Inside artist Garance’s New Suffolk workspace

Artist Garance in her New Suffolk studio. (Credit: David Benthal)

Artist Garance in her New Suffolk studio. (Credit: David Benthal)

Beauty and humor are at the heart of Swiss-born artist Garance’s work. 

Her vivid canvases tell stories of her experiences and mood. The same can be said for her studio — a 6,000-square-foot former supermarket in New Suffolk.

An eclectic menagerie of lighthearted ornamental trinkets is visible from every vantage point in the space. Each piece represents a life well lived. Reclaimed finds from the local recycling center and yard sales are painted with imaginative patterns and multi-color plastic ribbons replace doors, lightly brushing against your shoulders as you walk from room to room. 

“Like they have in Italy,” Garance explained. “Color is the most important thing in life.” 

When Garance arrived in New Suffolk by way of New York City more than 20 years ago, she knew there was no turning back. Born into an artistic family in Zurich, the trained actor turned instead to a career as a painter, sculptor and stage set designer in Europe in the 1970s. A six-month artist grant brought her to New York City in 1985, when she moved into a loft on West Broadway. 

An eclectic menagerie of lighthearted ornamental trinkets is visible from every vantage point in the space. (Credit: David Benthal)

An eclectic menagerie of lighthearted ornamental trinkets is visible from every vantage point in the space. (Credit: David Benthal)

“I loved the openness of the people in America the most,” Garance said of her decision to remain stateside. “Americans are so young. Europe is old — every generation seems so heavy. Here is new. You felt that when you come from Europe.”

A serendipitous trip out east led Garance and her late husband, journalist Walter Werthmuller, to New Suffolk in 1995.  

“We came for some fresh air and I fell in love,” she said. “I immediately knew I wanted a studio in an old church or a factory. The realtor said, ‘We have an old supermarket.’ ” 

Garance and Vadoo purchased the property and got to work, spending every weekend for three years overhauling the rundown building by the beach with the help of friends. Renovation takes vision — something Garance doesn’t lack. Her work has been showcased at the Modern Museum of Art in Brazil and the Gallery International Des Arts in Paris. Locally, she has designed sets for Greenport’s Shakespeare in the Park productions. 

Garance's large-scale artwork hangs on the wall. (Credit: David Benthal)

Garance’s large-scale artwork hangs on the wall. (Credit: David Benthal)

The inspiration for her studio started in the would-be kitchen. The large space had served as an office and restrooms for the former IGA. 

“The back of a supermarket is always ugly,” Garance recalled. “There were no windows. There was brown plastic wallpaper and it was very dark.”

The couple added 27 windows to the structure to combat its commercial feel. Off the kitchen, a sunroom — comprising windows salvaged from the recycling pile at the town dump —brings light into a space that now houses exotic plants and an oversized dinning table. 

The meticulously crafted kitchen floor is made up of multicolored concrete tiles that Garance tinted individually in the building’s side yard. “Each tile took two weeks to set,” she said. “Everyone freaks out when they walk in and see it.”  

The kitchen flows into the living area, which used to house the grocery store’s meat freezers. “They were old-fashioned freezers with wood and cork; it was a lot of work to remove,” Garance noted. “My friends told me to keep it, but I am a vegetarian, so I couldn’t do that.”

Garance poses with one of her parrots. (Credit: David Benthal)

Garance poses with one of her parrots. (Credit: David Benthal)

Today, neutral Mexican tile floors set the stage for Garance’s brightly hued, large-scale paintings, which adorn the walls. “The colored tiles would be too much with the artwork,” she said. 

Breezing though another curtain of multicolor plastic ribbons, visitors access the workshop, located in the back of the house. The sound of music playing from Garance’s Mac fills the room. She’s usually tuned into a podcast or listening to jazz on public radio.

The painting area sits to the right of the entryway. Half-finished canvases, paintbrushes and easels are momentarily overlooked at the sight of Garance’s three parrots perched on custom-built structures with no enclosures. 

The IGA sign still finds a home in the former supermarket turned studio. (Credit: David Benthal)

“I love them,” she said of her pets. “I am a bird person and people always get me bird [related] gifts.” She then points to a string of colorful plastic parrot lights that frame one of the exposed beams. 

At the time of the renovation, Garance was seeking a factory-like feel for her studio. The visible duct systems provide an edgy, industrial vibe while skylights illuminate the workspace. Windows on the second floor enclave allow Garance to peer down at the studio from her private quarters above. 

 In the center of the studio is a large rectangular table lined with construction paper on which she scribbles notes and doodles as she’s speaking.

 “I wouldn’t say I have a style,” said the artist, whose vibrant orange hair matches the hue of her reading glasses. “I am just myself. There’s not a lot I would change.” 

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You can check out Garance’s work first hand at VSOP Projects in Greenport. The Big Smile exhibition, featuring the New Suffolk artist’s pieces is currently on display through May 21. An opening reception is planned for Sunday, May 6 from 1 to 3 p.m.

VSOP Projects is located at 311 Front Street in Greenport