By Janet Hamill
Just as Dutchess has Beacon and Ulster Woodstock, Orange County has Sugar Loaf – a hamlet in the shadow of Sugar Loaf Mountain, devoted to creating and merchandising art and crafts.
Originally founded in the mid-1700s as a Kings Highway stopping point for weary travelers and horses, Sugar Loaf became an artists’ community in the 1970s when painters and craftspeople began to live and work in the village’s 18th century buildings and barns.
Sugar Loaf is easily reached by taking Route 17 East or West to Chester exits, 126 or 127. From there, follow signs to County Route 13 (Kings Highway). In six, rural miles, you’ll be at the artisan’s mecca.
Although subsequent decades have seen residential development infringe on this cluster of studios, shops and restaurants, an optimistic spirit of creativity and authenticity thrives. Recent additions, including the Sugar Loaf Performing Arts Center), the Seligmann Center for the Arts (at the country estate of the late Swiss American Surrealist painter, Kurt Seligmann), and Sugar Loaf Records, specializing in the vinyl revival, keep it new!
On the first glorious Saturday after a seem-ingly endless winter, I drove to Sugar Loaf. The sun beat down and the wind was mild, as I pulled into the parking lot beside the Barn Sider Restaurant, a village mainstay since 1988. It was a perfect day for strolling, the kind of lazy wandering that’s part Sugar Loaf’s charm. I walked past other mainstays –The Candle Shop, Sugar Loaf Gallery and Framing, the Bertoni Sculpture Gallery, My Sister’s Closet (which sells the kind of Bohemian chic I wear on special occasions), Pisces Passions and Rosner Soap. Whatever your arts and craft heart desires, there’s an 18th century, Victorian or ramshackle shop that sells it.
The most eclectic shop of all is Bliss Co-op. Nestled at the end of Romer’s Alley (a charming lane off of Kings Highway), Bliss was celebrating its fourth anniversary and was to be honored that evening by the Sugar Loaf Chamber of Commerce with a cocktail mixer at the Barn Sider.
Outside the women’s art cooperative, celebration and festivity was evident in the pink and white balloons, bright blue, hand-dyed summer dresses, yellow Adirondack chairs and a white awning over the sale table. Inside the celebrating continued in a burst of colorful handmade wares, beautifully displayed. As it was an anniversary, cakes, cookies and beverages were available to the public.
Although Bliss had only been open for a half hour when I entered (in general, shops in Sugar Loaf don’t open until 11 a.m.), the cozy space was filled with customers and artisans. Adrienne Butvinik, an artisan from Otisville who creates wearable, hand-dyed art, greeted me and took me on a tour. I was shown unique items, all hand-crafted – earrings, bracelets, necklaces, hats, bags, photographs, 3-D greeting cards, pottery, felt wear, clothes made from recycled clothes, stained glass, acrylic and oil paintings, terrariums, lace wear, candles, mirrors on dinner plates, bottled oils and essences and lots baby clothes.
Adrienne introduced me to Dana Anders, Bliss’s founder and fellow artisan. She took me outside and told me more about the women’s cooperative.
We sat in the yellow Adirondack chairs, and I learned that Bliss, like many a good thing, was the result of serendipity. On visits from home in Ossining to her parents in Greenville, Dana used to stop in Sugar Loaf to visit a friend’s shop. Dana’s friend invited her to sell her handmade, 3-D greeting cards. The cards sold so well that Dana was encouraged to open a shop of her own in 2011.
In an effort to engage other regional and local women artisans, as well as enjoy the camaraderie and support she found in their company, Dana decided to make the shop a cooperative. It was named Bliss – dictionary defined as “complete happiness.” An ad in the Orange County Arts newsletter soon brought vendors, and Bliss was on its way.
Within a year it had to expand to its present location in Romer’s Alley. Currently, more than three dozen artisans belong to the cooperative, some from as far away as Staten Island and New Jersey. Each artisan rents a section of the shop; that section becomes her territory; and patrons who favor her work always know where to find it. Members help out by “sitting” in the shop.
Dana said that women are the biggest shoppers, though if a man comes in looking for a tie, T-shirt or shaving mug, he’s sure to find one. Fall and the winter holidays are the busiest time of year; baby clothes are the biggest sellers; and gift wrapping is free. In addition to presenting high quality merchandise, the artisans at Bliss also hold presentations and workshops. When asked why Bliss has been so successful, Dana stresses hard work, perseverance, the quality and variety of the merchandise and the cooperative’s special niche in the Hudson Valley craft world.
Before leaving, I asked Dana and some of the other artisans how they felt about the future of the cooperative and Sugar Loaf, in general. After all, these are not the best times, financially, and Bliss, and every other vendor in Sugar Loaf, is selling what most consider luxury goods. Everyone was upbeat. New shops are opening, buildings are being restored, and Sugar Loaf PAC is introducing people to the hamlet’s attractions for the first time. When asked if anything could further enhance Sugar Loaf’s charm, Ms. Budvinik didn’t hesitate. “A gypsy tea room!”