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In New York, small towns shelter a burgeoning arts scene

The Stone Quarry Hill Art Park in Cazenovia will be the site of the Syracuse Ceramic Guild's annual pottery fair in August.
The Stone Quarry Hill Art Park in Cazenovia will be the site of the Syracuse Ceramic Guild's annual pottery fair in August. (Josey Miller)

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By Josey Miller
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 23, 2010; 3:13 PM

It was six years ago that my husband, Jeff, introduced me to the tranquil Upstate New York towns on and near Route 20, between Lake George and the Finger Lakes. That's where he attended Colgate University in the 1990s, and his tour there was colored by characters: Norm, who would cut his hair for $4 and also sold eggs; Crazy Eddie, who taught guitar out of a garage; and Mrs. F., a fraternity's house-mom, who would storm to her trailer home whenever she felt underappreciated, only to be lured back with a copy of Soap Opera Digest.

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Back then, we crashed a neighborhood pancake breakfast, drank dollar drafts, sipped milkshakes in an ice-cream stand parking lot. Southern Madison County and its apple-pie Fourth of July parades seemed sweet, for certain. But sophisticated? Decidedly not. So when I heard about the burgeoning art scene there, I was skeptical, and scheduled a tour of my own.

I started at Porter Studios and Fine Arts Gallery on the town square in Hamilton, a pleasant town of about 2,500 (5,000 when Colgate's in session). Owners Jane and Robert Porter, who opened on Broad Street in November 2008, promote fair-trade artisans. They're also artists themselves. Some collection highlights, in fact, include the scarves that Jane sews from vintage silk kimonos and Robert's still-life photography. Don Rith, a local artist whose pieces were also featured, stood outside introducing himself to unfamiliar faces. "When I retired, my daughter sent me watercolors so I wouldn't be bored," he said. "It just went from there." His originals now sell for $350 and more.

A two-minute walk away, I descended the Lebanon Street Alley stairs to MAD Art, a three-year-old community art space with chic, whitewashed exposed brick and track lighting. At this volunteer-run nonprofit (it's open on Fridays and Saturdays), pieces run from $100 to $1,500.

Artist Jon Iannitti, manning the counter, gave me a rundown of the regional scene. "In addition to Hamilton here, there's Earlville, with its opera house and galleries," he said. "Cazenovia is a real artsy little town. And they're within short drives of each other. It really is a center for artistic development."

He told me how he'd recently come across some newspapers he'd saved when living in California decades ago. He's now incorporating the clippings into his paintings, including one headline that predated the first-ever Earth Day by just a few months: "Ecology Is â??In' This Year."

Continuing my stroll along Lebanon Street, I was repeatedly surprised. The Barge Canal coffeehouse was selling locally made quilts. Even J.J.'s Salon boasted locally made fashion accessories. I entered Evergreen Gallery. "I carry about 40 area artists here: jewelry makers, furniture makers, woodworkers, photographers, painters," said owner Lauri Tomberlin Shoemaker.

She beamed when walking me through the latest developments in Hamilton's business district. "See that corner over there?" she pointed. "It was a storage facility, a real dump, and now it's been redone as the Palace Theater. It's beautiful."

Shoemaker is also a committee member at the Earlville Opera House, a historic arts center. After a quick stop to admire the Palace, which regularly presents comedy, drama and children's performances, I drove to Earlville in less than 10 minutes. After a few laps around the street-level gallery (at the time exhibiting Sesthasak Boonchai, who teaches photography at New York City's School of Visual Arts), I explored the 118-year-old, 300-seat auditorium on the second floor.

"We believe it hosted minstrel, vaudeville and Gilbert and Sullivan shows," said sound man Steve Blais. But that was in its heyday. In the 1950s, it was a throwaway community basketball court, Blais said. Then in the 1970s, well-known prankster Joey Skaggs (the man who once tied a 50-foot bra to the front of the U.S. Treasury Building on Wall Street) rescued it from the wrecking ball.

It's hard to believe that such a well-maintained structure - it still boasts original stained-glass windows and architectural details - had come so close to destruction. Today it's back to its old vibrant self, hosting bluegrass musicians, modern dancers and more, and it attracts audiences from as far away as Ontario. "Nothing on our schedule is filler," Blais said. "Every act is fantastic."

Two towns up from Hamilton on Route 20, Cazenovia also is experiencing an art-inspired revival.

"I love our summer art fairs," said resident Nicki Donlin. "You'll see a tractor drive by while admiring impressive local crafts."

That was something I had to see, and I came pretty close at the regional Great Swamp Conservancy Spring Migration Festival in nearby Canastota, where artists' booths lined the interior of a former cow barn. "Here, visitors can experience nature art in nature. They can browse the work, then walk our trails," said the conservancy's executive director, Michael Patane. "Plus, bringing such talented artists to such a rural environment really adds a sense of culture. You don't need money to have class."

Cazenovia - Caz, as they call it - was where I called it a (very long) day. In addition to the sprawling Stone Quarry Hill Art Park - sculptures and an indoor exhibit showroom, where the Syracuse Ceramic Guild will hold its 30th annual pottery fair Aug. 21-22 - galleries dotted the downtown. On Albany Street alone, I discovered the Gallery of CNY, featuring local artists, and Maresella Galleries, both displaying paintings in lush, gilded frames.

Chameleon Gallery offered a funkier selection, including vases and pottery. And at the Cazenovia Artisans Gallery, a co-op owned and run by about 25 local glassblowers, leatherworkers, candlemakers and crafters whose media vary from wool and wood to silver and ceramic, I met artist Bobbi Lamb. "We're definitely growing," she said. "There's a trend of people wanting handmade creations instead of something from the mall, and they're coming here."

No surprise to me, after everything I'd seen.

Miller is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer in New York. Her Web site is www.joseymiller.com.


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