A Year in Reconnecting Communities Through Public Art
Public art often influences the way we see and connect with a public space. Catching our eye on art in public spaces often engages our minds and hearts sometimes in provocative ways and can often spark feelings of community belonging and connectedness.
A key priority of the Vermont Arts Council, placemaking is supported through a variety of programs. Read on for the many ways that this year’s newly installed placemaking projects brought renewed energy and inspiration to public spaces.
Placemaking for Healing
The arts are a proven contributor in improving mental health and in healing during recovery in healthcare settings, with numerous studies pointing to the value of permanent visual art displays, performances in public spaces, and bedside art activities for patients.
The therapeutic power of nature and the arts is now on display at the Vermont Department of Mental Health’s newest recovery residence in Essex, helping to enrich the lives of residents on their healing journey. The works—two outdoor murals and a series of calming nature photographs—are the result of a public art commission through the Art in State Buildings program, a partnership between the Vermont Arts Council and the Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services.
In June 2022, Carol Langstaff’s nature photography and Kathryn Wiegers’ murals were chosen as the winning concept designs for the new River Valley Therapeutic Residence, a 16-bed facility serving Vermonters who no longer require an inpatient level of care but continue to require significant support as they transition to a lower level of care. The facility, which opened in May 2023, has been designed to feel more like home than an institution and to allow easy access to nature to help residents feel safe.
One entire exterior wall features a mural of a forest trees with hidden woodland creatures that extends to meet the trees behind it, and on another wall a graceful heron takes flight. Inside, 14 large photographs of nature scenes—birchwood forests, vernal pools, lily ponds, woodland trails, and more—grace common rooms throughout the facility.
Langstaff, who lives in Sharon, VT, was awarded a $18,000 commission, and Wiegers, who lives in Rutland, VT, was awarded a $25,000 commission for the permanent public art.
Funded by the Art in State Buildings Act, the Art in State Buildings Program requires that approved funds from the State of Vermont’s capital budget be transferred to an Art Acquisition fund for the purpose of providing works of art in public buildings and facilities undergoing new construction or renovation. Since 1988, the program has commissioned artwork from over 60 artists to appear in 35 state-owned buildings and public spaces across Vermont.
An exciting development from our legislative advocacy in the statehouse this year was increased funding for the Art in State Buildings program. On June 6, 2023, Act 50 was signed into law, providing much-needed program updates, including a new funding mechanism that sets a minimum appropriation of $75,000 (up from a maximum of $50,000) in the State capital budget. This is the first funding increase since the program was established in 1988.
Stay tuned for new Art in State Building commissions that will be announced in 2024!
Animating Historical Viewpoints
In June, the community of Hyde Park, Vermont installed their newest piece of public art by artist Dan Gottsegen along the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail. “Hyde Park Views” is a railroad track themed steel structure with 20 colorful glass panels depicting Hyde Park’s history, economic activities, and built environments. The structure is viewable from the rail trail parking area on Depot Street.
Gottsegen met with numerous community members to create the Hyde Park images, paint them on canvas, and digitally replicate them between glass panels. The entire project took three years, and the scheduled summer opening was postponed until September because of the floods.
Abenaki Chief Don Stevens, who is represented in the art, spoke at the dedication, honoring the place by giving traditional blessings and acknowledging that many people came together to create the beautiful site.
Gottsegen expressed his commitment to the project’s “views” theme, noting “I have done this in all my past projects, documenting unique historical features, architecture, local flora and fauna, historical figures, etc. I enjoy making work that appeals to all ages and families.”
The Vermont Arts Council supported the project through a $5,000 design grant and a $10,000 Animating Infrastructure Grant. In addition, over 95 donors, consisting of residents, property owners and businesses provided the local cash to secure funding through the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development’s Better Places 2:1 grant matching program. The crowd-funded effort provided the remaining $60,000 for a total project cost of $75,000.
Pinning the Past to the Future
In Springfield, VT, the official hometown of The Simpsons, public art and history collided at Comtu Cascade Park in July with the unveiling of a monumental sculpture of David M. Smith’s mid-late 1800’s clothespin.
In 1853, Smith, a prolific Vermont inventor from Springfield, patented the technology that created the first spring-loaded clothespin. The Town, which at its prime was issued more patents to inventors than anywhere else in the country, wanted a placemaking piece to highlight the town’s innovation and industrial heritage.
The Town won an Animating Infrastructure grant to support the design, fabrication, and installation of the sculpture. Local artist Jamie Townsend was the artist selected by the Town for the project.
Comtu Park, Springfield’s most prominent downtown public space, was designed to reconnect people with the adjacent Black River. Smith’s clothespin—literally a connective device—is intended to further contextualize the river and the products created using its power, according to the Town.
“Our goal was to erect a statue that referred to Springfield’s inventive past and to act as something that would draw the attention of passersby, hopefully causing them to stop, notice and enjoy the new park and learn something about Springfield’s rich past,” said Brian Benoit, administrative assistant to the town manager.
Painting Community Love
The Johnson community pitched in this year to paint a youth-designed mural on the side of Johnson Elementary School featuring a giant, bright red and orange jaguar-like figure emerging from a river valley – a true celebration of community in this northern Lamoille County town.
An Animating Infrastructure Grant was awarded to the school district to hire Juniper Creative Arts to do a three-week art residency at the school and lead the creation of the mural in the community. A three-member family run entity based in Brandon, Juniper Creative Arts has painted numerous community murals across the state.
The elementary school students contributed to the design through workshops in the classroom. Later, during installation, an outdoor group paint day was held in which community members were invited to paint individual pieces of the design.
“We believe the project assisted in educating staff, youth and community members that our Brave Little State is indeed diverse,” said Maria Davies, the diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator at Lamoille North Supervisory Union which oversees Johnson Elementary.
“We had a family of three artists in residence for three weeks, all who identify as People of Color. The youth who also identify as People of Color who are in our school felt they were able to see someone who looked like them and who did something so cool. Youth were engaged in many conversations about belonging, feeling heard, represented, lonely, stuck. They all talked about their lived experiences as it related to art. It was a wonderful thing to hear our youth talk about how they were feeling and relating that to art,” Davis said.
“It helps youth feel heard, valued, seen, validated and emotionally part of something that will live on for a long time. During the unveiling, one 6th grader had the opportunity to say what the mural meant to them. They said, this mural will be here even after I am not, and I like the idea of having been part of this,” Davies continued.
“We had so many people come out to paint with us on Community Paint Day. It was such a lovely welcoming community day. We truly enjoyed every moment of our community mural creation. I hope more people do these types of activities in their community. Why? Because it brings nothing but love. What more could you ask for?”
What Will You Make?
Ready for more public art? 2024 promises more community placemaking projects. The Animating Infrastructure grant program opens again this winter, and several Art in State Buildings commissions are currently in the drafting stages and will be announced soon. Check out our public art page for new opportunities. What will you make?