A higher purpose

Epsilon Spires forges connection between art, science and community

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BRATTLEBORO — What do you get when you mash up a 1906 Estey pump organ, feral sheep grazing in Nova Scotia and the producer of a public access television series named "Coma Club"?

Epsilon Spires, of course.

"Wait, wait," you might ask. "Epsilon what?"

"The beginning of this venture was quite auspicious," said Jamie Mohr, creative director for Epsilon Spires, a performance space-slash-gallery-slash-artist studio in the First Baptist Church in the heart of downtown Brattleboro.

Mohr, who lived in Putney while studying sustainable development at SIT Graduate Institute, studied climate change in Iceland and Norway and finished her masters in New York before returning to Vermont.

"I moved to Guilford and said to myself, 'Now that I am back, I need to find a job,'" Mohr said. "I found a job listing for a shepherd of feral sheep. The caveat was I might have to travel to Nova Scotia from time to time."

Thus, Mohr met one of Brattleboro's most eccentric thinkers: Bob Johnson, the founder of Omega Optical, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary making optical films and filters that have been used on the Hubble Telescope and on all three Mars rovers.

"I came across Jamie just by chance," Johnson said. "She brings a real strength to an area that is very remote to me, reinventing a space in an artistic sense."

Three years ago, Johnson purchased the First Baptist Church from its congregation — which still worships there — rescuing the building from a decrepitude that seemed all but inevitable.

"Bob, being who he is, he likes to take on a challenge," said Mohr, who traveled to Nova Scotia with Johnson to visit his flock of feral sheep.

As one might expect, the two had a broad-ranging conversation on that 16-hour drive.

"He got to know about my background as an interdisciplinary artist, focused mainly in video," she said.

"He said I have this building that I haven't really planned for," Mohr said. "He did have plans to put artists studios in the back, but he didn't have much of a plan for the rest of the building."

During that 16-hour car drive, a vision began to coalesce.

"Epsilon Spires started taking shape," Mohr said. "An epsilon means pushing the envelope of what can be offered. Brattleboro has lots of venues and lots of art, but we wanted to do something that isn't being done. What is the one niche that isn't being filled?"

That niche was a place where Brattleboro residents' many interests -- the arts, climate change, and social justice among them -- could intersect for personal and community enrichment.

"People in Brattleboro and our region are global citizens, participating in the effort to save the world as we want it," said Epsilon Spires board member Gail Nunziata. "Epsilon Spires' part in this is to activate sanctuary and social engagement, bringing events that highlight the environment, social justice, education and fun."

The grand opening for the space was scheduled for Friday. But for the past several months, Johnson's own specialized construction and renovation team — Delta Vermont — has been sawing and sanding and stripping and sealing the building.

"This is no simple job," said project manager Chipper Sullivan, who identified roof stabilization as the first order of business.

Sullivan said the installation of an air to water heat pump plus insulation has resulted in fuel savings: The building used 7,900 gallons of oil in 2017, compared to 3,400 gallons by the end of the 2019 heating season, Sullivan said.

Sullivan said efficiency efforts will continue with heat pumps and radiant heat panels, further removing the energy demands from dependence upon fossil fuels.

The First Baptist Church, home to one of the oldest, still-working Estey pump organs manufactured in Brattleboro, was too valuable an asset to have it crumble onto Main Street, Johnson said. The efforts he and his team have made to restore the building built in 1870 fits in with the core ethos of Omega Optical and Johnson's vision for the Delta Campus.

"By having multi-faceted and broad-based competencies, we are able to come in a approach a project like this and make it happen," Johnson said. "Retrofitting has been a challenge, but it's a challenge that has value beyond this project. Many older buildings need to be brought into the contemporary period of energy efficiency."

The First Baptist Church was designed by the same architect, Elbridge Boyden, who designed the nearby Brooks House and All Souls Church, commonly referred to as the Stone Church, both on Main Street.

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"The idea behind the project is to help make Brattleboro a very attractive place for people," said Johnson. But keeping talented people in the Brattleboro area is not enough, he said. Establishing those opportunities is also necessary to draw people into Brattleboro.

At the nearby Stone Church, Johnson's son, Robin Johnson, is aiming for the same demographic, creating a venue for musicians and performance artists both local and from around the world. The two projects in the two former churches are complementary, he said.

"We are committed to working together closely and not competing," said Johnson.

At Epsilon Spires, the sanctuary on the ground floor will remain in its present configuration, with the Estey organ towering over the space.

"It will be a public meeting space with a focus on opening up an understanding between the arts and science," Johnson said. "Just in general, it's providing an educational space where people's sense of appreciation for their community can be expressed."

"It's been a pretty gargantuan task," Mohr said, "but also exciting. "Our idea is to explore different topics through different forms of media."

While the building will have gallery space and artist studios, most of the building will be devoted to creating an experience, she said.

"I want to curate things that involve the senses so that people can experience things in real time," said Mohr.

She is developing the former kitchen and gathering space in the back of the building into a space for "social engagement," where people can congregate and talk about art, music, social trends and current events.

All of this couldn't have been done without the generosity of Johnson, Mohr said.

"There aren't many people out there looking to take on a project of this magnitude and vision," she said. "He's not just a benefactor. He's a creative problem solver and an inventor. He sees the challenge and he sees the potential."

Mohr believes the future is bright for projects such as Epsilon Spires and what Robin Johnson is doing at the Stone Church.

"Brattleboro is an artsy town and it's in a pretty strategic location," she said. "We have a lot going on in this town. The nexus is how we bring all this together."

The grand opening was scheduled to feature Victoria Keddie's "Electrona in Crystallo Fluenti," what Mohr describes as a cosmic conversation with space debris in orbit. Keddie's aural composition is created by tracking the properties of orbital debris passing overhead. Much of this debris comes from rocket stages, defunct satellites, and past object-to-object collisions. In Crystallo Fluenti, signal interactions with these objects are synchronized in real-time, expressed by sound and projected images.

"Electrona in Crystallo Fluenti" is the first of a series of events and performances planned for the church's sanctuary and the new community space. Admission is by donation.

Also debuting with Epsilon Spires' grand opening is the Weather Warlock, a musical weather chime created by Quintron, a New Orleans musician and inventor that is being installed in the bell tower.

The Weather Warlock is an analog synthesizer controlled completely by the weather, employing sun, rain, wind, temperature, moon and lightning to produce an F major drone chord, with special sonic events occurring at sunrise and sunset. The Brattleboro site will join active Weather Warlocks in New Orleans, Miami, Acra, New York, and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Also on Friday, Natalja Kent was expected to unveil her newest exhibition, "Movement Artifact," an example of photography without a camera using direct application of light to paper in the darkroom using flashlights and colored gels.

Other events in September at Epsilon Spires include storyteller and food justice advocate Amani Olugbala, Bill Bigelow leading a workshop for educators and activists about teaching climate change; "Cosmos with Cosmos," the start of a series pairing classic episodes of Carl Sagan's Cosmos with thematic cocktails; and Alloy Orchestra playing a live original soundtrack to the 1929 Soviet masterpiece "Man with a Camera" and an Experimental Gamelan Festival.

The building's historic Estey organ will also play a role in the exhibits at Epsilon Spires, said Nunziata, the board member.

"Our first presentation on the organ will be in December, with Alexander Meszler performing a multimedia composition raising awareness of the negative environmental impact of a U.S.-Mexico border wall," she said. "Cross pollinating art, science and social impact is our mission. Bringing economic impact to the region with innovative programming, coupled with preservation and creative reuse of this significant building, is our part in helping to save the world."

Mohr hasn't run a gallery like the one she is setting up in Brattleboro since 2010, when she was a student at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and was curating a Saturday show at MassMoCA in North Adams.

To read more about Epsilon Spires, see the full event schedule and find contact information visit epsilonspires.org.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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