By Cole Tracy
New London, CT – New London is a small town where everyone knows each other. It was surprising, then, to see such a place so open and friendly to new ideas and the arts. It may be small, but in my short visit, I met many characters that helped to ensure that the inhabitants would have something to do, whether it be musical or artistic.
Margaret Bodell, project manager for the State of Connecticut’s Office of the Arts’ Create Here Now project, brought me around to show me what the town had to offer. Previously, she has done storefront activities in other cities and towns in the state, including Norwalk and Bridgeport. She finds unused spaces in cities and repurposes them as community spaces for creative purposes.
Whether she’s turning a storefront into a place for communal music or a gallery, or finding artists cheap or free living spaces, Bodell is always working for the people and promotes inclusion within the art world. Within the first few minutes of our conversation, she brought up the “same old artist” syndrome of most galleries, and her distaste for it.
In many galleries, a select highly regarded group of artists are continually shown, while Bodell is in support of inclusion and bringing new artists to light. Previously she was the owner of a gallery in New York. She does her best to keep the art world and local communities fresh by using these two things in conjunction, giving artists ways to stay afloat while adding character to local towns.
New London has tons of personality and Bodell, with her team at Create Here Now (createherenow.org), will certainly be helping to get even more going in this small, but highly active artistic town.
When I was talking to one of the locals whom she introduced to me to at a coffee shop with some fixie bikes out front and kids with tattoos and piercings, he told me that in downtown New London, you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting an artist; he estimated 500 to 1000 artists already resided there.
It’s easy to see why, with galleries such as Hygienic Art, located at 79 Bank Street, which encourages young artists by giving them a place to show their work. It’s a large space on a main street which has a similar vibe to a speakeasy. There are some stools and what looks like a bar, some music playing; it’s very conversational. Its recent show, “Art = Gift,” which closed on December 22, was based around the idea of gifts, featuring several pieces from each artist at an affordable price. But the show was not what one might expect to find at a “holiday art show” — the pieces there were innovative and not based around typical themes of holiday celebration.
There were some beautiful, highly textured woodblock prints; the pastel colors were vibrant and it was hard not to get stuck in a psychedelic trance staring at them. A series of photographs printed onto wood had a lomographic and highly saturated beauty. While another artist produced portions of vernacular signs — the S of a shell sign for example. These close-ups turn fractions of everyday signage into deconstructed simplistic compositions that makes one reconsider everyday detritus.
There were also some ironically dark wreaths made with all black and words such as “hate” adorning them. All of these pieces were produced for the show, to be cheap enough to give as gift items. Hygienic Art clearly selected local artists with creativity and affordability in focus.
On January 25, the gallery they will be having a completely inclusive show — “Hygienic Art XXXV Salon des Indépendants”; just arrive and bring a piece of art that day between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. and it will go on the wall. This level of inclusion is extremely rare to find within the art world; the space is very friendly and encouraging of artists to be productive and innovative. The show will continue through February 9.
New London may seem, from the outside, like a town barely worth glancing at from the window of an Amtrak train. But, to my surprise, it was one of the most fascinating towns I’ve been to in New England. Its small charm has a lot to offer, the music scene is strong — there are many bands and a great record store as well — The Telegraph at 19 Golden Street. All the people I met were extremely kind and eager to tell me about their arts scene and that it’s a lot cheaper than the big cities. It’s the perfect place for artists to reside while they make a name for themselves.