Where the Art Is

For these Shelburne businesspeople, art does more than imitate life

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

furchgott0212In 1982, artists Joan Furchgott and her husband, Brad Sourdiffe, opened their business doing frame and art restoration from their home in Buels Gore. They eventually bought Shelburne Frame & Art, which became Furchgott Sourdiffe Gallery in Shelburne.

Joan Furchgott laughs as she recounts the many mispronunciations of the name of the Shelburne gallery she and her husband, Brad Sourdiffe, own. For the record, it’s Furchgott Sourdiffe Gallery (pronounced FURSH-gott SORE-diff), and there’s no hyphen.

To have hyphenated their two difficult names would have been just too much, says Furchgott. Still, both surnames are reflected in the names of their children: Asa, born in 1983, and Josie, born in 1986. “Furchgott” is the middle name of each child, “because we didn’t want them saddled with that long a last name.”

The gallery is the outgrowth of a series of shops that began when Ramsey’s frame shop opened in Shelburne in the 1970s, says Furchgott. Over the years, it segued into Shelburne Frame & Art and, after Furchgott and Sourdiffe, who had worked there off and on, bought it, they changed the name and eventually moved the business out of Shelburne Shopping Park into a refurbished home across Falls Road.

A native of Charleston, S.C., Furchgott came to Vermont in 1973. She was looking for an alternative type of school where she could study art, and decided on Bennington College. “I ended up not staying at Bennington,” she says, “but I fell in love with Vermont and Brad.”

In ’75, a friend introduced her to Sourdiffe, a former art student at the University of Vermont studying with artist Aron Tager in Shaftsbury, where Furchgott was living. Both had left college by then.

“We were definitely people of the time, I guess, and that’s what people were doing,” Furchgott recalls. “Brad is a musician as well — he’s a bass player — and in the end, when he had to choose for a time, that became his passion.”

They decided to travel. In 1976, they headed south to visit Furchgott’s family in South Carolina, she says, “then to Florida to get away from the cold, and ended up back in South Carolina at the beach.”

They rented various places and worked at odd jobs — Furchgott in libraries, with occasional stints doing picture framing, both of which she had done in Bennington; Sourdiffe, playing music.

“In ’78, they spent three months in Europe feeding their passion for art and art history.

Back in South Carolina, realizing that an entire country awaited them to the west that they had never seen, they outfitted their pickup truck so they could sleep in it on the road and set out cross-country.

They took the southern route. After spending time in the Southwest, drawing and hiking, they reached the West Coast and headed north. In Oregon, the truck began to fail, so they returned to San Francisco and decided to give up traveling for a while.

Furchgott found work doing framing in a shop owned by a man from Germany. “It was quite unusual because of the way things were done there,” she says. “It was very old school, and my boss offered Brad a job doing finishing.”

Sourdiffe had no experience with framing, but he quickly took to the process, studying under a man from the Philippines to learn techniques for gilding and hand-finishing, which led to frame restoration. They continued to study studio art through community college courses.

After about three years in San Francisco, they decided to return to Vermont. Reaching Burlington, they stopped to see Tager, who was doing theater work there, and ended up finding a place to rent in Buels Gore.

They started a business doing frame and object restoration out of their home and had the good fortune to meet Walter Cerf, a philanthropist and collector who had retired to his summer home in Leicester and, during the last 20 years of his life, made gifts exceeding $10 million to over 100 organizations in Vermont.

“I think, just on trust, he gave us some wonderful pieces to work on,” says Furchgott. “He knew a lot of people and recommended us to Arthur Williams, who was the first director of the Vermont Council of the Arts and started Friends of the Statehouse.”

They were hired to do restoration work on the frames at the Statehouse. Furchgott chuckles as she recalls setting up a playpen there for Asa, who was still an infant, while the work continued. She mentions “one of Brad’s more notable restorations,” the frame of the 10-by-20-foot painting the Battle of Cedar Creek, which covers most of one wall in the Cedar Creek Room.

Furchgott chuckles as she recalls trying to register Asa’s birth. “We had a home birth with a midwife,” says Furchgott, “and he was the first person born in Buels Gore in 60 years. I had to go all over to find out how to register his birth record, because Buels Gore is not part of any town.

“We ended up with Burlington,” she says. “When we got a passport for him at age 14, we were lucky we found his information, because he ended up being filed with the Burlington land records!”

By the time Josie came along, they had moved to Lincoln. To help make ends meet, not long after Asa’s birth, Sourdiffe had taken a part-time job as a framer at Shelburne Frame & Art, but continued doing restoration from his home workshop.

As the couple built their own business, Sourdiffe dropped the part-time job to do contract work for several Burlington galleries, but both continued to help out now and then at Shelburne Frame & Art.

By 1991, the owners of Shelburne Frame & Art had retired, and Furchgott and Sourdiffe took the opportunity to buy the business. They changed the name to Furchgott Sourdiffe and, in 1997, moved to the house on Falls Road.

The building required a lot of work to get it in shape. “We hired out a lot of it,” says Furchgott, “but Brad did most of it himself.”

Last winter, they bought a new furnace and made the switch from fuel oil to natural gas. “We were paying through the nose and freezing all the time,” says Furchgott, who handles much of the administrative work such as managing the shop, ordering inventory, and planning exhibitions the gallery hosts through the year.

“We have a lot of people come in to just see the shows,” she says. “It was very important to me to have people be comfortable here. I didn’t want it to be like coming in the door and you know you’re being looked over to see if you can afford it.”

“I think I’ve been there since day one, probably,” says Joan Gignoux of Shelburne, a longtime art customer who has used the framing and restoration services over the years. “The art is always interesting, and local, too, which is very special for us. I think an awful lot of artists over the years have been happy about that.”

Those artists include Bonnie Acker of Burlington. “I love walking in the front door,” says Acker, “because I feel the same welcome as anybody else walking in. Everybody I know lives in a small, homey, Vermont building, and their gallery is a small, homey, Vermont building. People can imagine a piece of artwork in their own home.”

Acker takes all her framing to Furchgott Sourdiffe. “They are impeccable framers. It is such a gift — like an Old World guild where skills have been passed down.”

Sourdiffe spends much of his time in the workshop attached to their home. Helping Furchgott in the shop is Lara Maloy, the only full-time employee, who answered an ad six years ago.

“She’s a wonder!” Furchgott exclaims. “She helps with everything. She’s learned some restoration work from Brad and helps a lot with the gallery; she is our main person framing now.

“We work in really close quarters, so it was a concern for me to have someone I’m compatible with and who feels the same way about me.”

The recession has required some belt tightening. “Our kind of business was really hit hard,” says Furchgott. “I used to have someone come in and do bookkeeping, payroll. Well, I do that now. And all those little extra things we might have hired out — building maintenance, one thing and another — we now do a lot ourselves.

She confesses that marketing is not her strong suit. “We have a lot of really loyal people who have known us for years, and I think we have a really good reputation in a lot of ways,” she says. “But I still run into people who haven’t heard of us. Marketing is really important for a business. It’s a constant thing to work on.”

The next big project is redoing the website. Asa, a musician like his father, and IT manager at Vermont Public Radio, designed the current one when he was 15. “He’s now 28!” Furchgott exclaims.

When they aren’t at work, Furchgott and Sourdiffe have plenty of interests to keep them busy. “We’re not exactly homesteaders, but living in Lincoln, we cut all our own firewood, and I have a huge garden, both flowers and vegetables,” Furchgott says.

Sourdiffe plays bass with a group called Mellow Yellow, and both enjoy hiking and biking. Furchgott would like to get back to producing art, but it’s hard to find the time. She satisfies the need by drawing.

Art has been a strong part of her life since childhood. She worries that art education is not as valued as it was in the past.

“It’s not as much in the homes now, and not always in the schools. It worries me, because if art education’s not valued so much any more, we won’t have people who know what it does to us.” •