Jeff Schaller can’t think of enough superlatives to describe last year’s Chester County Studio Tour. Held in September, the juried event was one of the best since Schaller founded the event 11 years ago. An array of new artists participated, and even with social distancing, attendance skyrocketed. Schaller’s Downingtown studio hosted more than 300 guests, its highest number in years. “And people bought art,” he says. “Everyone had art envy from looking at other people’s great walls on Zoom.”
That was after last May’s tour was cancelled because of the pandemic. This year’s event is scheduled for May 15–16.
Crises seem to fuel Schaller’s creativity. He founded the tour in the wake of the 2008 recession. The economic freefall resulted in fewer clients for his pop art, and he also lost representation at many galleries. So Schaller took it upon himself to organize an event to support local artists. The first year featured his work and that of 24 other contemporaries in a dozen Chester County studios. Some artists teamed up in one studio, forming a template for CCST and the two tours it spawned. The events in Montgomery and Delaware counties are also Schaller’s creations. They, too, are being revived in 2021.
Back in 2008, Schaller took the promotional responsibilities on himself, creating a catalog, website and social media. “I even wrote a professional mission statement,” he says. “The mission was to connect art connoisseurs with great artists… and not have the tour suck.”
Unlike at a street festival, patrons drive from studio to studio, which is part of the fun. “Socially distanced? Yep, we can do that in Chester County,” Schaller says.
Now in her sixth year with CCST, Phoenixville-based painter Siobhan Bedford describes the September tour as a “tremendously positive experience.” This time, Bedford is showing a series called Spectrum. The nine oil-on-canvas paintings are a mostly monochromatic departure from her normally multi-hued work. “I’m an intuitive painter, and this is how it came out,” Bedford says.
Photographer, painter and mixed media artist Ellie Byrom Haley will show new work at her West Chester studio. For her Collective Shadows series, Haley fashioned found objects and flea market treasures (watch parts, sewing pins, bingo pieces, old stamps, cigar bands, dominos) into animated characters. “They’re very quirky and have a storyline that the viewer would read into them, and they do seem to have a darker understory,” she says.
In Collective Dreaming, Haley’s other new series, plant shapes become abstractions on paper. Some have muted colors, while others are more vibrant and even tropical. “There’s a patterning of the alphabet that starts to overlap,” she says. “It’s graphic but somehow dreamy.”
Bedford will display art throughout her house—even her yoga studio. Haley will host three other artists at her studio. To comply with COVID-mitigation efforts, the artists will be in tents, set up in a festival-like arrangement. “It’s great to create a show with other local artists,” Haley says. “It’s amazing to see the number of artists and the diversity of the tour.”
Twenty percent of this year’s artists are new to CCST, representing a wide array of mediums and points of view. Indeed, Chester County art has changed from its Wyeth-dominated days. “The Wyeths are tremendous artists, but we have other modern working artists in the region,” says Schaller, noting that many of them are women offering fresh perspectives. “Barns and fields are great, but we’ve gone beyond that—well beyond that.”