Under a striped canopy on Chester’s Main Street, across the street from the police station and a couple doors down from the bar, is a storefront like none you’ve ever seen.
You get the feeling that not a lot of business is transacted here. Maybe it’s the absence of price tags. The beaded curtain. The percussion instruments lying around. The waves crashing from a sound machine. The laminated manifestoes on world peace. Or the wild-haired proprietor perched on a stool in front of the "cabinet of curiosities," sipping coffee sweetened with maple syrup.
This is Utopian Direction Art School and Gallery, James Antonie’s gesamtkunstwerk – his total work of art, synthesizing many art forms and 67 years of creativity. Why the name? “You might not create Utopia,” Antonie explained, “but you might go in that direction.” The space is part art gallery, part bookstore, part performance space and part classroom.
Now retired, Antonie taught drawing and painting at Arizona State University and art and architecture at the University of Illinois, then spent 20 years as a floor supervisor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. His wife still commutes to work at the MoMA.
“Bringing the New York mindset into a community like this,” he said, is a challenge. “This is a rough area to open a business. It’s almost a joke. But at the same time, it has such potential. If you could get some life going… It’s like an old western town.” Antonie gets enough support to keep the store going, with the help of a pension. That’s fine by him; business is not really the business of this shop. “It’s a place for dialog,” said Antonie.
The shop's signature curio is a micro art gallery that stands 17 inches high by 25 inches wide. There are mini spotlights facing the wall, a tiny door and a window the size of a postage stamp. Antonie rotates miniaturized artwork inside. At the moment, black and white hieroglyphics by Warwick artist Bob Lundy adorn the walls and the floor. The genius of it is, when you take a photo of the art display, it looks like a full size installation. Antonie has even hosted art openings with thimble sized wine glasses.
The motivation behind the store is complex, so complex I ended up taking 22 pages of notes. It has something to do with Carl Jung. “People need a place to make things,” Antonie said. “You have to have physical interaction with the world. Making things with your hands is very therapeutic. I would say that’s the one thing people come to me for. I would say I’m more like a psychologist.”