by Emily Tarconish
There are times when State College, with its big university and bustling streets, overshadows the quieter, more stable Centre County seat, Bellefonte. And there are other times when Bellefonte’s quaint beauty, well-preserved historic architecture and small size make it shine beyond county borders.
Bellefonte’s history as an artist-friendly community helps give that shine its power. Founded in 1795, Bellefonte has retained much of its Victorian architecture against a backdrop of natural landscape that inspires, local artists say.
The environment presents enticing subjects for many painters and photographers. Painter and Bellefonte resident Susan Nicholas Gephart often features Bellefonte’s landscapes on her canvases.
“There are so many awesome vistas around here, such as sweeping fields that reach out to the mountains, farmlands, fresh air and water,” she said. “Painting Bellefonte is my quiet voice’s way of supporting and caring for the environment.”
Local artists Sharon McCarthy and Mary Vollero also depict the local landscape. McCarthy works with a range of mediums, including water colors, pastels and oils, and sometimes constructs collages, combining her own strokes with print.
Vollero, a digital imagist and graphic artist, focuses much of her work on political issues. She often combines paint and photos to create striking images with meaning. Her work includes portraits of soldiers who have died in Iraq and the bloody head of Jesus Christ painted on a shower curtain (Voices cover November 2007), a symbolic protest of war.
But all artists need support: an affordable place to live, a community that appreciates them, grants and loans to help them continue their work and places to display their wares.
Jim Dunne, a member of the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association, helps many local artists promote their work.
“It’s always been a big trend in our area,” Dunne said. “The art scene has more and more places to display itself in our community, and we all try to contribute to that.”
The Bellefonte Borough promotes the town’s art scene, supplying funding from its own coffers as well as soliciting grant money from the state. This year, the borough won a $13,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts.
One project that the grant funded includes a photography exhibit by Vollero on recent Bellefonte fires that have destroyed historic buildings. Photography seems to be a popular skill among locals.
Steve Heverly, a Bellefonte photographer, concentrates on still life, architecture and landscapes.
“It’s interesting when I see old photos and am able to look at the same buildings from the same angles and to see the differences that have occurred over the years,” Heverly said.
Mark Houser, another photographer in the area, has created a series of panoramic photographs of downtown Bellefonte.
In addition to paintings and photographs, some Bellefonte artists work with three-dimensional mediums, such as jewelry, sculpture and pottery.
The mother-daughter duo True and Talley Fisher run Rob Fisher Sculpture, which was started by Rob, who passed away, leaving the business to his wife and daughter. True and Talley create high-tech computer-designed metal artwork for hotels, banks and corporate offices.
Much of Rob Fisher’s abstract sculpture is still displayed locally, including at the American Philatelic Society in Bellefonte, the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center on campus and the Allen Way Building in State College.
In addition to an artist-friendly environment, Bellefonte also provides many outlets in which artists can display their work. The Gamble Mill Tavern, a restored grist mill converted into a restaurant, is also home to an art gallery. The gallery hosts four shows a year, each concentrating on a central theme.
Bellefonte businesses, such as Victorian House Antiques and Artisan Gallery, also showcase local artists. Owner Mitch Bradley values the area’s maintenance of artistic appreciation and culture.
“I want to help continue Bellefonte’s promotion of the arts,” he said. “I try to carry a nicer line of local antiques, and I want to compliment that stock with quality artwork, also made locally.”
Bradley collects, restores and resells a variety of antiques from the area. The eclectic store carries a variety of crafts, including Victorian furniture, pottery, toys, crystals and jewelry. Most of the goods are made locally; Bradley incorporates the work of 17 local artisans.
“Antiques are works of art themselves,” he said. “So much more care went into them in terms of quality and aesthetics, and there was a lot more pride in the manufacturing process.”
Short-term exhibits are prevalent throughout Bellefonte because many residents share the love of aesthetics. Some venues also host music and theater events, facilitating another aspect of the town’s art scene.
The Centre County Library Museum and Tallyrand Park hold multiple concerts every year, exhibiting a variety of music, including jazz and classical. These shows incorporate local musicians as well as many musicians from Penn State.
Theater performances are also popular in Bellefonte. Although the Project for the Performing Arts, a drama troop headed by True Fisher, died down after the 1990s, other groups have sprung up in the area to sponsor theater workshops. One of the groups is Tempest Studios, which offers drama seminars for people of all ages and experience levels.
Bellefonte unites contemporary talent with old history, producing a thriving art community.
“The atmosphere here is like the idea of recycling,” Nicholas Gephart said. “It encourages artists to take the old and use it in a new way.”