What If Artists Ruled Vermont?
The local culture corps casts an eye to the future
What if Burlington’s old Woolworth’s were turned into an after-hours roller-rink? What if South Burlington had a theme park dedicated to independent film, with Fred Tuttle as its icon? What if artists collaborated with industrial engineers to re-think what is considered “waste”? What if a time-free portal ran across the entire state — with no cars, no clocks and no phones — inside of which there would be no busy doing but just being?
In other words, what if Vermont artists were running the show?
These are just a few of the scenarios city and state planners might be considering if Vermont artists were brought in as advisors — and their ideas were taken seriously. That’s exactly what Seven Days proposed to do when we asked nearly 50 artists — visual artists, novelists, poets, performers, filmmakers, architects and musicians from around the state — to “imagine a future in which artists are the creative consultants to the mayors, city councilors and legislators of Vermont.” With a new millennium fast approaching and the entire human race taking stock of its past, we decided to look forward instead, and tap into the kind of creative talent that is rarely, if ever, called upon by politicians to help solve problems and re-envision what’s possible.
We asked these artists to respond to one or more of a number of topics, including environment, education, health care, public art, architecture, waterfront, housing, agriculture and childcare. While this is far from an exhaustive list of the challenges facing Vermonters, it was broad enough to stimulate a variety of responses. The artists were encouraged to submit anything from specific proposals to general philosophies — different ways of thinking, doing or being, from the right-on to the left field.
And that’s what we got, as you will see below. “The arts,” responded Burlington artist Cami Davis appropriately, “cultivate the kind of creative thinking which these challenges require.” A common challenge faced — and much discussed, often defensively — by artists in the era of National Endowment cut-backs has to do with their own funding, as well as the impact of the arts on community and state coffers. This Wednesday, in fact, there is a public panel discussion at Burlington’s Firehouse Gallery titled “Art & Economics.” It is a fitting conclusion to the gallery’s current exhibit, reviewed in this issue, which represents the artistic outgrowth of the regional partnership called Triangle of Excellence among Burlington, Plattsburgh and Saint-Jean-sûr-Richelieu in Québec.
The discussion may reveal, as Firehouse curator and musician Pascal Spengemann believes, that “the work of our best artists already whispers in the ears of our elected officials, reminding them that originality, daring and the one-of-a-kind are what fuel the new sustainable American dream.”
Although the arts can indeed be a significant contributor to the cultural and economic quality of life, this query is not about artists and money; it is about artists concerned, like the rest of us, with a world that seems increasingly off-balance and out of control. Not surprisingly, the creative people we spoke to gladly rose to the challenge. Vermont-born artist Michael Oatman, who now teaches at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., believes that in fact “being an artist is about the condition of non-stop problem-solving ... Artists have always figured things out in spite of the public, in spite of adversity, in spite of marginalization,” he added. “We solve highly complex problems with unorthodox approaches. The same can be applied to the list in question.” (Oatman was also the only respondent to address every single issue on our list, so we’d like to encourage him to return to Vermont as soon as possible.)
That said, many of our respondents were quick to note that artists wouldn’t actually make good bureaucrats or political leaders. “Artists will never be known for their diplomacy or people skills,” opined Lincoln writer Chris Bohjalian. “There are many well-intentioned artists on this planet ... but not many who are both well-intentioned and capable of sitting through a select board meeting.”
The responses verified that artists would, on the other hand, make for visionary advisors. What follows, then, are some ideas that we would ask the current “rulers” — mayors, city councilors and legislators — as well as all our readers to consider. Even the ideas, as Davis put it, that push “the boundaries of logic.”
A “new vaudevillian” performer for all ages, Charlotte-based Woody Keppel is one-half of Waldo and Woodhead, and he made a recent video titled Woodhead Saves the Farm. Still, agriculture is less his thing than nature in general. And nature in general is what he thinks the state had better preserve. “As an artist I am mindful of the fact that nature stimulates me to produce and [it is] where I turn for inspiration and inner peace,” he said. Keppel is concerned that encouraging more business in the state “will only mean more people, more cars, more pollution and a lesser quality of life.” His thoughts run less to specifics than to a gentle reminder: “If it’s tourism that fuels the economy, then shouldn’t we preserve that which the tourists come to see?”
Alisa Dworsky and Danny Sagan couldn’t agree more. The couple, who live in Randolph Center and teach at Norwich University, are design-builders with vibrant ideas for the built environment, but near-reverential ones for the natural world. “We have to see open land as part of our cultural and physical heritage,” said Dworsky. “It is one of our most precious resources that we do not have unlimited amounts of ... At the rate we are paving over Vermont, we need to take some steps to preserve open land.”
Advising “growth rings” to increase urban density and preserve agricultural land, Sagan suggested a bus line that would connect the villages and towns, decreasing traffic.
Burlington architect John Anderson likes the idea of increasing urban density and preserving open spaces, and not just for physical reasons. “One of the reasons people love Burlington is that it is a pretty hip and dense urban scene surrounded by drop-dead natural beauty,” he said. “This happens to be a very intense and dramatic contrast. When opposites are juxtaposed, particularly in close contact, drama heightens, people are moved.” Anderson believes this proximity of dense urban and complicated natural environs creates “lots of unknowns and dark corners” that make life more interesting. “The greatest threat to Burlington is sprawl ... because it does two things,” he warned. “It diminishes and distances the contrast of opposites, eventually wiping it out altogether ... The real terror in our lives and to artists as well is homogeneity, vagueness, a flat universe.”
Several other respondents had more specific ideas on their minds. Irasburg novelist Howard Frank Mosher pushed for “the enforcement of extant environmental laws pertaining to clear-cutting of forest near rivers and streams.” In particular, he’s concerned about the Black River. “The best brook trout river in northern Vermont was destroyed by loggers who came in very quickly and clear-cut a mountain above the river,” he said. “The runoff of rain then destroyed the brook trout spawning pool.”
Fellow writer Castle Freeman, who lives in Newfane, would like to see “real environmental protection that addresses air and water quality and otherwise aids public health and safety ... at taxpayer expense.” Like many respondents, he merged the concerns of environment and sprawl. “Let those who deplore sprawl — and I am one — pay for their beliefs through land trusts and other private conservancy organizations,” he suggested. “I am envisioning an active and effective land conservation movement — but one based on private and modified public-private projects and not so much on regulation by the state.”
Kathleen Schneider, a UVM art professor and Winooski resident, came up with several beautifying ideas, including planting more trees, placing “green strips” down the center of any street or highway project and green spaces in shopping mall parking lots. An idea sure to please fellow Onion City residents is a solution for what Schneider calls the “desperate need for crosswalks over Route 7,” which slices through the city. Build an iron walkway over the busy street, she proposed, “with a simple, elegant railing … and both ends of the walkway topped with a single, large-scale iron onion.”
Dworsky likes the idea of public promenades, European-style, where the citizens could gather to walk, talk to each other and take in cultural events.
Cannot all building and city planning be done with an eye to beauty? asked Troy Peters. As South Burlington struggles to create a city center, its planners might heed the advice of the conductor of the Vermont Youth Orchestra: a more human-scale, less car-focused design. “We have to make our goal that all growth is growth that makes our communities more beautiful and vibrant,” Peters said.
Burlington independent filmmaker Keith Spiegel would put a serious foot down on development. “I’d enact a new Draconian zoning ordinance that would immediately confine all of Vermont’s strip malls, superstores and car dealerships to the town of Williston, where it would be welcomed with open arms,” he threatened. Spiegel is the artist who recommended the South Burlington movie theme park with Man With a Plan star Fred Tuttle as its icon. “The main attraction would be a Space Mountain-style rollercoaster ride based on A Stranger in the Kingdom,” he elaborated. Spiegel’s ideas for Burlington’s — or any town’s — empty storefronts might be better received at the city council: “I’d transform all those spaces into temporary music clubs, theater venues and art galleries,” he proposed. “I’d even make one of them an indoor farmers market.”
Burlington artist and musician Missy Bly had similar aspirations for empty spaces: fill them with art. Noting with pleasure the occasional art exhibits in store windows, and the history-based “Neighborhood Project” performances of choreographer Hannah Dennison, Bly said she’d like to see more funds available to facilitate exhibits in public spaces such as the mall. “Let’s fill up those sad, empty storefronts!” she proposed. “How about hiring artists to decorate the mall for the holidays?” Bly echoed Spiegel’s idea of turning the former Woolworth’s on Burlington’s Church Street into a performance space, but topped it with the vision of a late-night roller-rink.
Michael Oatman cites the South Burlington “pocket park,” by artist Leslie Fry and Michael Wisniewski as a great example of how a partnership with the private sector, the public and a few visionary individuals can bring something utilitarian and graceful to the community.” He’d like to see more urban parks “to bring beauty to those who are always ‘contained’ by poverty.” Oatman also suggested that artists be consulted on the down-and-dirty jobs, such as working with industry engineers to envision what to do with manufacturing waste. “It could take the vision of someone used to working in the collage-like manner to realize this,” he suggested. Artists, furthermore, should help create playful, well-designed storage bins and centers to make recycling more fun.
It’s a safe guess many artists don’t have health insurance, but few we spoke to had more than general suggestions for well-being — including the always healthful idea of finding balance. “Spend time — even a minute! — each morning in prayer and meditation,” advised Waitsfield artist Sally Sweetland. “Realize that the health care crisis is symptomatic of lack of awareness both individually and publicly. Bad health habits contribute to bad health,” she said sensibly, “and good health practices are the only real ‘insurance.’”
If Daniel Lusk were an advisor to legislators, “universal health care would assume top priority,” he said. A poet and associate dean of continuing education at UVM, Lusk revealed the hardship his family endured due to his father’s ill health, and would not have survived without food subsidies and a state hospital. “No such safety net exists now, or if it does, poverty is a prerequisite,” he observed. “The notion of health care is neither sexy nor imaginative, but without it, the ‘pursuit of happiness’ part of our national motto is mocked by our failure to nurture the ‘life’ part.” Lusk noted, too, the cultural poverty of a society in which families are forced to choose between music, art or dance lessons for their children and visits to the doctor or dentist.
Among the more specific ideas was Kathleen Schneider’s proposal for “more facilities for people with chronic illnesses, such as AIDS, lupus or multiple sclerosis,” and increased funding for organizations such as Vermont CARES.
Alisa Dworsky, citing a confluence of community planning and health, noted that, “Frankly, we are all overweight as a country. It would be good for us to walk.”
Oatman, who at 35 has health insurance for the first time since the ‘rents covered it, suggested “linking health care for lower-income city residents to a kind of ‘wage exchange’ in which for a limited number of hours per week, people marginalized by the mainstream can become ‘city employees’ to share the no-doubt decent insurance plan in place for the mayor and his staff.” Oatman also envisioned medical students and residents offering their services at a free downtown “medical emergency kiosk.”
In a related statement, Chris Bohjalian quipped that all human cloning should be “handled by sculptors instead of scientists, using clay instead of DNA, so we wouldn’t have those messy debates about the soul of a clone.”
Like Schneider, Dan Higgins is a UVM art professor who happens to live in Winooski. Though he didn’t put his response under the category of “health care,” he had a unique — and perhaps the most sci-fi — idea for improving body, mind and spirit. Admitting he couldn’t give our query the time it deserved because he was too busy, Higgins imagined a solution allowing people more space for not doing. “My solution would somehow work against that frenzy of rushing, driving and doing,” he said. “I’m not sure how it would look but it would involve the creation of a great swath of space — a primordial portal — running from the hill at the university west to the lake ... and running down the other side of the hill northeast into the neighborhoods of Winooski and beyond. This portal would be a kind of decompression chamber ... to get from one side of town to the other people would have to cross through the portal.” Inside it, Higgins explained, there would be no cars, no clocks, no telephones and no doing, just being. “When people exited from the portal ... there would be a residue, a slight shift in both spatial and temporal awareness...” and less anxiety.
Most responses on this topic centered around arts education, or the benefits of a more creative approach to learning. “I am still amazed that there are people who don’t get,” marveled Troy Peters, “that cutting music and art and drama and foreign languages will not make the weakest students suddenly, magically learn to read and find a square root.” As the conductor of a youth orchestra, Peters has perhaps had occasion to note the connection between playing classical music and improving math scores, but he’s less concerned about tests than the ultimate cultural outcome. “What good is all that reading and writing if there is nothing in the world worth reading and writing about?” he asked.
“This one seems a no-brainer,” agreed Oatman. “Tests prove kids learn better when stimulated by classical and jazz music, fight less when creatively challenged, engage more when they are taught by experiences, not lessons.” This prof — and product of a 1970s “open classroom” — suggests bringing artists into all kinds of classrooms. He also recommends finding a way to give teachers in public schools “research time like college professors.” With teachers taking time for further growth, novice teachers would fill in, with supervision, creating a “roll-over” teacher training system. He recommends, too, that teachers do “special subject visiting gigs” to other schools. “Let’s make it interesting for everybody,” Oatman advises.
“My wish is that schools will finally learn what business they ought to be in,” sad Burlington-based storyteller and musician Tim Jennings, who is one half of the Celtic duo Sheefra, with his partner Leanne Ponder. Quoting writer Anne Herbert, Jennings purposed that “schools ought to be in the business of teaching children how to fall in love. If you are not in love with something, nothing will get you to learn about it; if you are in love with something, nothing can stop you from learning about it.
“Kids routinely fall in love — with cars, with each other, with theater, sports, drawing, fashion and being pissed off. The results of their raw passion can be … awesome,” Jennings continued. “By and large this doesn’t happen in schools … but despite schools. Schools are afraid of raw passion.”
Alisa Dworsky enlarged the concept to include the whole community. Arts education, she imagined, “would activate the public realm, taking place in community arts centers, theaters, libraries. To gather around the experience of the arts and ultimately around a celebration life — that’s what the creative experience is.”
As the director of the nearly 25-year-old GRACE arts program in the Northeast Kingdom, Don Sunseri has seen the value of art-making as education time and time again — and always outside the classroom. Though his workshops frequently take place in nursing homes and community centers, it’s just a small stretch to imagine art time at the Statehouse. “It would be great if [legislators] could experience something in a creative field to stretch them a bit — work with a camera, do some painting ... There should be creativity in all the professional bureaucracies.” Creativity, like everything else, just takes practice, Sunseri said. “Drop the regular way of doing things and take 10 minutes a day, an hour a month, whatever — exercise creativity as a practice.”
As a mother of two, Burlington artist Katharine Montstream has a different concern about schools: safety. “I think we should have metal detectors in schools,” she stated flatly. “There came a time where we needed them in airports, and I think we’ve reached a time when we need them in schools.” She’s also upset about the informal but trenchant mis-education kids get — in advertising. “One thing that bugs me about advertising is how glamorous the people are who smoke and drink,” Montstream groused. “I don’t think it’s fair ... not showing the 45-year-old alcoholic sitting in his La-Z-Boy.”
Charlotte artist and mother Sumru Tekin, too, was down-to-earth: “Our children and children’s children would consider arts education a fundamental right, such as food, clothing, shelter and breathing clean air. But first we would have to guarantee that food, clothing, shelter and breathing clean air were guaranteed by law for everyone.”
The lone voice about another controversial educational issue was Castle Freeman, who in no uncertain terms would like to see the state “give up on Act 60 and turn to a simpler system of helping to fund local schools.” He would also like to see the State of Vermont “develop and publish a simple, one-page and fairly traditional ‘core curriculum,’ or list of essential subjects every kid needs to know. Let the Vermont Curriculum command the support of parents and teachers by its prestige, realism and good sense alone,” he advised.
Wordsmith Chris Bohjalian had simpler concerns about the integrity of language. If artists ruled, he said, “the writers would make sure that Al agreed to spell French fries correctly.”
In addition to Missy Bly’s art in malls, Kathleen Schneider called for more public art in general and the Moran Plant Contemporary Art Center at the Burlington waterfront in particular. Michael Oatman would brick up the block of Church Street between Main and College, extend the Firehouse Gallery outside with a pad for sculpture and glass-enclosed artists’ studios overhead. He would also turn the space in front of City Hall into an open-air amphitheater — perhaps the city council could meet there?
John Anderson proposed re-envisioning the very definition of public art. “Public art is too often thought of simply as single objects placed somewhere that’s made conveniently available,” he said. “Burlington can be thought of as a living and dynamic art museum with the parks and plazas, streets, alleys and interior civic spaces as ‘rooms’ in the museum where art can be placed. I think if Burlington were to market itself as this living museum of art, supported by food and festivals,” he continued, “it need never fear the big boxes and the suburban malls.”
Naturally, the architects had the most to say about their field. “We see aspects of the Vermont landscape that are wonderful and underappreciated,” said Danny Sagan, “for example, the old industrial buildings you see downtown. My problem with a lot of new architecture in Vermont is it’s either generic or it’s ‘phony Vermont.’” Sagan, who teaches architecture and global issues at Norwich University and also teaches, with Dworsky, at Warren’s Yestermorrow, would like builders and architects alike to consider buildings that work with the natural, northern environment. Both like the idea of funding for architects “to be involved in the design of all public and commercial buildings in the state,” and something like a state-funded Yestermorrow available to all.
Anderson believes that architecture is overlooked as a fine art, and “rarely appreciated as more than a functional necessity.” The new lab next to UVM’s Science Center designed by his firm, Anderson Schenker Architects, he said, is simple in shape but “the exterior is treated like art, a story line in seven brick colors that engages and challenges the passersby and enlivens its surroundings.” Anderson added that he would like to see government demand more experimentation and enterprise from developers.
Oh, and the ever-ready Oatman suggested, “Beat Winooski to the punch with a dome over Burlington.”
Anderson has long proposed visionary, highly imaginative ideas for the Burlington waterfront. These have included a “tankscape” — though the old oil tanks have now been removed; the waterfront as Greek amphitheater for nature’s nightly sunset show; a glass-enclosed corridor that would extend all the way up the hill; and a design for four island-parks, all connected by gondola, with business and shopping below water level. The disintegrating breakwater, recently in the news, is “an art project waiting to happen,” Anderson exclaimed. Three years ago he drew plans for a “Breakwater Calibrator” piece in which 22 vertical light pylons would be set on the breakwater at 5 degree angles, each aimed back at the same spot on the waterfront. “When anyone stood on that spot, they could align themselves with Giant Mountain in the Adirondacks, Big Ben National Park in Texas and the Andromeda Galaxy, and so on.”
While few artists have been as obsessed with the waterfront as Anderson, plenty of opinions exist about such features as the Pease Grain tower — eyesore or icon? — and the former Moran Generating Plant. The latter has been on the Fleming Museum’s radar, with plans, spearheaded by curator Janie Cohen, to convert the industrial hulk into a home for outsized contemporary art — some of which would surely spill out onto the surrounding land.
The Fleming’s waterfront extension might share space with the long-awaited skate park, which Chris Bohjalian supports.
This topic overlapped with those of architecture and sprawl. Dworsky and Sagan suggest Vermonters design great buildings for a northern climate. Oatman considered the more specific concerns of the needy. “Perhaps artists could work with architects to place the emphasis on ways in which we could utilize existing buildings for student, low-income and elderly housing,” he suggested. “The loft model has many advantages that could be incorporated into new structures as well as old. We forget,” he added, “that we have the option to ‘undo’ our architectural planning mistakes to a certain extent.”
Norwich-based filmmaker Nora Jacobson has been thinking about a new community-based way of living and explicitly discussing, with a group of artist friends, the idea of creating such a community on land she owns. The director of My Mother’s Early Lovers said, “We’ve already been through all the stages of breaking away from our parents, living on our own, maybe living in communes, and [I’m] coming from a different position now.” Acknowledging that she prizes privacy and solitude, Jacobson now believes “it’s time to ... actually do something pretty positive after living pretty selfishly. The privilege of having land in this country,” she added, “is you start to feel there’s a responsibility to do something not just for yourself.”
Artists are not generally farmers, apparently. And while many expressed concern for the disappearing landscape — a.k.a. farmland — only two weighed in on specific comments regarding agriculture itself. Oatman suggested finding ways to “form partnerships with area farmers, getting kids out of the city for real-world work experience.” He also recommended making Vermont “a BGH genetically altered-seed-free zone,” so that the state would become valued for its organic farms. Finally, Oatman proposed offering tax incentives to restaurants that offer Vermont farm products.
Katharine Montstream would like to see farmers make a little more profit so they don’t need to sell off their land for development. “Why can’t we pay a little more for milk so they can continue to farm?” she asked. “We can subsidize it more than we do; they need to encourage their children to become farmers.”
We didn’t have a government category, but it came up anyway, and some of the responses bear repeating. “It’s always struck me that we’re not as creative in politics as in art,” said Richard McCormack. He should know. A liberal Democratic Senator from Bethel, he’s a folk musician when not tackling issues under the Golden Dome. McCormack offered this as a lesson in “fighting the power”: “Beethoven was faulted by a colleague for writing a piece of music that included an entire measure in open fifths, which was forbidden by prevailing musical theory at the time. He said, ‘Very well, prevailing musical theory forbids it; Beethoven allows it.’”
While conceding that legislators don’t usually think in quite this way, McCormack said he’s still surprised “when you come up against the goddamn reality that you can’t get the bill passed, at how soon pragmatic behavior sets in.” Perhaps Don Sunseri’s suggestion of an art break would help. “It’s amazing how uncreative we are as human beings when you consider what we could come up with,” McCormack lamented, citing inertia as the biggest problem.
Burlington videographer Stuart McGowan offered the most radical change in government yet: “I propose a mandate that all government jobs be filled by people under the age of 38.” The most creative minds are those of the younger generations, McGowan believes. “By staffing the government with folks between the ages of 15 and 40, you bring all that burning intensity into an arena that could actually accomplish something.” But it’s equally important, he conceded, that “wiser, saner heads” fill the other jobs.
Philosophy/Ways of Thinking
Threaded throughout most of the artists’ responses were creative, even cosmic, macro views and guideposts to thinking, feeling, seeing and problem-solving. While not exclusive to artists, these thoughts provide an inspirational conclusion to the survey. “The thing that artists would bring to the policy table is a sense of balance and perspective,” offered Troy Peters. “And if all else fails, most artists have a pretty good sense of humor.”
A spiritually oriented artist, Cami Davis noted our query was “a powerful and timely concept,” as, she believes, “some synergy of different disciplines” is needed to tackle society’s thorniest problems as well as opportunities. Davis emphasized, too, the interconnectedness of all things — an ancient concept which, if fully realized, would affect making art as much as passing laws or constructing highways.
“It takes an evolution of consciousness and the realization that we all help ourselves when we help each other,” contributed Burlington sculptor Clark Russell. “Once a person becomes conscious, they stop wasting resources, stop being mean to people.”
“I wish that Vermont’s virtue was not that we are 10 years behind the rest of the country, but that we could be 10 years ahead of everybody else,” opined Tunbridge filmmaker John O’Brien. “If Missouri is the ‘show-me’ state, Vermont should be the ‘show-you’ state.”
Stu McGowan offered the simplest, and yet perhaps the most difficult, goal of all: “The biggest change would be to teach people that the greatest piece of art they will ever create is their own lives.”