Artists and Their Communities
I spent most of May speaking with artists about their community. I feel lucky. My purpose was to curate a survey of Vermont contemporary art organized around artists’ connections to one another by asking artists to select someone for the exhibition. The results of this experiment, the exhibition “Connection: the Art of Coming Together” will be on view June 5-October 6 at the Vermont Arts Council Spotlight Gallery in Montpelier. A version of the exhibition will appear in print in Vermont Art Guide #5, due out in August 2017.
Art communities rarely get the attention they deserve. It’s easy to conceptualize them when they are rooted in geography. The histories of art towns like Provincetown and Rockport are well documented. More often than not, artists operate in networks. It is a subtle but important difference. Communities live and die by the people in them. Participants rely on one another to maintain a social structure, protect and save each other in times of crisis, and nurture and celebrate each other in good times. Geography always defines a community because it forces definitions and interactions. Networks may function in a similar way, but without geography, participants are free to engage or withdraw at their discretion. One can choose not to speak to their neighbor, but one cannot choose to be free of the consequences of living next to them. If a social network is not nurtured, it dies and goes away. This is particularly true of artist networks which trade on mutual admiration and shared engagement to maintain themselves.
“Connection: the Art of Coming Together” provides a rare opportunity to follow artist networks, to see who knows who and how they relate to them. Each of the seventeen artists in the exhibition offers their own approach to counter the isolation that often comes with being an artist in a rural state.
St. Johnsbury artist Meri Stiles takes on the seasonal and geographical challenges of Vermont. “Vermont can be a challenging place to live. There is the impossible beauty, endless magnificently bleak winters, and the rural isolation to contend with. I find these qualities inspiring,” she said. From her home and studio in Fairfield, Gail Salzman observes, “I could become quite isolated out here in the backwoods. It takes a bit of extra effort to stay engaged with the art community. The Vermont Studio Center has been central to my developing a network of artists with whom I travel, collaborate, and exchange ideas.” Salzman recently attended Vermont Artists Week at the Center with Charlotte’s Jessica Scriver who is “seeing Vermont with fresh eyes, having moved away for five years and just returned.” Scriver has been expanding her view of Vermont’s art world lately. “When I lived in Burlington, I didn’t have to go far to see lots of art. I find that I’m venturing out to explore more of Vermont now that I’m living outside of Burlington.”
Middlebury painter Mary McKay Lower has found a community of artists through teaching. “The first week I moved to Vermont I joined the art education program at Frog Hollow and that close-knit group eventually became Middlebury Studio School. My teaching and art interests keep me involved in overlapping art communities.” One of those artists is North Chittenden painter Gabrielle McDermit, who counts herself as “fortunate to have a strong community of artists in my life.” She explains, “Two or three times a week I paint or draw with a group of very dedicated portrait, figure, and landscape painters. These groups are about honing personal skills as well as collectively lifting each other up to a higher level. A small group of us also enjoys road trips to far flung museums and gallery exhibitions. The long drives are filled with discussions about art, artists, exhibitions and daydreaming about future paintings.”
It’s Not Who You Know
It is often said that the art world is all about who you know. The quip is meant as a slight against a seemingly impenetrable clique that controls whose art is shown and whose art is important. The art world is one of the few remaining industries where people trade on their reputation. It is not so much about who you know but who knows you, your work, and what you are capable of doing. Creation is a personal, human act, which leaves artists vulnerable and exposed. It makes sense that they would create a bubble of protection and that others might see that as exclusive. But there is another side of this story. Art is hard. Art is risky. You can work all winter on a series of paintings, show them in the spring, and not sell a thing. Creativity is not a switch. It is something that needs care and nurturing. And not all ideas are good ones. Sometimes it takes a good friend or a respected peer to point that out. For all these reasons, this thing we call an “art community” becomes an important part of an artist’s life; a glue to keep us attached to the world, a balm to soothe our woes, a tincture to keep us going.
I hope “Connection: the Art of Coming Together” will honor that.
— Ric Kasini Kadour
Ric is editor and publisher of the Vermont Art Guide and the curator of “Connection: the Art of Coming Together,” on view in the Vermont Arts Council Spotlight Gallery June 5-October 6, 2017. See more at www.vermontartguide.com.
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— top left image: detail from Gail Salzman’s “Orison”