“Sleep with your art.” That’s the tagline of ZoneThree, Rachel Baird’s salon-style modern art gallery in Middlebury. The implication is twofold: Consuming art should be an intimate experience; and don’t just browse the paintings and other works on display — buy them.
Baird knows the pleasures of living amid great artwork. ZoneThree isn’t just a gallery; it’s her home. The spacious, high-ceilinged loft is the only residential unit on the top floor of a Marble Works building that houses, among other offices, the Orton Family Foundation.
Baird hangs monthly shows — July’s is “Levitation,” mixed-media works by the Swiss-born Whiting artist Graziella Weber-Grassi — on the walls of several rooms in the apartment, including a landing, which is open during regular business hours. The rest is open during Middlebury’s monthly art walk and by appointment.
Baird’s gallery is inspired by intimate art venues such as LHotel, a Montréal hotel whose guest rooms are decked out with works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana and Marc Chagall. On a recent visit, she says coyly, “I slept with Ellsworth Kelly.”
ZoneThree may not have Kelly and Warhol, but it has impressive regional art and an elegant charm. The first thing visitors might notice is the 1930s grand piano adorned with flowers and positioned catty-corner on glossy wooden floors. Tall windows look out onto the Otter Creek falls. A guitar leans against stacks of books and CDs, as if ready for an impromptu song. A long, rough-hewn wooden shelf serves as a viewing station where visitors can peruse portfolios of exhibiting artists.
The loft is spotless. “My mother — we used to tell her she should date Mr. Clean,” Baird says, explaining how she manages to keep her living space ready at any moment for visitors. Baird inherited her mom’s knack for tidiness, but she also sees ZoneThree as a kind of Zen space. “People should feel balanced in this space,” she says. For Baird, the act of high-glossing the checkerboard floor in the landing before each reception “is like preparing the tea.”
Baird has been involved in the arts community in Middlebury since she moved there about seven years ago. A California native in her fifties, she’d been vacationing in Vermont for 20 years. Looking for a change, and an “artist colony,” she picked up and moved east. When Baird relocated to Middlebury, she recalls, she felt the art scene was lacking. “I think we’re just going to have to make one,” she says.
Baird helped start the Middlebury Arts Walk, a town-wide monthly event, in 2008. Then, when she moved into the Marble Works loft, the idea to open a gallery hit her. “Look at these walls,” she recalls thinking at the time. “I didn’t want to hog [the space]; I wanted to open it to the community.”
This past June, Baird held her first monthly salon in the loft, “in the Gertrude Stein tradition,” she explains. She has also been hosting art and poetry “rangas,” collaborative writing and art-making get-togethers, in unusual locations such as the Trail Around Middlebury. “It’s all part of my grand experiment that’s actually really cohesive,” says Baird, who attended the San Francisco Art Institute and the Academy of Art University, San Francisco.
“She’s an amazing visionary,” says Weber-Grassi. “She has an idea and she goes with it.”
Weber-Grassi’s show features paintings of elaborate — and enormous — midcentury chairs levitating over images of houses she cuts from vintage advertisements. She selects the chair based on what she thinks the people living in the house would like — some are shiny, red Naugahyde; some are plump and frilly like cupcakes. Each has a distinct personality. “We didn’t have these kinds of chairs in Switzerland,” Weber-Grassi says. “Just plain, basic wooden chairs. These are very American.”
Also on display at ZoneThree are Weber-Grassi’s collages of old photo portraits she found at antique stores spliced together with bits of comic strips. She calls these her “fake ancestors,” and they are dryly funny. “I’m willing to do anything,” reads a speech bubble emitting from a portrait of an older woman with a severe updo, a black, buttoned-to-the-neck top and too much rouge. “I keep myself entertained,” Weber-Grassi says.
When opening the gallery, Baird specifically set genre parameters. She didn’t want to show just any contemporary art, only works that fit into modern styles such as dada, pop art and retro-surrealism.
Baird’s own work hangs in a small back room with cool blue walls. The photographs in her series “Atmospheres” capture the water molecules floating in the air on a summer night. Other photos depict the sunrise from the window of an airplane. “In painting, too, I’m painting the energy of things,” Baird says. “I’m painting what’s just below the surface.”
ZoneThree Gallery, 152 Maple Street, third floor, Middlebury, 800-249-3562. zonethreegallery.com 
The original print version of this article was headlined "In the Zone"