Hey there - I hope this finds art lovers everywhere having a great start to 2012! Happily, 2011 was filled to the brim with creativity and exciting new projects for me, and here are a few of the recent arts-advocating ventures I've been up to.
To start, my most recent Vermont Public Radio commentaries on the arts (click on links and then the Listen icon):
Splendant Earth – Michele Ratte's exhibit at the Bennington Museum-- http://www.vpr.net/episode/51608/
Sliced Bread – live recording from 2011 VPR Commentators' Brunch, which was based on a theme I conceived (see below): "Picture This": http://www.vpr.net/episode/51879/
The Art of Gift-Giving – advocating buying original art -- http://www.vpr.net/episode/52615/guyon-art-gift-giving/
Hope you like the commentaries and stay tuned, as I'm developing what will hopefully be either a regular show or segment for VPR entirely focused on the visual arts of Vermont, with the title that VPR used as a theme for last year's Commentators' Brunch: "Picture This".
More to come and Happy New Year everyone --
This one's on Damian Ortega's amazing show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. If you haven't been to the ICA, it's well worth the trip!
I have a large piece in
the current issue of Sculpture Magazine, which is a beautiful, four-color international fine art publication out of D.C. It's about Newfane, VT sculptor James Florschutz, who shows
his work at O.K. Harris in NYC.
Unfortunately, they only post abridged versions for non-members but you can become a member of Sculpture Int'l.--which is a fantastic organization--to see the full piece.
"The arts embody the American spirit of self-definition. Our nation's creativity has filled the world's libraries, museums, recital halls, movie houses and marketplaces with works of genius. To remain competitive in the global economy, America needs to reinvigorate the kind of creativity and innovation that has made this country great."
These words introduce Barack Obama and Joe Biden's official platform in support of the arts and, though eclipsed during the campaign by other issues such as the war, the economy and health care, their stance on this topic will affect artists, art administrators and art lovers around the country for years to come.
The absence of meaningful discussion of the arts or arts education in both candidates' stump speeches did have me concerned, however. I consider the empirical nurturing and presence of creative achievement to be core evidence of a healthy society, right up there with crucial social services, a strong financial infrastructure, high-caliber education, accessible health care and, contrary to Sarah Palin's sensibilities, a robust national network of committed community organizers.
Arts organizations strive to stay the course regardless of who's occupying the White House and, here in Vermont, one group has navigated the winds of political change with clear vision and a steady hand throughout the tenure of nine presidents.
The Vermont Arts Council was established 44 years ago in response to a federal law intended to funnel arts funding to every state and it was an opportunity that a handful of astute local movers and shakers wanted to harness as efficaciously as possible.
Alex Aldrich, who has been the executive director of the council since 1996, recently reflected on the evolution of this remarkable organization which serves as a comprehensive resource for artists, arts organizations and art advocates throughout the state.
"We started in anticipation of the federal law that created National Endowment for the Arts," he explains. "Judge Bill Billings of Woodstock, his wife Polly and a few other very sharp, forward-thinking people said 'If they're going to create this law that will give us state funds, let's not wait until it happens and have the governor decide who gets funded', which is what happened in all other states with the possible exception of New York."
"In Vermont," Aldrich continues, "the VCA was created in the fall of 1964 and the following spring Judge Billings, who at the time was speaker of the House, introduced legislation in the very late hours of the last day (of the session) designating this new entity known as the Vermont Arts Council to be the official recipient of state and federal funds. As a result of that brilliant piece of legislative maneuvering, we've always enjoyed complete independence from political influence."
The VAC has since served as the only nonprofit state arts agency in the country, integrating private and public arts resources and objectives into one cohesive effort. Through its mission — "to advance and preserve the arts at the center of Vermont communities" — the VAC offers everything from professional development and technical guidance for artists and grant opportunities for individuals, schools and nonprofits to key partnerships with municipal and community entities that foster arts education, exhibitions, appreciation and awareness throughout the state.
With its 2009 fiscal budget slated at $2.04 million, comprised of federal, state and private funding, the VAC has always served a distinguished constituency by upholding consistent criteria in all of its programs and services.
When I asked about the VAC's giving guidelines, Aldrich described the review process. "Over the years, we haven't given the public or the government reason to scrutinize our work because we have a standard process of grant review by peer panelists which our board then reviews. Everything's done by the book."
He went on to reflect on the evolution of the VAC in relation to the changing political landscape over the years, echoing the organization's own expansive perspective and enduring aim to maintain its original ideals and intentions.
"What's interesting is that we went along like this for about 25 or 30 years and then into that horrible period of time, at the end of the Reagan era and the beginning of Bush and then going into Clinton era, when the culture wars heated up.
"Our country lost the culture wars," continues Aldrich, "and what was sad about that is that we lost an unfair amount of trust on part of the general public. We realized we needed to get his back on track, so we asked 'Why are the arts important?' 'Who benefits from an investment of tax dollars into the arts?' And we began to come up with a whole new language around the public value of and participation in the arts, far more than simply funding things that are entertaining."
When one considers that just a few years ago in the midst of G.W.'s two terms as president, Pat Buchanan declared that it's "time for Congress, in this culture war, to lead, follow or get out of the way," it's reassuring to know that people like Aldrich are asking these vital questions.
With regard to how support for the arts shifts from administration to administration, Aldrich offered a genuinely fair and balanced view. "I do find it's more about who's in Congress. It really does take both Congress and the administration to step up to the plate to improve what's going on in the art world. And that's how it should be, how our republic is supposed to function."
"Politics and art are completely connected," he avows. "Every now and then we have to pick a new Vermont poet laureate and when we were investing Grace Paley — one of the most visible poets with an arrest record for being anti-war — in February of 2003, a month before we attacked Iraq, I was very grateful that Gov. Douglas allowed her to be nominated. He said artists disagree with the artistic opinions of politicians about as often as politicians disagree with the political opinions of artists."
"For both artists and politicians, their livelihood is all about communicating. We're basically in the same business."
Aldrich recalled a well-known anecdote from the annals of World War II about Winston Churchill's finance minister suggesting that, in order to better support the war effort, they should cut funding for the arts and Churchill is said to have responded with something along the lines of "Good god, what are we fighting for if not that?"
"Art is important because it builds community," Aldrich attests. "Our art community is a huge part of what draws people to move to Vermont, to settle down and raise their children here. It's a certain indefinable quality of life issue that the arts bring to the table and that can be found nowhere else. If you don't have the arts going on you're going to have a hard time making people stop and think "I'd really love to live here'."
With a robust laugh he concludes, "I've been on that rant for at least 25 years."
As far as new presidential administrations go and whether promises made during campaigning come to fruition, opinions vary widely.
Avant-garde writer and social critic William Burroughs once said, "Artists, to my mind, are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact."
To this I would add that, in between the artist as instigator and the politician as implementer is the arts administrator as propeller, facilitator, defender and all around champion of the creative spirit in all of us.
When it comes to Obama and Biden's intentions to improve the state of the arts in this country, the audacity of my hope is that they're able to be true to their words despite the immense pressures of other issues that typically receive far more ink, sound bytes and discussion.
Fortunately, there are people like Aldrich and his staff who, with diligence and determination, manage to stay the course regardless of who's at the national helm.
Broadcast on Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Willa Cather once said, "Winter lies too long in country towns; hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen."
And nothing says shabby like mud-season, when our world has undergone its annual shift into a sepia-toned dirtscape. Having been somewhat housebound over the last few months—by blizzards, sleet, ice storms and arctic temperatures—most of us are chomping at the bit to escape right about now. On Facebook the other day, a friend's post said simply, "I need to get out of here" and I knew exactly what she meant. With inclement weather having made drives to parties and other events on stormy nights too dangerous, we're all suffering from at least a little bit of isolation that the bleak landscape does nothing to assuage.
end-of-winter stupor combined with the monochromatic scene outside can have me
searching for one good reason to trudge through the slush and head into the
colorless horizon, barring a flight to Barbados
here in Vermont
Once a month, in various towns around the state, galleries keep their doors open late, often also holding receptions with cheese and wine and, best of all, people.
And sure, maybe it's because I'm an art writer that I gravitate towards events like these but art really does speak a universal language that can make us connect in ways no amount of Facebooking or Netflix viewing can.
Whether it's engaging in a lively debate with a friend about the meaning of an oversized canvas that is entirely chartreuse or sharing wonder with a complete stranger over a sculptor's remarkable dexterity—art makes us connect as human beings in ways nothing else does. At concerts or movies we sit silently and maybe exchange a few comments afterwards but with art, we can't escape it or our response to it, and we learn more about ourselves and one another because of it.
I remember this time last year at the Brattleboro Gallery Walk, which takes place on the first Friday of each month, I was at a reception that was packed to the gills and people were greeting each other with an enthusiasm rarely displayed during warmer months. I ran into a usually reticent neighbor whom I hadn't seen since autumn. He gave me a big bear hug and then, ignoring a comment I made about the terrific art, launched into a play-by-play of his ongoing ice dam saga.
Sure he might have been there for the camaraderie as much as the creativity. But I'm convinced that being surrounded by the vivid hues of fine art and the dynamic dialogue it sparks is a galvanizing tonic not only to the pallid outdoors but the inexorable isolation that only winter brings.
My advice to everyone itching for some color and conversation is to find the nearest gallery walk, put on your boots and go. And don't forget to bring a neighbor.
In our current economic spiral and with the holidays upon us, it is human nature to gravitate toward the discounts, clearance sales and brand name bargains that populate the papers, airwaves and ether. Hip ads on TV, pithy jingles on the radio, coupons in the dailies and pulsating banner ads online all beckon us to save, save, save yet spend, spend, spend.
With the recent focus on big business blunders and Wall Street woes, however, I’ve begun to question just where our gelt is going and who, specifically, it supports. While I understand that the economy suffers when consumers stop consuming, I look around my own community and consider the plight of struggling sole proprietorships long before worrying about the big boys. I look at the painters, potters, poets, novelists, musicians, photographers, woodworkers, jewelers and other artisans who make a high-quality original works of art but who do not have massive marketing budgets to help sell their wares. I think of farmers who choose to keep their enterprises small and organic in support of the localvore philosophy.
I also marvel at the tenacity and spirit of these folks who could easily abandon their chilly studios for well-heated mega-stores, give up their understaffed shops and go work for a brand name competitor or trade their agricultural ideals for more lucrative crop management. That they choose to stay the course in the face of encroaching corporations is beyond commendable — it’s why we live here and why a day of supporting the economy in our historic downtowns is remarkably pleasant, pragmatic and community-building, if not soul-nourishing.
Still, I’m no saint. About once a year I give in to time and budgetary constraints and stock up on various staples in mass quantities at mega-retailers, all the while tsk-tsking my momentary failure to support small retailers the way I usually do. By the time I’ve made my purchase, whether it’s through an online purveyor of every houseware known to man or in a vast indoor city of avenues lined with oversized cleaning products gleaming beneath a fluorescent sky, I feel just a little bit unclean.
Commercial Goliaths are everywhere you look and, when it comes to warm and fuzzy packaging, it’s hard not to be intoxicated by the marketing machine and buy in, literally and figuratively, to well-crafted ad campaigns. The sorry truth of it is that, between economizing and our easily seduced psyches, at this time of year it’s hard not to get in the car or open a browser and head straight for the most obvious options.
Heck, every year I equip my kids for Vermont winters with “Made in Vietnam” outerwear, ordered from catalogue companies that have brilliantly managed to transform the cultural symbology of a down-home, homespun, rural lifestyle into multibillion dollar industries.
“Experience marketing,” as it’s known in the advertising world, has been part of the retail industry for a couple of decades now and it’s awfully hard to be impervious to its multisensorial charms. Coffee chains surround the customer with carefully chosen aesthetics, music and smells while clothing stores are furnished with enticing leather chairs, exotic plants and chic travel photography. It’s all beautifully staged and makes shopping slightly less tedious, I suppose, but the faux-congeniality that usually goes with the retail chain experience is what kills it for me.
Downtowns in New England offer something that no perfectly appointed brand boutique or bulk bargain mother ship can: a true feeling of participation, belonging and connection. When I head to Bellows Falls to do my errands — choose a bouquet at Halladay’s Florist, buy a new novel at Village Square Booksellers, stock up on light bulbs at J & H Hardware or pick up a CD at Bull’s Eye Music — merchants know me, they know my kids and they impart a feeling of comfort and familiarity that no amount of ersatz-atmosphere or über-selection can replace.
Sure, I could go to the nearby multinational warehouse store to pick up some pens and have a hundred choices but when I go to Snow & Lear office supply on the square, the value is more than just the pens. There’s Nancy, the ever-cheery clerk who will order anything I need and usually knows what it is before I do, most of the time the price is better than the competition and there’s parking right out front. Nothing can compete with that, nor the cute cartoons she clips and tapes to the counter or the paper clock hanging in the door that shows when she’ll be back from lunch.
Talk about experience marketing. This region has it oozing from every warmly lit storefront, jumbled window display and wry proprietor’s grin and it ain’t manufactured and it isn’t the result of millions of dollars of demographic research by suits in big offices. It’s just embedded in the character of the people who make our small towns and villages so unique.
At this time of year my gratitude for local merchants is especially great, whether it’s toy stores or galleries, bath shops or bakeries, and as I look at my list of holiday gifts to buy, I map out routes through nearby vintage downtowns, knowing that I’ll not only very likely find everything I need but I’ll be supporting the region as well.
My favorite thing to get for loved ones is, of course, art and Vermont is a goldmine of one-of-a-kind gifts that were made by hand by people who live and work in our communities. There are purveyors of locally made original items throughout the state, some focusing solely on Vermont artists, while others offer work by craftspeople from around New England.
One of my regular stops is Vermont Artisan Designs, in Brattleboro, where more than 6,000 square feet of space showcases paintings, glassware, jewelry, bowls, furniture and other assorted gifts, 75 percent of which are made in Vermont, with most of the remaining items from the surrounding region. Having opened 40 years ago, the store is testament to the vision and diligence of people like Suzy and Greg Worden, who have owned it for the past two decades and who are committed to supporting the work of high-caliber artists with the store, the fine art gallery upstairs and their online business, Buyvermontart.com.
Greg Worden reckons that, with prices starting at $5 and going into the thousands, it’s a great place for all holiday shoppers wanting to support their local craftspeople. “What we’re trying to do is maintain quality for the same price-point,” he explained recently, “so when you get something from here and see the paper it’s wrapped in, it’s something that everybody can feel good about.”
This type of one-stop shopping from an expansive collection of original works in a broad range of media also satisfies that urban/suburban experience that’s somewhat rare in rural areas. “It used to be a department store,” Worden attests, “so we’ve reclaimed that, in a way.”
There are numerous retail stores in the area offering a similarly pragmatic approach to supporting the creative economy, including Maplewing Artisans in Bellows Falls, the Jelly Bean Tree in Saxtons River, Frog Hollow Craft Center and the Artists Guild in Manchester, Gallery 103 in Chester and the Bennington Arts Guild, to name just a few. And don’t forget Vermont-grown, homemade foodstuffs that can’t be found anywhere else.
Give neighborhood arts and crafts merchants a look this year and ye shall come to holiday parties bearing beautiful gifts that will be loved by the receiver while simultaneously injecting much-needed fuel into our local creative economy. Be assured, too, that original art does not have to be expensive, as Worden will attest.
“Pewter pocket angels are the size of a quarter and they start at $5. You can even carry a pocket Buddha with you.”
Ah, the gift of serenity in the season of shopping. I’ll put that at the top of my list.
It's that time of year again, the day when we sit down with loved ones after a week of rushing from store to store, picking up feast-makings and juggling vacationing kids with last minute work projects before either mobilizing the entire family show to a relative's or bracing ourselves for an onslaught of guests.
In the midst of that brand of delightful chaos that only holidays can conjure, it can be hard to remember what this day is all about: Being thankful.
Whew … oh … uh, right!
So, let's all take a deeeeep, cleansing breath and reflect, for a few moments, on the many gifts of living in a remarkable place such as Vermont. Of course, you know I'm going to go right to the arts because, well, that's just what I do. And each Thanksgiving, I focus on a few people who help make this the most culturally stimulating, creatively charged and artistically soul-nourishing place I have ever been lucky enough to call home (and that's saying a lot).
Firstly, I'm thankful to Ruth Allard, who runs an amazing literacy program called Windham County Reads, which has been fostering partnerships with schools, businesses, libraries and human service organizations for 20 years. Founded by the late Betsey Bonin, the project maintains high ideals for kids up to age 12, including working towards getting 100 percent of students from kindergarten through sixth grade involved in year-round reading advocacy programs. WCR also seeks to motivate 85 percent of all parents, guardians and caregivers to read to their young charges every day, with the hopes that 80 percent of them will begin their school careers ready to read.
I remember years ago feeling a little dorky lying on the bed with my infant son and daughter, holding mini-board books in front of their excited eyes and reading extremely abridged tales of "Puss in Boots," "The Lion and the Mouse" and "Peter Rabbit" to them. When I'd finish reading and hand the book to them, they'd promptly put it in their mouth and start gumming it.
I always thought at that age, when every stimulus taps into a primal sense of curiosity and thrall in babies, that there had to be something Pavlovian about it: "Huh," I'd imagine them thinking as they eyed the book while listening intently to the shifting tones and expressions in my voice, "whenever Mommy holds this colorful, strangely segmented thing in front of me, she makes those goofy sounds and sometimes even laughs and sings. Whatever it is, it's fun!"
We did this every day, until the books became less of a chew toy and more of a fascinating object to simply hold and explore. Eventually, after logging in thousands of hours reading aloud to my kids through the years, they were the ones reading to me. In fact, my son (now an 11-year-old who reads at the college level and regularly swipes my New Yorker) and I passed a lovely afternoon yesterday being regaled with the adventures of "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" by Robert O'Brien, read to us by his 9-year-old sister, who has also become a voracious reader.
Hearing her fluidly pronounce words like "illogical", "agricultural" and "approximately," she may as well be getting sworn in on the steps of the Capitol, I'm that proud. And you can bet I kept a few of those dog-eared (more like beaver-gnawed) books for purely sentimental reasons. Knowing that folks like Ruth Allard at Windham County Reads are out in the community making it a mission to render all young kids' tomes similarly tattered by regular use, thereby cultivating entire generations of future readers (and writers, goes without saying), is a truly awe-inspiring notion.
In the spirit of full disclosure, and as the perfect segue to the other of my favorite arts besides the literary — that of the fine — I should say that my son was this year's winner of the Windham County Reads poster art contest, which encourages kids in the region to dovetail their love of books with a painterly muse as well.
Art teachers throughout the area motivate their students to get involved in the contest and, in my son's case, it was his fifth-grade art teacher, Colleen Grout, who got her students involved. That his prize was an art supply store gift-certificate bestowed by a literacy organization not only validated this symbiotic connection between the arts, but it was a testament to how integrated the literary and visual arts are in this area. As a parent, it is wonderful to note how exponentially a child's interest grows in each of these vital creative quarters when they receive support from both.
At Great River Arts Institute in Bellows Falls, this amalgam of literacy and fine arts is a core tenet that's put into motion through their Open Art outreach program that brings local artists into the public schools to teach after-school programs. Created in response to recent cuts in school arts and writing programs, GRAI decided to fill the void with 6-week after-school classes taught in the fall, winter and spring in schools throughout the region.
According to Education Director Kristen Fehrenbach, these courses aren't simply about reading and art. They weave together both pleasures, using one to inspire the other and vice versa. Saxtons River painter Julia Zanes, for example, recently taught a class in which a folk tale directly inspired the art.
"Julia started off each class reading a story," says Fehrenbach, "like Ganesh, with his sidekick rat and his tray of sweets, and she'd set the kids up with materials so they could start creating as she read."
Alexis Doshas, GRAI Director of Programs for Adults, also taught a class that brought words and images together, first having the kids write haiku in response to photographs and then taking photos inspired by haiku.
Sometimes I have to pinch myself that I'm raising my kids amid artists, educators and child advocates like these who posses such a breadth of expansive thinking and it's something for which I am, on this Thanksgiving, profoundly grateful.
By the way, from Friday through Sunday, Windham County Reads is holding its annual Book Sale, with new books at half-price and all proceeds going to WCR. Likewise, GRAI always welcomes donations.
Have a satiating Thanksgiving and if you can fit it in, between the turkey and the pie, read something aloud and make a picture with any and all kids that are present. Don't forget, it doesn't just take a village to raise a child, it takes a village to inspire them too.