BETTY J. COTTER, Special to The Day
Published August 10. 2014 4:00AM
When a local artist's chance comment fell on the ears of a resident with space to fill, the town's newest venture was born: the Lebanon Art Gallery.
Although Lebanon is home to several artist studios, the Lebanon Art Gallery is the only gallery in this town of charming Colonial houses, rolling farmland and winding country roads. Since its first meeting in May, the gallery has had two openings and has attracted 34 artist members.
For Sandra Samolis, who owns the barn at 927 Trumbull Highway that is the gallery's home, the Lebanon Art Gallery was the right idea at the right time.
Since her husband, Allen Fernald, passed away in 2012, Samolis had been liquidating his collection of antique cars and automobile memorabilia. With the collection down to two Model A's, she had available an expansive space with wide doors that open onto her backyard and driveway. When an artist friend mentioned the need for a gallery in town, it seemed the perfect fit.
"I can't help but share this," she said on Aug. 1, a few hours before the gallery was to host its second opening of the summer. "I'm here alone in this big house. (The gallery) came to be. It just sort of got created."
The gallery's latest show includes exquisite hand-turned wooden bowls, boxes and vases by Cameron Johnson, a large-format oil of a woodland stream by Antonia Tyz Peeples and photography by Amanda Harvey, Nancy Olivia Hoffmann and others. The artists also hope to represent other disciplines, including handicrafts, quilting and writing.
This month's show includes a book compiled by Alice G. Kuzel, "The Last Frontier: Letters Home to Connecticut 1964-1968," a collection of letters her mother wrote while living in Alaska. Two other books document the trompe l'oeil work of Marlow and Brita DeMars.
Bill Dougal of DougalArt Activities is presenting children's classes on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to noon this month, including "Caricatures" on Aug. 12 and a "Fast Draw Fun Show" on Aug. 19. Next season they would like to involve teenagers in programming.
The artists pay $25 to become members and agree to staff the gallery a few hours a week.
"The goal is to sell art, but more importantly, these artists meet each other and kibbutz together and they show (their work)," Samolis said. "Where else could they do that?"
The draw of this tucked-away gallery is not only the art, but the setting. The red barn takes full advantage of that landscape, with banks of windows and broad doors letting in the light. The backyard is an extension of the space, a large lawn where, during the gallery's first opening in July, sheep grazed. They have since been relocated by their owner, but guests are free to roam the grounds, which feature a garden of phlox, rudbeckia and other perennials, a chicken coop, and a tiny outbuilding called the "tea house" that is cozily furnished with two couches and elaborate Victorian decorations.
"I don't drink tea too often, but I do drink wine out here," Samolis said.
She and her husband hosted parties in the barn and people would sometimes camp out on the lawn. While the barn's first floor garaged his antique cars, the second floor originally was intended as a studio for her painting, a Japanese brush style using ink on rice paper. But the second floor, which is not open to the public, evolved into a sort of living and sleeping space where the couple entertained in the summer. With couches, chairs, garlands of grapes, wreaths and her signature hat boxes and hats, the space has a bohemian vibe.
On this Friday, two cats - Lady Bug and Mardi Gras - lolled about the window sills and rubbed against ankles. Floral arranger Joan Merritt dropped by with a bouquet for that night's opening. Some of the artwork still needed labels. Samolis seemed unusually relaxed for someone about to host a party with an unknown number of guests. Next on her list of things to do, she said, was to find some way to decorate the portable toilet rented for the event.
The first opening, in July, drew more than 100 people, including First Selectman Joyce Okonuc and members of the Economic Development Commission. Some guests came from as far away as Hartford. Samolis hopes the gallery will, in its own way, contribute to the farming community's economic and cultural well being.
"The town, the people in the town, are just wonderful people," Samolis said. "We have a great senior citizen group and they really rallied around us for this opening."
The artists, she emphasized, do most of the organization and publicity work.
"It's meant to be used," she said of the space. "I'm just here to let people in."
On Sept. 13, the public can enjoy tea on the grounds of the Lebanon Art Gallery in a fundraiser put on by the Soroptimists, a volunteer group that helps women and girls through scholarships and other initiatives. The Garden Tea Party will include light refreshments and entertainment; tickets cost $20 and may be purchased by calling Joyce Burdick at 423-8839.