Nestled in the heart of Noank, where in mid-December the firehouse was outlined in lights that change color, and trees, fences and front doors were draped in Christmas lights, there’s a little storefront where the owners are hoping to create a community space for artists, art lovers and those interested in making connections with others.
“A lot of people are saying Noank needs this,” said Teresa Bonilla, who opened Village Art Space last month with Mary Anne Sherman.
“It’s a place where people and artists can come together and not be intimidated,” Sherman added.
Bonilla, 62, a painter who also does interactive art, and Sherman, 56, a jewelry artist, want the community to feel at home in their new studios at 52 Main St. They opened Dec. 6 with a salon show featuring their works and those of 10 other local artists. The walls are adorned with paintings. Tables recycled from secondhand stores, the curbside, or donated from family and friends, are filled with an eclectic mix of handmade soaps and lotions for men, herbal remedies, ceramics, silk scarves and jewelry. The show runs through Jan. 4.
But they want the space to be more than a gallery and showroom, they said. They each have a studio in the rear of the building that the public can walk through, and there is a studio available for one more artist. The front of the storefront, right now filled with the show, will also double as workspace for classes and community get-togethers. They are hoping people will feel comfortable to stop in to see what’s on display or to just chat.
“It’s important to have conversations,” Sherman said. “We want to have some talks, share other artists’ talents and just make people feel good.”
Art is not made in a bubble, she said. And the two want to share their talents and inspire others to be creative.
The partners began looking for studio space more than a year ago in Niantic, Deep River, Mystic and New London, among other places, but could not find anything they could afford, or the spaces they found needed major renovations they were unable to do. When they saw the “for rent” sign on the building on Main Street, they knew they had found a home.
It had been a studio before — the Pratt-Wright Gallery was located in the space from the mid-1980s until 2017, when new owners took over the building. It is directly across from Carson’s Store, a Noank staple since 1907, and is home to the Noank Baptist Church Corner Closet.
Tim Pratt, who closed the family-owned Pratt-Wright Gallery when the building was sold, said he hopes the new gallery does well.
“It’s nice for Noank to have a gallery in town,” he said. “And it’s nice to see improvements to the building. It’s architecturally interesting and worth restoring.”
Sherman, who lives in Niantic, grew up in Massachusetts and studied commercial art at the University of Lowell. She is a part-time bookkeeper at Sacred Heart School in Groton and for years had a studio at the Noank Foundry and Artists Studios. She taught herself to make jewelry using seashells but eventually took metalsmithing classes. She sometimes works with old tools that were owned by her father. She thinks of herself as an artist who happens to make jewelry.
Bonilla, whose artwork takes many forms, agreed that people don’t have to be labeled — painter, sculptor, woodworker — to be considered an artist. Creativity comes from within, and whatever form it takes is fine with her.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of art people create as long as they are creating,” she said. “The medium doesn’t drive the idea, the idea drives the medium.”
Bonilla, who is also an art teacher at Stonington High School, has been painting nearly all her life. She took classes at Lyme Academy of Fine Arts in Old Lyme, and has a bachelor’s degree in arts technology and museum studies from Connecticut College and a master’s degree in visual arts from Lesley University College of Art and Design in Cambridge, Mass. She also teaches art classes at the Barn for Artistic Youth in Niantic.
She grew up in New London and recently returned to her hometown, moving into a condo on the Thames River. This past summer she hosted “Paint the Mystic” workshops where people boarded the Tiki Boat docked in Noank and she gave them art lessons while out on the water. She fell in love with Noank village.
Both women are excited to bring artists and non-artists together.
“There’s so much talent around here and we want artists to connect,” said Bonilla. Sherman added that they want to attract artists and people who like art to inspire one another to find their creativity.
You don’t teach art to make an artist, Sherman said, you teach critical thinking and math and geometry and other seemingly unrelated skills, and then the artist comes out.
Bonilla has also installed in the gallery a project she’s been working on for more than 20 years called “The Percolator Diaries.” She grew up in an Italian family and her mother was known for her coffee. Before Keurigs and Mr. Coffee machines, coffee was made in a percolator that slowly perked on the stove. Anyone could stop by the house at any time and her mom would serve up coffee with the conversation.
Today, many younger people have never heard of a percolator, Bonilla said. She is interested in how technology and things like online chat rooms and social media have affected the way people communicate. Her installation, which features a percolator in a glass box, allows visitors to write in their own words how they feel about communications today. She also has recordings from interviews.
“My goal is to keep it going,” she said. “I’m interested to see if people’s answers are different or the same over time.”
They hope to have more shows in the future and get better acquainted with Noankers and visitors to the village.
Winter hours at Village Art Space are 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m, Monday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, or by chance or appointment. The email address is VillageArtSpace@gmail.com. You can also find Village Art Space on Facebook.