, or set up a partnership with Mahoney in a new venture, Maye opted for the last.

"Ownership has its pressures," he says cautiously, "but we're doing fine so far. Demand is high, especially in the summer this space is not enough. Winter is more difficult, of course, but people will travel for this food."

Maye started out with a commitment to change the entire menu every three months, but found himself defeated by popular demand.

Craftsman Dale Helms' furniture studio is in the old North Ferrisburgh Railroad Station, moved to the site in 1982.

"People kept calling me to their tables to ask for something from a previous menu," he complains, "so from January to mid-May this year, we're serving a "best of" menu. We sent out the last seven menus to about 100 regular customers and asked them to pick their favorites. About 70 responded, and it was very clear what the top dishes were."

The write-in favorite dessert (they didn't even include the dessert menus in the exercise) was Maye's special Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar and Whole Cracked Pepper over Vanilla Ice Cream.

The Starry Night Cafe was voted best new restaurant in Vermont by the Epicurean Society in 2000 and 2001and received nominations for best restaurant and best chef.

The name of the restaurant, alluding to a Van Gogh painting, derives from Floery Mahoney's wish to blend art into the venture. The restaurant is full of art. "All art is available for purchase," says the menu, and that even applies to the glasses the drinks are served in!

Originally published in February 2002 Business People-Vermont