Salvaging Lois Foley's long-neglected legacy
Most of the many visitors who have seen the Lois Foley retrospective, now on display in Burlington's South End, heard about it by word of mouth. Curator Jim Dickerson didn't take out any ads or send any postcards to promote the event, which opened during the Art Hop on September 9. In fact, the show is literally an underground affair: Hundreds of the late artist's artworks are hanging on walls and stacked on tables in a large basement office off Flynn Avenue. But the story of how the pieces got there, after having nearly been abandoned, is remarkable.
Foley, who died of heart failure in 2000, was an uncommonly talented and hard-working artist. Born in Groton, Vermont, in 1937, she spent the last three decades of her life living and working in a farmhouse in Essex Junction, and teaching at schools such as Johnson State College and the University of Vermont. But her influence and experience extended far beyond the Green Mountain State.
Foley studied drawing and painting at art programs in Connecticut and New York, including the Art Students League in Manhattan. During a career that lasted roughly half a century, she mounted more than 100 solo and group shows in galleries around the world. In 1995, she was one of just four American artists to show work in the "50 Years Later" exhibit at the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany.
Foley was also an activist. She belonged to the Women's Caucus for Art, serving as the Burlington chapter president from 1985 to '87, and she produced intricate woodcuts for the anti-nuke movement.
She was the kind of woman whom acquaintances often describe as "a character." Friends tell numerous stories about her, but they often preface them with the caution, "Don't print this." Burlington artist Anne Bemis, who knew her well, says her friend was a dynamic individual. "She would take over the conversation," Bemis recalls. "She would take over the room."
Bemis also says Foley actively pursued her own growth as an artist. "She was not a small-minded person. She worked relentlessly. She challenged herself. She grew more as an artist, hands down, than anybody I met anywhere."
The depth of Foley's retrospective proves Bemis' assertion. It's likely the first time many of these works have been displayed together. In this show, the large, colorful abstracts Foley was known for later in her life mingle with serene pastoral landscapes, and finely drawn nudes from her student days. Looking at her sketchbooks, it's possible to trace her progression as an artist. In one, two penciled rows of anatomically correct legs lie beneath a row of legs rendered as geometrical shapes, small towers of circles, triangles and parallelograms.
"It was a real revelation to me," says painter Gail Salzman, who met Foley in the 1980s. "It's exciting to see how prolific she was." A life-drawing teacher at Community College of Vermont, Salzman plans to bring her students on a field trip to the retrospective.
Foley's show is also unique because it's not displayed in a traditional art gallery; the work is actually in a snowboard showroom. The snazzy, well-lit 4500-square-foot space comes equipped with a big-screen TV, comfy chairs and an Xbox. It belongs to Copley Consolidated, whose owner, Chris Copley, is the Northeast regional sales rep for Burton Snowboards. Most of the year, the room is full of boards, boots and bindings.
The story of how Copley came to be exhibiting Foley's work is strange and sad. Like many artists, Foley wasn't as good at marketing art as she was at creating it. By the end of her life, the vast bulk of her drawings, oils, watercolors, woodcuts and pastels sat in piles in her studio, or in a barn behind her house. Many were covered with hay and pigeon poop. Some of the canvasses had been exposed to the elements; others were pockmarked with bullet holes, or had had pieces of furniture thrown through them.
That's the condition they were in when Jim Dickerson, an antiques dealer, met the 62-year-old painter in 2000. The Charlotte resident has photos showing Foley's giant canvasses stacked in her barn, amid used appliances and menacing piles of snow. Several of the paintings are now on the walls at Copley, complete with four-figure price tags.
Foley was filing for divorce from her second husband when she contacted Dickerson to see if he could help her sell some of her antique furniture. He stopped by her house and was intrigued by all the art scattered around. "I've never really been much for contemporary art," Dickerson admits, "but her work hit me immediately."
He and Foley talked for hours. She confided that she was going to have to leave her house as part of the divorce settlement, and didn't know what to do with her life's work. "She was just going to walk away and leave it right where it was," Dickerson recalls.
He and Foley ended up signing a contract: He would bring some helpers and a truck and move Foley's collection to a more secure location, where Dickerson could clean and catalogue it. He said he'd come back in a month, after he finished renovating Charlotte's Old Lantern, which he owns.
But before he could return, Foley died, and her estate was thrown into turmoil. Since her divorce wasn't final, her husband, Harold Whitcomb, inherited her artwork. He and the couple's daughter, Elizabeth Leggett, still live in the area.
But Foley also had four children from a previous marriage, including a daughter, Catherine Skiba, who wanted some of the paintings. Skiba ended up taking much of Foley's more recent work with her to Europe, including the abstract "grass series," which was exhibited at the Firehouse Gallery in 1998, and a series of string "weaves" that Foley showed the same year at the Rhombus Gallery in Burlington. Meanwhile, the rest of Foley's art languished in the barn.
Eventually, Skiba and Whitcomb locked horns, and Skiba filed a lawsuit. Dickerson and his agreement with Foley were caught in the middle. The end result was that all Foley's children formed an art trust that receives a percentage of the proceeds from the sale of their mother's work. Dickerson, who's charged with selling the work, also receives a percentage. Harold Whitcomb was left out of the trust.
Whitcomb just learned of the retrospective and hasn't seen it yet. He claims Skiba stole the paintings, and sums up the whole situation as "a messy mess."
Chris Copley suggests it's unfair to let Lois Foley's family conflicts overshadow her work. The fortysomething snowboard enthusiast, who sports a stubbly, graying goatee and shows up for an interview in a Gravis T-shirt and camo shorts, never actually met the artist. He first encountered some of her abstract paintings at O, a now-defunct Burlington eatery. When the restaurant closed, Copley contacted the owner to find out what had happened to the art. She put him in touch with Jim Dickerson.
Copley has since purchased about 40 of Foley's works from the antiques dealer. Three large, colorful abstracts hang in his office. He's eager to talk about them, and the show, though he's not getting a cut from any sales. He clearly admires Foley. "I think you have to be really brave to stand in front of a larger canvas and say, 'I'm going to make something beautiful,'" he says.
Copley and Dickerson have embarked on a partnership to preserve and catalogue Foley's work. For the past year, Copley has been storing hundreds of her woodcut blocks and works on paper in the warehouse behind his showroom. There, empty clothing racks and boxes containing snowboard vendor booths surround piles of art. The dizzying array of hundreds of images includes realistic nudes, cubist facial profiles, abstract line drawings, illustrations and dozens of trial scenes from the 1970s and '80s, when Foley worked as a courtroom artist.
"We're still trying to figure out what to do with all this," says Copley. "It's kind of like a treasure trove. It's a shame it's all just sitting here." But at least it's dry, he points out. He and his mother have been sorting through the massive collection. They've also organized a few file drawers' worth of personal correspondence, which Dickerson also recovered from Foley's barn and studio.
Copley points out some of his favorite items, which he keeps on his desk: a pencil drawing of the Virgin Mary that Foley did in the seventh grade, and several letters she wrote to various galleries and arts organizations.
Copley's enthusiasm no doubt has something to do with the show's popularity. He really seems to enjoy guiding people through it. When Gail Salzman stopped by late Saturday, September 10, the Art Hop was actually over, and Copley was locking up after a long day of sitting with the exhibit. But when Salzman introduced herself and said she knew Foley, he insisted she see the show. He spent more than an hour showing her around.
Copley applies the same intensity to another after-hours tour, with Joan Furchgott and Brad Sourdiffe of Shelburne's Furchgott Sourdiffe Gallery. The two knew Foley during the last decade of her life, and had exhibited her paintings.
Furchgott suggests it's "moving" to see Foley's work all together. "But I just feel bad," she says. "Lois was always kind of struggling along. I don't know that she ever felt she was commercially successful."
Others have made similar comments -- that Foley was recognized around the world but never really achieved the level of fame or financial success she deserved. Copley and Dickerson hope to revive her legacy; they're planning a professional catalogue of her work. Copley has registered the domain name www.loisfoley.com .
Furchgott thinks all this posthumous attention is wonderful. "It's too bad Lois doesn't know," she says, and then reconsiders: "Maybe she does."