‘Crazy’ couple celebrates 30 years in the art world

Tom Grotta and Rhonda Brown with their dog Cassidy at their home and gallery on Ridgefield Road. On the wall is Untitled Steel Mesh I, painted and gold electro-plated stainless steel mesh, by Jin-Sook So, 2012. — Tom Grotta photo, courtesy of browngrotta arts

Their show may be called Still Crazy After All these Years but Tom Grotta and Rhonda Brown of browngrotta arts are anything but crazy. The couple will be celebrating 30 years in art exhibition with a show that opens in their Ridgefield Road barn gallery on Saturday, April 22 through Sunday, April 30. As fleeting as a warm spring day, the gallery opens but 10 days a year.

Brown and Grotta specialize in fiber art and they promote it not only through their gallery but through their self-published catalogs, at art fairs, and a virtual installation service.

Next week’s show will feature more than 100 pieces by 83 artists from this country and abroad, 16 of whom will be at the gallery for the opening on Saturday, from 1 to 6. The show will continue April 23-30 from 10 to 5 at 276 Ridgefield Road.

“Some of the most significant people of the field will be here,” Brown told The Bulletin on a walk through the gallery.

Their list of artists has grown and the types of art they represent has evolved over the years.

“In the early days we sold more objects. Now we sell more wall work,” Brown said.

While fiber art dates back to ancient tapestries, it’s more modern popularity began in the late 50s and 60s. A 1969 show at the Museum of Modern Art called Wall Hangings marked fiber art’s “heyday,” Brown said. It’s popularity continued through the 70s, but fell off in the 80s.

From left, Mariyo Yagi’s A Cycle – Infinity, 2016 and Naoko Serino’s Existing- 2-D, 2006, at browngrotta art studio. — Tom Grotta photo, courtesy of browngrotta arts

That’s when Brown and Grotta embarked on their fiber art odyssey. Grotta’s mother had been on the board of the Museum of Art and Design, and after college — he went to RIT — he worked as a photographer for a number of artists, bartering for their pieces. He displayed their work in his home and showed it off when he entertained.

Grotta met Brown at a magazine where she was an editor.

“Fiber art was not being covered,” she said. “This was an area that didn’t have representation.” Artists and museums both were poor at documenting and photographing the work being done and displayed.

Because the gallery is also their home, their exhibitions are an opportunity for people to see how the pieces look in such a setting.

The last few years, Brown said, there has been real interest in fiber art in this country and in Europe. Prices range at browngrotta arts in this show from under $1,000 to the most expensive at $65,000.

“It’s an exciting time,” Brown said. “At auction prices are lifting. Entry level buying is much lower than in paintings … you can buy the most important people in the field for prices you couldn’t approach in paintings.”

Tom Grotta photo, courtesy of browngrotta arts.

The materials artists use are most often fibrous, such as linen, cotton, willow, and jute, but many use different materials in a textile-like technique including metal that’s woven or spun, fish scales, leaves, branches, and paper.

For the first time, this year’s show will feature two outdoor works along with sensuous wall hangings, woven sculptures, and three-dimensional statement pieces.

Some of the artists include Helena Hernmarck and Kari Lonning of Ridgefield, as well as Ferne jacobs, Naoko Serino, Jin-Sook So, Norma Minkowitz, John McQueen, and Wendy Wahl.

Catalogs, virtual design

The gallery is only one facet of browngrotta arts. For this show, Grotta is putting together his 48th full-color catalog, taking the photos himself and printing it on demand on site.

For years, Brown said, galleries didn’t publish catalogs because they are expensive, but “Tom loves them,” she said.

Grotta has refined the art of photographing art to the point he lectures on this type of work. Because he has his own advertising firm, the gallery is also consistently ahead of the curve technically.

“He makes the photos beautiful and representative so [online buyers] are happy with what they get,” Brown said. He also can virtually install art in a potential client’s home so they will see how it looks in a specific spot. “It’s a huge percentage of our business,” Brown said.

The future

Although this show marks a milestone for browngrotta arts, it is not necessarily a swan song for the couple who moved to Wilton in 1985 and to their current home in 2000.

Grotta has gone to California twice to photograph the work of 15 artists in their studios. He would like to do books on East Coast, West Coast, European, and Asian art, Brown said. They would also like to do coffee table books on baskets and tapestries.

Grotta recently posted a video of the 30th anniversary show on the gallery’s Facebook page: http://bit.ly/2pz7FHu.

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