Oscar Wilde once claimed that life imitates art. In the case of Sose Gjelaj, her new gallery in downtown Bennington attempts to put a new spin on that old adage.
Gjelaj lives where she works, a second floor gallery, studio and apartment appropriately named Sose's Art Gallery.
"It's very interesting, because at first, when coming up the stairs, all a visitor sees is paintings on the wall," Gjelaj said during a recent tour. "Once you make it to the second floor, though, it becomes apparent, sometimes slowly, that this is not where I work, but also where I live. I love seeing the reactions -- they have been very positive."
Sose's is tucked away at 201 South St., identified by its red door, red sign and its red sandwich board on the sidewalk. It is one of a growing number of art galleries in the center of this southwest Vermont town, leading a decade-long downtown revival that has largely focused on culture.
John Shanahan, executive director of the Better Bennington Corporation, the town's nonprofit downtown redevelopment organization, noted that Sose's was a natural spawn of the community's efforts at urban revitalization with a local emphasis.
"With events in recent years such as Moosefest and June Arts, we've seen a focus of cultural activity in and around the downtown," Shanahan said. "Nationwide, the one trend that has been fairly consistent in larger cities is the arts as a catalyst for renewal.
A long road
Gjelaj found herself in Bennington after a life of travel, study, work and personal growth. Her family, consisting of her parents and 11 children, emigrated from Yugoslavia to the United States in 1969. She spent much of her youth in New York City working in the fashion industry as a model and consultant, primarily for Italian designers.
She moved to Vermont in 1988, a single mother with three children of her own working her way through college, all while pursuing her own art late at night, or whenever she could. She then moved to New Hampshire in 1993, and while showing her art at an exhibition in Keene, met retired Bennington College professor Francis Golffing, a renowned humanities scholar. He not only tutored Gjelaj on Western philosophy and art for the next six years, but also urged her to make her way to Bennington.
"Along with my father, Francis was the single most important influence in my life, both personally and professionally," Gjelaj said. "He spoke so highly of Bennington, pleading with me to come here one day and have a gallery of my own. I never forgot that, and here I am today."
In 1999, Gjelaj returned to New York "as a starving artist," she said, and nannied to help pay the bills. Then, with her health challenged, she returned to Vermont, finally moving to Bennington in 2003. She said she continued her art "almost as a recluse," and worked a variety of jobs.
This past year, while back at full strength physically, Gjelaj saw her chance to fulfill Golffing's advice, and opened Sose's Art Gallery in June.
Familiars, and more
Gjelaj, who likes to say that there is truth in art, seems comfortable in her own skin, and in the midst of her art. Working primarily with oil on canvas, she has integrated works with certain themes and color schemes to fit like pieces of a grand puzzle with her furniture, her books, her utensils, and anything else in the apartment that is not a distinct creation.
The gallery flows from the staircase into a living room, studio, dining room, office and a large exhibition room complete with recessed and sky lights. The upstairs of the unpretentious commercial building has been transformed one foot at a time into a cornucopia of the visual, all of which seems to find a harmony from the Eastern philosophies that Gjelaj said she also studied along with her art technique.
"Transforming a blank piece of paper, or the silent stare of an untouched canvas into a work of art, is a joy to behold," Gjelaj said. "This process involves interest, admiration and emotional response. It gives the imagination material to ponder, in search of forces that cause artists to express themselves on canvas, paper, marble, granite or cave walls, or whatever surface they consider expedient."
Gjelaj's favorite type of painting to create is what she calls a "familiar." She said the word itself speaks to the energy created by the expression of a relationship that moves outward and becomes a force unto itself, and an ally to its creators. This is characterized by intimate relationships, whether it is with a family member, a lover or a close friend. Hence, Gjelaj's familiars all depict pairs.
"I have chosen lovers as a way to present the power of familiars," she said. "When we are in love the world opens up, and the imagination and senses give each moment a rare and magical power. But it's not limited to this. The earth, the animals, our fellow human beings are all potential familiars."
Gjelaj estimated that she has created close to 5,000 paintings, about half of which are still in her possession. All the works in the gallery are for sale, and later this year Sose's Art Gallery will begin hosting shows of other local artists' work.
"Francis Golffing was right when he said that we must strive to introduce as much culture as we can to downtown Bennington," Gjelaj said. "This is where I work, and I live.
Sose's Art Gallery is located on the second floor of 201 South St., in downtown Bennington, Vt. For more information call 802-447-1309 or go online to firstname.lastname@example.org.