There are places that reward the careful observer, and The Gallery at Firehouse Square in downtown New London is certainly among them.
Devoted to representational art, the gallery’s collection ranges from beautiful curiosities to sublime depictions of maritime scenes.
Take for example, the windswept-looking “Upper Meadow”, an acrylic by Joseph M. Foster, a Canadian artist who paints using a palette knife. The resulting effect is a joyous tumble of leaves and clouds and scant wildflowers.
Nearby, the boats in “Sailing on the Sound” by Gary Lavarack seem lit by an otherworldly force as they crest the choppy sea.
At the gallery’s far end, aluminum prints by Essex photographer Steve Nadler glow with the hue of autumn leaves blanketing a pond; the summer sun going down over docks; a bright green kayak popping against a salt marsh waterway.
But the diverse landscape scenes are just one component of the range of imagination and expert skill on display. There are carved wooden birds – sleek and almost stonelike, and other decorative birds carved from pieces of driftwood — a preferred medium of folk artists Jac and Patricia Johnson. There are quirky, joyful elements, too. A sculpture of a basking seal appears to take full advantage of his position in the front window in the sun. A few feet away, a small cat stretches luxuriously on a pillowy bed – both are unmistakable stone sculptures by renowned local artist Susan Van Winkle.
Toward the rear of the main room, near The Kate Gallery (named for famed actress and Connecticut native Katharine Hepburn), a gentle series of sailboats are painted on an actual fragment of sail cloth by Lyme Academy educated artist Katie Fogg.
Down the hallway the treasures continue, most notably a series of one-of-kind photographs depicting indigenous peoples and wildlife in Africa by the late Roger Tory Peterson, the decorated naturalist and author who lived the latter part of his life in Old Lyme.
The far end of the gallery opens up into a courtyard with flowering trees and a brick path. The buzz of the city is barely a whisper inside its walls, but the scent of the sea is never far off, making it a perfect place for artist receptions during warmer seasons.
At the helm of this beautiful establishment is proprietor John S. Johnson, a collector of maritime art since age 25.
“This building was a bombed out wreck,” Johnson says plainly, thinking back to when he was scouting for space. But establishing the gallery firmly in downtown New London (in 2009) was an expansion of Johnson’s longtime commitment to the area, as a local business owner and organizer for both OpSail (since 2000) and the Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival (since its inception in 2013).
“The maritime industry has been my lifeblood,” he said. “When I was asked to chair OpSail it was quite an honor.”
Johnson, in turn, has created a space that does honor to both well-known artists and those just making their name.
“I love to be able to support emerging artists. People will just walk in here with their portfolio – and they’re always welcome to do that. When we sell out a show – there’s nothing like it. It’s incredibly rewarding for both the artist and The Gallery.”
He also believes the city has acquired a solid reputation as an urban artists colony.
“People can afford to live here,” he says. “And there are great things happening all the time.”
He points out variety of solid merchants and eateries in downtown, and the new two restaurants slated to open on either side of the gallery.
“The city is really booming. It’s no longer just talk about “potential.”
The Gallery at Firehouse Square, 239 Bank St., is open 11 a.m-4 p.m. Tuesdays – Saturday. For more information, visit firehousesquare.com.; call 860-443-0344, or follow the gallery on Facebook.