Twenty years of art: Anchor House of Artists celebrates anniversary with new gallery space, varied shows

  • Michael Tillyer, founding director of Northampton’s Anchor House of Artists, looks through paintings by Charles Miller, who has a current show at the gallery. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Michael D. Tillyer, founding director of Anchor House of Artists, talks with Charlie Miller about Millers’ 14 paintings, “The Stations of the Cross,” which he is showing at the gallery. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Jesus Falls a Second Time,” one of the 14 paintings of Charles Miller’s series “The Stations of the Cross.” GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Michael Tillyer, founding director of Northampton’s Anchor House of Artists, looks through paintings by Charles Miller, who has a current show at the gallery. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Michael Tillyer, founding director of Northampton’s Anchor House of Artists, looks through paintings by Charles Miller, who has a current show at the gallery. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton painter Charles Miller with some of the 14 paintings of his “The Stations of the Cross” show at Anchor House of Artists, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “The Cyrenean Helps Jesus to Carry his Cross,” from Charles Miller's “Stations of the Cross” series. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Charlie Miller looks over one of the paintings from “The Stations of the Cross” series at Anchor House of Artists. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Charles Miller and Michael Tillyer, founding director of Anchor House of Artists with some of Miller’s work at the Northampton gallery. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Michael Tillyer, founding director of Anchor House of Artists, with Charles Miller and some of Miller’s work at the Northampton gallery. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Michael Tillyer, founding director of Anchor House of Artists, with Charles Miller and some of Miller’s work at the Northampton gallery. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/12/2017 3:23:02 PM

Back in the mid 1990s, sculptor Michael Tillyer was looking around for some way to help a number of talented artists he’d met over the years — artists who had struggled with mental illness and as a consequence had a hard time finding venues for their work.

It was somewhat informal at first, whether meeting with artists to encourage them and to assess their work or talking with gallery owners about staging some of that art.

But in 1997, Tillyer made it a bit more official, establishing the nonprofit group Anchor House of Artists and, with rented space near a auto repair shop in Northampton, giving artists a place both to gather and to display their work.

Twenty years later, Anchor House of Artists has worked with more than 200 artists, including many who have overcome mental illness, and brought their work to larger audiences through shows and sales. And with some new renovations to its space, Anchor has also expanded its exhibit area and broadened its mission.

On Friday, the gallery, at 518 Pleasant Street, hosts an opening reception for its newest show, one that features iconic work from Northampton painter and musician Charles Miller. “The Stations of the Cross,” or SOTC, is a series of 14 large oil paintings that depict Christ’s painful and violent journey to the cross, but in an urban environment circa the 1970s.

Miller’s paintings are housed primarily in the new gallery section Tillyer calls the New England Visionary Artists’ Museum. It includes 1,000 square feet of space that Tillyer, with a laugh, notes “had conveniently been owned” by a former flooring business, so the space has a beautifully tiled floor as well as clearly delineated areas for displaying artwork.

“The Stations of the Cross,” which runs to May 10, is just one of a number of special events Tillyer has scheduled this year to mark Anchor House’s 20th anniversary. For instance, Palaver Strings, a Boston ensemble that plays classical music in unconventional settings, will play at the gallery in June while selected painters create new work on the spot.

“It does seem remarkable sometimes that we’ve made it this far,” Tillyer said during a recent interview at Anchor, which has been funded over they years by donations, grants, art lessons and a lot of sweat equity on Tillyer’s part.

“But we’re still here and we’d like people to know about us,” he added. “It’s still developing, still a work in progress … but I think we have a lot to offer.”

A helping hand

Over the years, Anchor House of Artists has worn a number of hats, so to speak. Aside from exhibiting the work of many artists with mental illness, it’s also been something of a community hub where artists can hang out, do their work, or take additional lessons.

Anchor also conserves artworks and legacies that artists who have worked with the gallery have left with Tillyer; as well, it offers framing and other services for artists.

Tillyer has helped many of those artists get their work exhibited elsewhere, including outside the Valley, and assisted them in getting grants and selling their work. Perhaps more importantly, he’s encouraged them to stay true to their vision.

As he said in a past Gazette interview, “Mental illness very often is episodic. It does not have to be — it should not be — the defining characteristic of a person.”

The work such an artist produces, he says, is not a function of that illness, not something to be interpreted as a reflection of someone’s state of mind, but the end result of a unique creative vision.

Urban stations

With its additional gallery space, Anchor House has taken the next step, offering itself as a setting for music, community events, and a broad range of artists — “professional or outsiders … [and] outsiders within the art establishment,” as the organization’s web site puts it.

Charles Miller might check all those boxes. The Northampton painter, now in his mid-80s, was one of the key artists involved in Northampton’s “renaissance” of the 1970s and 1980s that saw new businesses, restaurants and galleries open their doors.

Much of Miller’s earlier work focused on man’s inhumanity to man, from the plight of Kurdish refugees fleeing former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to Christ’s crucifixion.

In SOTC, which Miller created in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the artist reworked a variety of traditional images used to depict Jesus’ final moments, as he carries his cross to his place of execution.

Miller, who had lived in New York and Boston before moving to Northampton, sets his stations in an colorful but sinister city, circa 1970s. Cops, firefighters, construction workers and afro-topped men all make an appearance, and the grime and tension of modern urban life reflects the violence being visited upon the son of God.

Jesus makes his way down crowded sidewalks and streets, a plexiglass cross on his shoulders; one painting shows his left foot bloodily affixed to the crucifix with a screw.

“I used people I knew in some of these [paintings],” Miller, a longtime jazz drummer, said recently after he’d dropped by Anchor House to work with Tillyer to get the exhibit ready. “I had some musician friends I worked into the images.”

“I love the detail and scope of these paintings,” Tillyer said. “You really immersed yourself in them.”

In one of his images, “Jesus Falls a Second Time,” Jesus is hemmed in by someone pushing a loaded grocery cart and another person filming the grim sequence with a video camera; some parts of the street are reflected in the plexiglass cross.

“There’s no pretty way to murder a man in public, drag him through the streets in front of his friends and his mother and hang him up,” Miller writes about this painting. “[Traditional images] always show Christ as benign … But this guy is screaming. He’s terrified he’s going to die.”

Tillyer said Miller’s provocative and detailed work is an ideal fit for Anchor House’s New England Visionary Artists’ Museum, though he joked that the title might sound a bit much: “It’s really the artists who make us what we are.”

“Well, I’ve always wanted to be in a museum,” Miller said with a laugh.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Charles Miller’s “Stations of the Cross” is on exhibit at Anchor House of Artists until May 10. An opening reception takes place at the gallery Friday from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. as part of Northampton’s monthly Arts Night Out.

Anchor House of Artists can be reached at www.anchorhouseartists.-org and (413) 588-3997.




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