BRATTLEBORO — A new art gallery and gift shop shares its name with its “ambassador,” Leopard Frog.
“The character is always changing over time,” said company owner Larisa Volkavichyute.
When researching the name of the shop, Volkavichyute wanted it to be related in some way to Vermont. She considered something with mountains, woods, hermit thrushes, or clovers, but felt those names had already been taken. She examined the symbols or animals or plants associated with the state and discovered that the northern leopard frog is the state amphibian.
Nobody wants to name something after an amphibian, she said.
“But if you make the character really cute and the frogs are really cute, it brings a whole different perspective to the name Leopard Frog,” she said.
Her mentor Julia Timashova, who lives in Russia, helped design the character after explaining how she wanted to represent the shop. They decided the character should be “participatory”, so people would be free to use GIF images of the frog in their own images or as an emoji.
The leopard frog also appears on pins, pillows, stickers, earrings, and planners sold at the shop. Volkavichyute sees character as a way to represent moods or experiences.
“Art is a way of telling a story of what you see around you,” she said. “I thought the frog could be the shop’s ambassador or the character who lives in the shop.”
Leopard Frog can ask questions and his voice will be used on the company’s Instagram, where updates and information about different works of art will be posted.
The store at 257 Marlboro Road in West Brattleboro will open February 16. Hours of operation are 12:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
Volkavichyute said she didn’t want her business to be as “serious as an art gallery or as kitsch as a gift shop.” She will be selling her own work, which includes products featuring Leopard Frog and other artwork, as well as items made by approximately 12 artists.
Through art, Volkavichyute wants to tell the story of the region or tap into people’s experience or emotions. She loves the idea of having art on the walls as well as usable objects.
Her experience includes hosting a winter craft market at The Stone Church, a music venue in downtown Brattleboro run by her husband Robin Johnson, and attending numerous other craft markets. She is also part of Harmony Collective, which has a gallery downtown.
“I could see things from both sides, from the artists or the person who goes to these things and from an organizer’s perspective,” she said.
Customers can assemble their own jewelry using pieces created or made available by Volkavichyute. She said Leopard Frog products are available in the store, Harmony Collective and online, and may eventually be sold at other businesses.
The idea for the new project was born in January 2021 after his father-in-law Bob Johnson offered him space in the building, which is shared with Vermont Hempicurean. Volkavichyute said she was having trouble coming up with a plan due to the changing landscape with COVID-19.
When Scott Sparks, owner of Vermont Hempicurean, agreed to take over the space in the building, it became clear to Volkavichyute that people would have multiple reasons to stop there. The established business sells CBD, hemp and cultivars, with plans to branch out into cannabis retail once it’s licensed in Vermont in October.
The stone church is also expected to host outdoor performances in a field on the property during warmer months, Volkavichyute said.
“We hope it will become an interesting group of activities,” she said.
Volkavichyute wanted his company name to encompass different possibilities based on indoors, outdoors, or a pop-up market. She was looking for something that personified Vermont in a “cool and funky” way. Timashova, who consulted on the project, also helped develop The Stone Church’s logo.
For the most part, Volkavichyute paints with soft pastels. She enjoys creating what she calls “cute, mystical representations of the world.” She also makes jewelry, the medium she started with.
Originally from Karelia, Russia, which borders Finland, Volkavichyute attended the SIT Graduate Institute in 2005 and met Robin Johnson. She noted that her home area is a sister state to Vermont and Minnesota, which coincidentally share the northern leopard frog as their state’s amphibians.
Volkavichyute has been making art since 2006. Previously, she worked in an investment bank in Russia.
“It was a great job and gave me a lot of skills, but it didn’t necessarily match my character or my personality,” she said. “So in order to keep that curiosity, trickster or artistic part of me alive, I started making art.”
When Volkavichyute moved to America about six years ago, she decided she wanted to make art her full-time job. She sold art at local markets and elsewhere while raising her children.
With the new venture, Volkavichyute said she was “excited and scared at the same time.”
“I hope the frog picks up and maintains its active voice of recommendations,” she said. “It’s like a navigator, an idea or a guide.”
Being on the road connecting Route 9 and Interstate 91, Volkavichyute said the store’s location would make it a good place to share knowledge about the area. She hopes it will become a popular destination and plans to one day create an underground guide to Brattleboro with different off-the-beaten-path experiences or locations.
Other artists selling their work at Leopard Frog include Ruth Shafer, Alexis Doshas, Sinnisha, Jennifer Dieringer, Elspeth Bourne, Adrienne Ginter, Joanna Alix, Katherine Weston, Kay Curtis, Neige Torrey Christenson and Django Hulphers. Their art includes ceramic sculptures, printed cards, herbs, tinctures, bottle caps, business card holders and watercolors.
“I feel like it’s really funny that now I live here and now I’m going to tell the stories of Vermont through the art of Vermonters,” Volkavichyute said. “But I don’t think it’s limited to that. It could be Vermont or it could be based on what I see or my own heritage.”