Artists & business community nurturing 'creative economy'

LACONIA — Artists aren't frequently included in discussions of the local tourism economy. But, according to Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce executive director Karmen Gifford, creative professionals and the products of their labors can highlight or commemorate a visitor's time in the Lakes Region. Fostering the market for art, she said, especially art produced locally and portraying Lakes Region subjects, would enhance  tourists' experiences in the Lakes Region while providing a stable source of revenue for the hundreds of artists living and working in central New Hampshire.
The Chamber, along with the Lakes Region Tourism Association and the Belknap Economic Development Council agree on that dynamic. To help further that goal, the three organizations have partnered to organize what they've titled "Lakes Creative Economy," an informal gathering of artists and entrepreneurs who could partner with them. They've begun holding roundtable discussions every three months, the third of which is scheduled for Tuesday from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Onions Pub in Tilton.
The goal of the discussion, Gifford said, is "to create a collaboration to support creative arts in the region."  She said anyone is welcome to participate. 
When Marcy Yerkes moved from Hilton Head, S. C. to Laconia 26 years ago, she had to reinvent herself in order to find work in the region. An illustrator in South Carolina, she instead carved out a niche for herself as a muralist. Whether working for a private resident or a business or organization, she found that her New Hampshire clients wanted her to paint birch trees, New Hampshire animals and landscapes on their interior walls. "People want the outside in. They want to warm up their homes," she said.
Yerkes is now ready to reinvent herself for a third time, transitioning from murals to fine art, especially large canvasses that she'd like to paint for owners of large homes. She's recently finished her first such piece, a triptych, or three-panel, work commissioned by a couple that owns a home overlooking Squam Lake. The clients wanted something to hang on a wall 36 feet tall, so each of Yerkes's panels is five feet wide and seven feet tall. Another client has approached her to create something of a similar scale.
From her career as a muralist, Yerkes spent a lot of time on construction sites, often working alongside craftspeople. She's been frustrated by the frequency with which she's seen people hired from out-of-state  to perform jobs that could be done by locals, often for the same or better quality and for a better rate. "I'm not as expensive as the highfalutin artists in Boston," Yerkes said.
The problem is, she said, that it's difficult for seasonal or weekend residents to find the local talent.
Vynnie Hale, who last year added a gallery to his Meredith art supply shop VynnArt, noticed this gap in the market and so he decided to stock his gallery with only local artists. He made the decision as a way to support local producers — "it's so hard for an artist to find a place to exhibit. I love our artists," he said – but has since found it to be a sound business move. Many patrons, often seasonal residents looking to adorn their camp or tourists who would like to bring home something to remember their trip by, tell him, "this is just what I've been looking for." Hale said, "That's what the tourists are looking for, local art."
Specifically, he said, the art buyers who come into his gallery are looking for art made by a local person and depicting a local scene, especially one that the buyer has seen first-hand.
The style can be anything from photorealistic to abstract, said Hale. He has work from 40 artists hanging in his gallery and is proud to say that he's sold artwork from almost every one of them. Although there are prints available for as little as $25, most of his patrons will spend between $300 and $600. His best-selling artist is Laconia-based watercolorist Irene Goddu.
Goddu, a self-taught artist, has been painting full-time since 1991. Because art is something that is difficult to sell online, she said galleries had been a critical way for artists to reach their market. However, "galleries have had a hard time over the past few years," she noted.
Although sales of art might have dwindled in recent years, Goddu and Hale have begun to notice a recovery in the market this spring. Customers are returning and many artists never stopped producing. The challenge is for artists to get their art in front of those who might be tempted to purchase it. Goddu is planning to attend art fairs, such as the Artists on the Green event in Sandwich on August 15 and the LRGHealthcare Auxiliary art and craft fair held on October 12 at Laconia High School. "People want to have a personal connection with the artist," she said.
They also want to have a personal connection with the art, it seems. That's why Goddu thinks her prints and paintings have found their way into homes as far as England and other parts of the United Kingdom, often purchased by people who want to be reminded of the time they spent in New Hampshire. "My work is representative of a lot of local scenes that people relate to. I like to be able to bring that to people. When they look at my work, it brings back fond memories."
And by rekindling those memories, perhaps the purchase of that piece of art will inspire a return visit to New Hampshire. As Gifford sees it, encouraging a more vibrant art scene would be beneficial to everyone. The talent is already here, she said, noting that 50 artists attended the most recent roundtable discussion, many of whom were successful artists that she had no idea were local residents. She foresees a calendar full of events, where local art is exhibited at all happenings, and that the work of local talent is used to give local businesses a Lakes Region branding. "We want people to stay, we want businesses to thrive. It would be a win-win for everybody," she said.

Laconia artist Marcy Yerkes is shown here with a large triptych artist she recently completed for a client. There's a demand for artwork depicting local scenes and produced by local artists, but connecting them to the market has proven a hurdle. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Adam Drapcho)