When living imitates art

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Oscar Wilde once claimed that life imitates art. He might never have wondered about when living and art joined forces. Life is different from living; the former is a catch-all, a big place where many caveats reside. The latter is all about time, and what we make of it.

In the case of Sose Gjelaj, her new gallery in downtown Bennington attempts to put a new spin on that old adage, but more so hones in on living. Gjelaj lives where she works, a second floor gallery, studio and apartment appropriately named Sose's Art Gallery.

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's one of a growing number of art concerns leading a decade-long downtown revival that has focused on culture. This makes Sose's a natural spawn of the community's efforts at urban revitalization with a local emphasis.

When I first walked up the steps of Sose's, it never struck me that the artist lived where she created, showed, and sold her work. The paintings on the wall were seamlessly fused to the other objects that I missed: the carefully selected furniture that would make up a living room, an office, a bedroom.

I've always admired and envied performing and visual artists because I have no such creative talents. A mellifluous tune, a sharply acted out scene, or a surreal drawing would leave me torn within. I could never do what these people do, yet yearn for more of what their work does for my own soul.

This is why rebuilding Bennington's downtown, both as a tangible place as well as a state of mind, must have the arts as its focus. That doesn't make business and commerce stepchildren; they are equal partners in any effort to bring urban centers back from the brink of extinction. That's where downtowns were by the 1980s.

Gjelaj was just getting started back then. Her family, consisting of her parents and 11 children, emigrated from Yugoslavia to the U.S. in 1969. She moved to Vermont in 1988, a single mother with three children working her way through college, all while pursuing her own art late at night, or whenever she could.

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She then moved to New Hampshire in 1993, and while showing her work at an exhibition in Keene, met retired Bennington College professor Francis Golffing, a renowned humanities scholar. He not only tutored Gjelaj on philosophy and art for the next six years, but also urged her to make her way to Bennington, a place he loved and in which he saw much potential. In 2003, she finally did.

As I walked around Sose's and sat for awhile, I had a chance to speak with the artist, who continued her daily life -- that race against time -- without missing a beat. This was, after all, her home.

Gjelaj, who likes to say that there is truth in art, seemed comfortable in her own skin, and in the midst of her paintings. Working primarily with oil on canvas, she integrated works with certain themes and colors 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.

I left Sose's Art Gallery with a renewed enthusiasm for art, as well as a reminder of my own shortcomings. The latter wasn't a bad thing. My home is full of oils, watercolors, prints and crafts -- almost all of them bought from local artists, and mostly on whims.

I never walk into to a gallery thinking I am going to buy anything. Yet the urge to keep my wallet under wraps is overtaken by something visceral that doesn't let me say, "No, not today."

But if not today, then when? Oscar Wilde may have coined a clever saying for the ages. What he missed, however, is that irony and paradox offer much to our short lives. In Sose's, or in any artist's sanctuary, they bring together the incredible and the mundane in a realm known as living.

Telly Halkias is a freelance writer and editor. E-mail: tchalkias@aol.com


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