Vermont Studio Center Residency 2015
I was about to hit the delete key. I assumed it to be another unsolicited email with a likely spurious come-on but something made me stop. “When I saw this I thought of you” was the cryptic note attached with the initials at the bottom “CB”. I didn’t recognize the return address but scrolled down a bit. “Vermont Studio Center Now Accepting Applications: Fellowships for Artists with Spinal Cord Injuries” read the heading. My initial reaction was guarded excitement at the prospect of being awarded a 4-week residency to paint and interact with dozens of creative people in one of the most beautiful and tranquil places in the U. S.
The process couldn’t have been easier. I wrote my cover letter, sent 6 images along with my resume’ and contact information and that was about it. I was only interested because Anne had retired from dentistry last year and we had mused about a cross-country trip in our still relatively new conversion van. My bucket list of art museums in the U.S. has diminished over the years but is still long and I wondered how many we might check off along the way.
I put it out of my mind and returned to my day of painting abstracted figures entwined around circular shapes in cool and warm colors. Time went on and I barely gave my application another thought. Days drifted by as they do and I completely forgot about my application. Lo and behold, one fine day, I checked my morning emails to discover: “Congratulations for your award of a fellowship to study at the Vermont Studio Center for the month of September 2015”. “Hey Anne, Get up here, you’re not gonna believe this” I shouted to the kitchen level of our Magnolia home.
Excitedly, I shared the fantastic news and we spent the rest of the day speculating on what kind adventure we might share. Over the course of weeks we began to settle on a plan; we would apply our travel stipend to our gas budget and see how far that would get us, we’d plan to stay with family and friends when we could and stay in hotels the rest of the way. With maps laid out on our dining table, we went over various routes until deciding on a reasonable itinerary that would take 2 weeks to arrive at the Vermont Studio Center. Then after the residency, a direct route to St. Petersburg, FL to investigate a family situation that required personal attention and wind our way back Northwest.
A plan began to formulate as we determined that we might call on the student members of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists along the way. This organization has provided us with many wonderful opportunities over the years and mentoring some of the younger members would be a direct way of giving back to the group. As it happened, there is a cluster of students in the Greater Chicago area, including Mariam Pare who I’d hoped to meet. Further, my Aunt Therese is on the board of the Tall Grass Art Gallery in Park Forest, IL and was immediately excited over the prospect of hosting an exhibition and workshop.
We put all of our affairs in order and made arrangements to have someone stay with Dorothy, my Mom, who has an apartment with us. I’d curated an exhibit at my Seattle gallery; “Northwest Women, Past, Present & Future” and my brother William could handle the opening reception while we were away.
I would have to come up with an art project that would challenge my sensibilities and stretch my imagination and share with the residents and staff. I would bring enough existing work to display in my private studio and apartment. It occurred to me that the modern figurative work that I had been doing in some form for years could be expanded in a way that could also be portable. I had been working on my memoirs for a couple years and hoped I might have a foldout mural that could be included in a future deluxe set of my writings and paintings. I began experimenting with smaller versions on simple butcher paper and gradually enlarged the sheet until I had a 28 X 36 inch surface folded into 16 sections. In each section was a couple, dancing perhaps, embracing or just being together. I utilized circular templates to outline the major shapes of each body including head, chest, hips, shoulders and joints and the corresponding arms and legs would conform to large interlocking circles that made up the background. My idea was to do separate paintings on individual sheets that I might use to collaborate with a printmaker for an assembly-line production.
Anne took on the responsibility of outfitting our van with all the necessities and we purchased a special folding power wheelchair for any steep, rough roads we might encounter. I made good headway on a painting that I would complete once we got to Vermont and we were thrilled to receive word that 5 of our fellow artists would join us at the Tall Grass Art Gallery near Chicago. Lastly, I designed and produced a special pin for the occasion. I’ve now designed 6 varieties of lapel pins that we have presented to special friends and hidden in various parts of the world.
August 15th, 2015 dawned like many others that summer, warm and dry with a hot forecast later that day. It might be even warmer at the conclusion of our first day’s driving. We headed East on Interstate 90 and were in Spokane towards dinnertime. We were surprised to see my cousin Josh working the desk at our hotel and we filled him in on our ambitious quest.
Our second night was spent in Missoula and the third night in Billings, MT. The uniformity of the endless miles of corn fields confirm their genetically modified regularity that continues across the whole upper mid-west. Near Rapid City, SD we visit Sturgis, the motorcycle Mecca whose annual pilgrimage ended less than a week earlier. We also determined that we would see both Mt. Rushmore and the even more colossal Crazy Horse Monument. The grand edifices inspired certainly but were really no match for the sublime beauty of the Black Hills and we easily understood how this area was held to be sacred by the First Peoples.
The miles started piling up as we crossed the plains staying first in Sioux Falls and then the longest stretch of driving yet through dairy country and into Madison, Wisconsin. The first of a few miscalculations in our plan would cause us to miss the Milwaukee Museum of Art in our desire to get to Park Forest, IL in plenty of time to visit the gallery, see my numerous cousins and do needed laundry. I have visited the famed Chicago Art Institute several times so did not feel any particular imperative this time.
Our event at the Tall Grass Gallery was a complete success. All the student artists came together in a spirit of accomplished camaraderie and demonstrated their techniques to the distinguished gallery members and board of directors. It was a particular joy to get to know my fellow artists and I hope that my story inspires them to concentrate on their careers and improve their prospects of advancement in our unique organization.
We had made plans to drive straight to Detroit and tour the art collection at the Institute of Art before closing and made good time on the highway in spite of rolling storms, heavy construction and incessant toll booths. We had not taken into account the changing time zone and was a bit rushed through the art museum but still saw everything we had hoped to see including the Diego Rivera Courtyard and Whistler’s seminal painting “The Falling Rocket”. This infamous painting was the centerpiece of a drama whereby Whistler sued the noted art critic John Ruskin for libel after disparaging the painting and the artist in print. Whistler’s victory at court was actually a major defeat as he was awarded a paltry farthing in damages and his fortune would never fully recover.
The traffic continued to build in volume as we continued towards Cleveland, Ohio and Anne’s driving skills began to be tested. Thankfully, unlike most fine art museums, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is open on Mondays and we spent a memorable afternoon exploring musical trends and marveling at the relics of the music of my generation.
In the morning, we rose early enough to be among the first visitors to the Cleveland Museum of Art and were astounded at the quality and depth of the collection. We could easily have spent the entire day in their galleries and visiting the nearby natural history museum and horticultural gardens but we determined to be in Pittsburgh before evening. Here, we stayed just outside of town and were spared the extra parking fees and treated to complimentary meals. Pittsburgh no longer has the reputation of a polluted factory city. Since most manufacturing has been resourced elsewhere, this former acid-rained city has recovered its beauty and we were pleased to visit the marvelous Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History Museum. The Andy Warhol Museum was also on our itinerary for Pittsburgh. When I met Warhol at the Kennedy Center in 1979 I never imagined that I would be visiting a museum devoted to his multi-leveled career. They perhaps overdid the re-creation of Warhol’s factory-look in their galleries and the museum guards even resembled some of the rowdy hangers-on that Warhol surrounded himself with.
From Pittsburgh, we shuffled up to Buffalo, NY and the Albright / Knox Museum. My research before setting out did not disclose that the bulk of the permanent collection was on loan and those galleries were now devoted to dozens of video installations. It’s not really my cup of tea and many appear dated now that superior technology has emerged. Fortunately, the Burchfield / Penney Museum is across the street and we were treated to a surprisingly satisfying collection.
We didn’t have far to go the next day as we crossed into Canada and spent most of the afternoon at majestic Niagara Falls before continuing to the beautiful city of Toronto. Here we would not visit any museums but toured the downtown area and capped the day atop CN Tower, the highest viewing platform on earth.
We would spend 2 days in Montreal. An exquisite jewel of a French-feeling city. Our hotel room featured a high angle view of one of Chinatown’s gates with a marvelous mural of a Chinese dancer adjacent to it. I used my new power wheelchair in old town where the punishing cobblestones were at their worst and to the Museum of Fine Arts where we were happy to be surprised with a major retrospective on the work of August Rodin.
The next day brings us to our destination. Nearly 3 thousand miles of driving the length of our country would deposit us in a gentle and bucolic setting. The town of Johnson, Vermont has the rural charm that we see on endless postcards sent from autumn-limned tourists with a steepled church and a scenic river meandering nearby. The center of the Vermont Studio Center (VSC) is the towering red mill where meals are served, offices are maintained and a lounge and art library is located. We are warmly welcomed by staff members and escorted to our living accommodations, a nearby house that has been modified to have 4 large bedrooms and a full kitchen. We will inhabit the lower floor with a private bathroom and 2 bedrooms.
My studio space was more than I could’ve hoped for. My space was the nearest the door in what had been the town’s gymnasium. Now named after the noted artist Wolf Kahn, it has been modified to hold 18 private studios, a gallery and a studio devoted to live model drawing that was offered 5 mornings a week. It would be my creative home for my stay and featured high ceilings, a wonderful view overlooking the meadow towards the river with abundant natural light.
More residents appear and we all take an extended tour of the grounds and begin to meet the friendly staff who all seem to be accomplished artists and writers in their own right. We were all invited to leave our studio doors open to welcome interaction. At the opening reception that evening, we began meeting the other delegates and getting a feel for the whole operation. One of the trustees addressed us at dinner and set the record straight; “Most of the world is trying to survive on two dollars a day”, he began. “Your work doesn’t mean much to me”. “If I have time for art, I’m going to make my own”.
Fair enough, I thought. I dove straight in and got to work. Anne began tending the flowerbeds around Wolf Kahn and we were able to share some flower seeds with another trustee. Two doors were laid across some sawhorses and a large desk / cabinet was supplied. Within minutes I began work on the painting I had with me. I still needed to color in more figures and then start outlining them in black.
The best part of the overall experience was to be able to speak in depth about art to artists from all over the world. Besides the U.S., England, Taiwan, Cambodia, Brazil, Israel and Hong Kong sent representatives. Remembering names was the hardest part for me and I was glad to have Anne recall them. We were among the older folks but didn’t feel left out in any way and bonded with the other couples in a nice way.
We had accomplished artists and writers make presentations and then visits to our individual studios. I had solid sessions with sculptor, Carol Prusa, Multi media artist, Oliver Herring and painter Chuck Webster who expounded thoughtfully about their work and made a studied exploration of mine. Other opportunities to share art were the weekly resident slide night where each artist was allotted 20 slides and 5 minutes. I’ve done so many public presentations that I could look forward to this and signed up for the following week.
A pattern began to develop after a few days. Anne and I would share a morning cup of gourmet coffee brewed from the espresso maker that we brought with us. Immediately after the communal breakfast, I would take my sketchbook to the live model sessions and sketch with the handsplint I normally wear to hold my fork or spoon at mealtimes. After I sketched for a couple hours, I’d work on my project until lunch and then hit it again right afterwards with an occasional outing in the afternoon to sample the local brews, pick up needed supplies or search for photography opportunities.
We became fast friends with other artists sharing the studio complex and were excited to learn of their varied approaches to art-making. The first open studio evening was particularly satisfying. Each artist would display their work and usually be present to explain their methods during the general tour. Lively discussions prompted intense concentration on process, form and delivery that made me question my tried and true approach and I eagerly sought a fresh way to explore my latent creativity.
Before long, I had completed my initial project and Anne and I began to collaborate on a similar idea that would take the idea further and add new elements with the aid of circular templates and acrylic paint. I yearned to do something completely different and experimented with taking the pencil sketches I’d done with my handsplint and coloring them with my usual method of mouth-painting. The early results were promising enough and the early enthusiasm from the other artists encouraging, so I stayed with it and soon had a fair collection of finished pieces.
One of the center’s staff also taught the art program at the local elementary school and I happily offered to conduct a couple classes. We picked a few bouquets of flowers to use as models and the students showed great interest in applying colors and textures to the forms they developed. Above town is Johnson State College and we were delighted to attend the opening of a thesis exhibition held by one of our fellow residents. Her large scale triptychs showed stylized landscapes from her home valley in California and terrific paintings of grape branches from her family winery that suggested human shapes.
As scenic as the surrounding countryside is, we were somewhat surprised that few of the artists explored the pictorial opportunities in paint. A response to our environment might take the shape of hundreds of drawings of leaves on scraps of paper that were then piled up as a rake might in late autumn. Or another approach took the form of a casually selected rock that was then painstakingly rendered in pencil for each day and displayed together. Various installation efforts were employed to make use of our private studios. An Israeli couple requested material contributions that they ultimately assembled in a kinetic form that transformed their space into an exciting, multimedia exhibition.
Writers were also included amongst the residents and they had opportunities to read from their works and visiting writers shared their work with us also. Occasional interactions would result but generally it appeared that the two disciplines merged seldom. One exciting project involved Chinese calligraphy on handmade rice paper that was then folded origami-style into lotus blossoms that were lined elegantly on the artist’s studio table. Spare, delicate and evocative, the result was serene and fragile.
We used our digital technology as little as possible and didn’t talk politics or sports the whole time. It was just such joy to stay focused on production and interaction followed by presentation and poetry. Near the end of our time, the fall colors were coming out in full force.
My 5-minute presentation began with a drawing from 1971 and gave a general lowdown on my journey with the final painting including the Chinese word for Hope. Anne was introduced as having “Angel stuff” and my paintings of hearts reinforced that. People seemed intrigued by some of my art and inspired that I could sustain my long career and see so much of the world.
Anne was able to do many lovely paintings of flowers and mountains and even constructed and suspended a mobile of a huge head from the crossed wires in our studio. By the time of our final open studio night, we had finished the 3” X 4" painting finished and on the wall. I took the 3 folded paintings I’d finished and put them together as a triptych on another wall and loaded the last with all new things I’d done since I got here.
It was a treasure to give out my pins to people during the last few days and to find a pillar in the lounge to stick one on as a lasting reminder of my precious time here. I am filled with gratefulness when I consider the foundation that provided us with the exceptional experience.
So many of the artists were visiting New York City afterwards that it wasn’t difficult to persuade Anne to drive in and see the new Whitney Museum of American Art. We took a chance and parked in a load zone across the street and didn’t catch a ticket. The pope had just been through NYC and Hurricane Joachim hadn’t come ashore yet. We saw as many art collections as we could between Vermont and St. Petersburg, FL and finally got to see Charleston and Savannah.
On our way back through Atlanta, I celebrated my birthday with an old friend and visited the offices of the Mouth & Foot Painting Artists where my reproduced paintings are marketed on cards and calendars. We got our country groove on in Nashville and Memphis (Graceland!) and spent some time on Petit Jean Mountain, AR where Anne’s childhood friends gave us a night to remember. I had hoped to get to Kansas City after seeing the new Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, AR but was sorely surprised that a KC Royals playoff game had every room taken. By next morning we were near Omaha before heading due west to Cheyenne, Salt Lake City and Boise, ID before coming on home.
We are again amazed at our audacity and faith that we can achieve a 10,410 mile journey. To be with outstanding people for a month-long art residency, conducted an all-day workshop for 5 student members of MFPA, seeing 25 museums full of treasures, give 6 classroom presentations, acquired a major work of art in NYC, and saw the most beautiful areas of the country at the best time of year and stayed safe the whole time.
What lessons I learned and how my art will ultimately respond to the intense study of past and current trends will take some time. I certainly look forward to future residency opportunities including a return trip to the Vermont Studio Center, perhaps in pursuit of my writing. I further hope my fellow resident’s had as productive a time as I did and continue to grow as artists.