Burgeoning arts scene
By Alec Johnson Republican-American
Photos byBob Falcetti Republican-AmericanTorrington, CT
Artist Ed Jaffe, most recently from Virginia, almost didn’t move here. He turned his back on the circa 1900 farmhouse along Highland Avenue four years ago, didn’t think twice about a city he found stagnant, stuck romanticizing its factory-town past, drifting toward a seemingly inevitable decline. “It looked like it was dying,” he said.
He’s changed his mind.
Jaffe, a photographer, painter and sculptor with artwork in homes and galleries nationwide, in a few short months has transformed both that farmhouse and his opinion. The renovated house, with wide-plank floors and a barn that once served as a milkhouse, resembles a gallery with its living space almost a begrudging afterthought. And Jaffe is sold on Torrington and those who push for it to be known as an arts community.
“When I first started looking at this place, I thought, ‘This is a town that has been hurt bad and there is nothing going on here,'” said Jaffe. “I saw no future for it.”
“Now there are several artists in the area and it is moving foward with a very positive cultural aspect,” said Jaffe, 85. “There is more culture in this community than there is all along Route 44.”
Jaffe, who spent 20 years in Virginia, wanted to return to New England. He spent his early life in Maine, and his middle aged years in Vermont.
After his initial dismissal of Torrington, he considered homes in Great Barrington, Mass., and in New Hartford and Canton. He lost bids on three homes and was unhappy with the higher prices there, unable to find a place to suit his art and living needs.
Then, he started to hear murmurs about Torrington. He started some research. Five Points Gallery — now its own business after starting as an experimental summer project two years ago by the Torrington Arts & Culture Commission — has helped change the culture downtown, Jaffe said.
“There is a revolution going on in terms of the creative environment,” he said. “I thought I’d might as well become a part of it.” Jaffe returned last year to find the farmhouse on Highland Avenue still on the market, for a lower price.
Downtown, where he had seen an empty storefront at the corner of Main and Water, he found Five Points Gallery.
In City Hall, Jaffe found Mayor Elinor C. Carbone, willing to answer his questions. She sold him on Torrington, he said.
“She was so enthusiastic about the town and where it has been going,” Jaffe said, describing the mayor’s local arts history lesson, covering the Warner Theatre, Nutmeg Ballet, and a more recent trendy and artsy crowd that encourages experimental theaters, studios, open-mike performances and chummy art workshops in downtown shops.
Carbone said she agrees with Jaffe that Five Points has been a tremendous boon to the arts. “Some very accomplished artists are now paying attention to what is going on in Torrington and are investing in Torrington,” the mayor said.
She cited Gerald Incandela on Center Street, an artist who lives in Washington, Conn., but is building a studio in the former Libby’s Furniture storage building.
Incandela, unhappy with the condition of the neighboring property, bought it and fixed it up, the mayor said. When the nearby Sons of Italy Lodge became available through a tax sale, he bought it because they were good neighbors.
“That is the sort of momentum that grows,” Carbone said. “I am always grateful when an artist looks at the city of Torrington and recognizes potential. They serve as a vehicle of change.”
The goal is not just to further the arts, supporters of the concept say. It is to further the arts while filling empty storefronts and creating activities that draw visitors, and the coveted foot traffic they bring.
Judith McElhone, executive director of Five Points Gallery, said that since the gallery opened she has seen more interest in the arts downtown.
“It is a great testimony that someone like Ed Jaffe decided to settle in our city,” she said. “We have had so much interest from artists who are asking about artist studio spaces.”
Jaffe works across mediums: Italian marble to mahogany sculptures to abstract oil paintings with cubist influences and now three dimensional paintings that pop from the canvas in sharp angles, drawing your eye. He wants to re-establish himself with galleries and continue to sell artwork he will create here.
He bought the house in May. Part of the barn, framed with hand hewn beams, has been transformed into his studio. When he finishes unpacking, he will begin painting.
More than 30 of his paintings and 15 sculptures adorn walls and tables throughout the house, including the kitchen.
“I am beginning my fifth 20-year cycle,” said Jaffe, whose hands are swollen from four decades of sculpting stone. His goatee and hair are white and his voice a hushed gravel with light tones of the South.
In breaking down his life in 20 year chunks, Jaffe, who says he is 85 going on 40, describes his life this way: Two decades growing up. Then 22 years in Manhattan as an advertising photographer, shooting for booming Madison Avenue agencies. That lasted until a shoot for Arnold Bread led him to Vermont, where he was hired to photograph sunrises and sunsets.
A single photo, one foggy morning, of a man on a bicycle, his body silhouetted by the rising sun and surrounded by a morning mist, led him to Vermont. Jaffe spent the next 20 years in Vermon,t where he photographed for outdoor gear company Orvis about 40 days a year and sculpted the rest of the time, selling his art through a network of galleries in California, Georgia and Florida.
Gradually his income source switched from his Orvis photography to his sculptures. An avid cross country skier, he would leave from his back door daily and not return until nightfall — until his knees gave out, prompting the move to Virginia for a slower pace, where he returned to painting, a medium he dabbled with in 1957 and 1958.
“You don’t spend six months a year in winter if you don’t ski,” he said. “I just headed south and found a place that worked for me and dropped anchor. I started all over again. Nobody knew who I was.”
Jaffe established himself in Orange, Va., a 3-square-mile town of 4,200 halfway between Charlottesville and Frederiksberg, in a 15,000-square-foot downtown building. He created a home, gallery and art studio. His name hung in black letters on the white brick facade.
But, “I shake the trees every 20 years, not on purpose, it just works that way for me,” he said.
Jaffe said he plans to establish himself in Torrington, to join the community while continuing to paint. He said he plans to spend the rest of his life here.
“The more artists we can get into the community, I think the more that is going to feed on itself and that might be where I can contribute.”