Labor of Love

“This is a retirement story that happened 20 years ahead of time,” Barry Gordon says. 

We’re standing inside the cozy, colorful, glittering Gilded Lily Gallery in Milford, packed floor-to-ceiling with paintings, photographs, mosaics, blown glass, jewelry, scarves, pottery, Christmas ornaments and countless other one-of-a-kind gifts.

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The gallery wasn’t much more than a pipe dream when, 19 years ago, Barry’s wife Rosemary Celon-Gordon lost her job with a local supermarket chain that was moving out of state. “Our goal was when we retire, we were going to open up a small gallery somewhere, feature her work, my photography and other local artists,” Barry says. With Rosemary’s severance pay, an opportunity was suddenly upon them. Both already had experience in retail. Together, they did some research and put together a business plan. “We worked on it, she broke me down and talked me into doing this early,” he says. “20 years later, almost, we’re still here.”

That wasn’t a given. The recession of 2008 ushered in several years of uncertainty, and the couple had to adjust. “Before that time, people had expendable cash… so we were selling really a lot of high-end art… and some great artists,” Barry says. They had to find a new sweet spot and “not give up on our quality [while] still having something for everybody and every price range.”

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The array of Christmas ornaments is a good example. Rosemary makes them herself—a couple hundred every holiday season, each one unique. They range in price from $10 cupcakes that look good enough to eat (but are made of spray foam with painted spackle frosting) to $75 Santas—fragile painted glass ornaments made from repurposed lightbulbs with bulging bellies and intricately painted paper clay faces. Priced in between are little figures with bodies made of wine and tequila corks, mosaic glass ornaments covered in beads, lightbulb snowmen, glass cats with painted gold whiskers and pointy teeth.

“Because I do so much of the work, you can’t get it anywhere else,” Rosemary says. “I don’t mass produce.” Her work also includes painted salt and pepper shakers, handmade jewelry and large glass-on-glass mosaics, like stained glass windows layered up with the color and texture of ceramic, glass, baubles and beads. It seems she’ll try a mosaic on almost anything: miniature children’s violins, antique shoe forms, paintings. A series of “steampunk” mosaics features tiny gears and metal findings on black canvas. “If you see my work, there’s kind of a same vein going through everything no matter what I do. I like a lot of color design… and very detailed work,” she says.

Gilded Lily also features the creations of more than two dozen other artists from Connecticut and beyond, working in a variety of media. Among the most unusual is a series of garden critters fashioned from old World War Two helmets with sculpted metal legs and antennae. (Rosemary “mosaics” these, too.) There’s also jewelry from Israel, wind chimes from India, winter scarves from Nepal. “I never [buy] usually more than one of anything… so you’re not going to see yourself coming and going,” Rosemary says. Despite that geographic variety, the vast majority of Gilded Lily’s stock comes from artists in south central Connecticut. While I’m visiting, potter Arden Katz of Orange stops in. Her whimsical clocks featuring flowers and fairies, birds and bees, hang near the front door. A few of Barry’s photographs, including a pale blue moon series, are up for sale as well. From spring to fall, the gallery displays the work of a new featured local artist each month near the front of the shop.

In a back room—Rosemary’s studio—paintbrushes are arrayed in glass jars like flowers in vases, and tiny beads and jewelry supplies are sorted into clear plastic drawers and odd-sized olive, jelly and relish containers. “I work every single day, and if I don’t, I don’t feel right,” Rosemary says. “Even if it’s a few hours, I still have to get my hands into something.”

Running a business like Gilded Lily may not exactly be retirement, but both Barry and Rosemary admit it sometimes feels like it: a lucky chance to do what they really want to do..

Gilded Lily Gallery
101 River St, Milford (map)
Holiday hours through Dec 24: Mon-Sat 10am-6pm, Sun 10am-4pm
(203) 878-7007
www.gildedlilygallery.com

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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