Vermont Arts Council

I am a Vermont Artist: Dona Ann McAdams

For almost two decades, renowned photographer Dona Ann McAdams has been raising goats on a farm in Sandgate, Vermont. A photographer for whom work and community are one and the same, Dona’s recent photos are often of goats and cows, horses, scenes of milk production, and other denizens and phenomena of rural life.

Before Vermont, Dona’s community and subjects were thoroughly urban. She studied photography at the San Francisco Art Institute in the ‘70s, and her friendship with Harvey Milk taught her to use her art for social change. After Milk’s assassination, Dona returned to New York City, where she was born and raised, and she began photographing subjects like the gentrification of the Lower East Side, the queer liberation movement, people living with mental illness, and the women of the city.

Dona’s photography has been exhibited in such acclaimed venues as the Whitney and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Since 2019, a retrospective exhibit of her work, Performative Acts, has been touring museums and galleries around Vermont. Curated by Vermont State Rep. John Killacky (D-South Burlington), the former director of the Flynn Center, the exhibit features photos spanning four decades of her career and will be on view next at the Bennington Museum on April 2, 2021.

Dona shared her thoughts on being a Vermont artist.

Two nuns mingle with goats in a field (black and white).
The Sisters of St. Mary’s Convent, Northern Spy Farm, Vermont, 2015. Silver gelatin photograph.

How has living as an artist in Vermont affected your creative process?

In New York City my darkroom sat in a rented retrofitted bathroom in an old school building, PS122 (Performance Space 122) in the East Village. But when I moved to Vermont in 1998 I had the space and capability to make a darkroom large enough to fit my needs. I was also able to realize a long-held desire to live with animals who fed me—both physically, emotionally, and (even) artistically. Today, along with my husband, novelist Brad Kessler, my photographic art has extended into the other art forms: farming and cheesemaking. Our farm is one of the smallest licensed dairies in the state. As well as my traditional human subjects, my goats have also become the subject of my art.

What is something about your art that has changed over time?

My work has become more intimate and personal. I work more closely with animals and the land. My relationship to my work is a direct result of my working alongside horses, goats, and neighboring farmers.

A crowd of protesters fill a New York City street in 1990 during the height of the AIDS epidemic. The crowd holds up multiple coffins written with words like "We're here, we're queer, we hate the fucking president!" and "R.I.P. G.O.P."
ACT UP at the Waldorf Astoria, NYC, 1990. Silver gelatin photograph.

What is your vision for the next several years?

I’ve always worked directly with the community I’m photographing, producing images for them and for myself. In the next few years I plan on mining my extensive archive, looking back at work I haven’t taken the time to look at before, some dating back as far as 1974. I’ve been working on a visual memoir with support from a Creation Grant I received in 2019 called Still Time.

Visit Dona’s website.

Follow Dona on Instagram.

Read this 2019 interview with Dona in Seven Days.

Watch this video of Dona and John Killacky discussing the culture wars of the ’90s.

Dona Ann McAdams is a photographer whose work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including the Museum of Modern Art, NYC; The Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC; The International Center for Photography. Since 1983, she has been committed to bringing cameras and photography into marginalized and under-served communities. She has built community darkrooms and taught photography in places as diverse as New York City homeless shelters, Appalachian farming communities, thoroughbred race tracks, and day programs for people living with severe mental illness. She is the author of a book of performance photography, Caught in the Act (Aperture 1996) and The Woodcutter’s Christmas (Council Oak Book, Fall 2001), and her work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The London Times, The Chicago Tribune, Time, Newsweek, Stern, Doubletake, and Aperture.

The I am a Vermont Artist series explores how artists’ creative expressions reflect their experiences of ethnicity, gender identity, religion, disability, or age. Covering all artistic disciplines, and a range of backgrounds—from New Americans to the state’s first residents—we hope to amplify voices that deepen our understanding of what it means to be a Vermont artist.

Visit the series archive.