Artist's Notebook

Vermont Studio Center: An emerging art hub

Vermont Studio Center Trustees House, where they maintain apartments for visiting artists.

Contributed by Sharon Butler / A few weeks ago, when I was still ruminating on the 2021 UN Report on Climate Change, I headed up to Johnson, Vermont, for a few days. Johnson is the home of the Vermont Studio Center, a robust writer and artists’ residency that flanks the little Gihon River. Located in Lamoille County an hour from the Canadian Border, Johnson seems like a long way from New York, but as the climate changes, the art diaspora from New York City that has grown during Covid will undoubtedly enlarge its footprint. Northern Vermont seems far away now, but in ten years it may be an entrenched artists’ enclave. And Johnson, thanks to still-affordable housing and the VSC’s rich arts program, could be its center. During the worst of the pandemic, the residency program closed. While I was visiting, though, Program Director Kathy Black and new Executive Director Elyzabeth Joy Holford were busy preparing for the return of residents in January 2022.

Elyzabeth Joy Holford

Holford came to VSC from Washington DC after lockdown had started there, and she has spent much of her time working with staff, former residents, and members of the local community to form a vision for VSC’s future. Since my last visit in 2019, the VSC facilities had received many upgrades, including a new kitchen and renovated sleeping quarters that, among other improvements, addressed accessibility issues. Holford told me that she was overseeing changes that were on the original master plan, which included tearing down three of the older, unused buildings to provide more open space and reduce the VSC’s tax burden. 

Because Covid is still with us, the number of residents in each session will be reduced from 55 to 26, sessions won’t overlap, and the staff will have a week between sessions to prepare for the next cohort. Vaccinations will be required, and staff are discussing whether testing should be required as well. Kathy Black told me that online programming introduced during lockdown will continue, as it was very popular and has become a good way for former residents to stay in touch with one another.

Fresh peppers in Joe’s garden.

I explored Johnson, stopping by Kathy Black and her partner Joseph Salerno’s studios and vegetable garden, attending a rainy but lively ceremony for a big public cow mural, and checking out The Studio Store and Minėmå Art Gallery. Located in a storefront on Main Street, the shop and gallery were founded by Michael Mahnke and Kyle Nuse, Michael having originally come to Johnson as a VSC resident and ending up married to Kyle, who grew up in Johnson. After several years in Brooklyn, they returned to Vermont to start their business and raise their kids.

Cute kids in rain slickers lined up to have their pictures taken with Johnson’s new cow mural. The Johnson Beautification Committee and Jenna’s Promise held an ice cream social to celebrate the World Cow, painted by DJ Barry.
Marya Lowe, “Vibrantsee/d,” a solo exhibition at Minėmå on view through October 30
Martin Bromirski in Rie Matsui’s livingroom-turned-ceramics-studio with puppy Owen.

Venturing beyond Johnson, I drove over to Montpelier to visit painter Martin Bromirski and ceramicist Rie Matsui, who were in the process of renovating their new house to accommodate their studios. Martin is also an avid art collector and he took me up to the attic where he is getting all his artwork ready to hang throughout the house. He showed me pieces by Gina Beavers, Katherine Bradford, Lauren Luloff, William Powhida, and many more. Then we went to his studio, which is in a spacious basement garage.

Martin showing me his new work, in which he riffs on Claude Viallat’s dog-bone shape.
His process includes both additive and subtractive processes, scraping the surfaces down to the canvas’ mesh…
…and also painting the backs of the canvases.

In Stowe, The Current – formerly known as the Helen Day Art Center – is located above the local library. It organized “Exposed 2021,” an outdoor sculpture exhibition distributed throughout the community that included thought-provoking large-scale work by NYC artists Tomas Vu, Aya Rodriguez-Izumi and others who focus on political and social constructs. In the gallery, I discovered a text-and-image solo exhibition of striking, politically-charged paintings and prints by Botswana-born and Brooklyn-based artist Meleko Mokgosi that is on view through November 13. Mokgosi hopes to provide important frames of references for understanding the world, which the artist says could be used to supplement dominant Eurocentric forms of knowledge.

The Current

At the cozy Stowe Historical Society, which aims to preserve the heritage of Stowe, located right next door to the Art Center, a special exhibition included a nineteenth-century painting of Stowe by an unknown artist, thought to be the oldest painting of the town, alongside photographs of present-day Stowe so that viewers could assess the changes that have taken place over time.

Stowe’s earliest (documented) painting displayed with supporting text and news clips at the homey Stowe Historical Society.
A display at the Vermont Granite Museum in Barre

A visit to the charmingly old-school Vermont Granite Museum in Barre, which still has handmade text panels and subsumes the Stone Arts School, suggested some ideas for new work and also reminded me of Don Porcaro’s elegant work with granite and marble. The museum’s founders wanted to preserve the story and memories of the community’s granite industry and artisans, many of whom came to Vermont from Italy and ultimately died of silicosis from inhaling the dangerous dust particles.

A display at the Vermont Granite Museum that explains how figurative sculptures are made.
Kents Corner
Painter Trevor Corp, whose work is in “20/20 Hindsight,” is a staff member at the VSC.

The Kents Corner Historic Site in Calais, was hosting 20/20Hindsight, a well-curated exhibition of Vermont artists, spread throughout the partially renovated building. It was a pleasure to see the clever work of Elliott Katz, one of my former UConn MFA students, included.

On left, sculpture by Elliott Katz. On right, paintings by H. M. Broner
An installation in a back corner of the old house.
Outdoor installation by Carol MacDonald

On my way back to the city, I met Holly Miller, a Brooklyn artist who moved to a cabin in Vermont during lockdown. We went to the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, a small museum located on the bank of the Connecticut River. I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was to see work by Andrea Belag, Ann Craven, Wendy White, and other New York favorites on display. They reflect the ongoing northward march of the New York art diaspora.

Related posts:
Hanging on for dear life: Ann Craven at Karma
Martin Bromirski’s universe
Channel surfing with Tomas Vu
Studio visit: Andrea Belag

7 Comments

  1. Such an insightful piece on the art in Northern Vermont. Thank you

  2. It’s very kind of Sharon Butler to share her thoughts about VSC and the areas around Johnson VT. I was a resident in June 2012, working in the kitchen to supplement my discount and remember the place as teeming with artists. Meal times were especially convivial as the bread and cheeses were fresh every day and I always say with new people at my table. I also remembered it rained for seven days straight and the icy cold temperatures climbing up the nearby mountain. I made some great friends there.

  3. Thank you for highlighting the emergence of Vermont as a viable place for artwork and artists. Minema Gallery and the Vermont Studio Center are providing local and visiting artists with opportunities to practice and present experimental and provocative work.

  4. Thank you for the wonderful feature of our gallery as well as our fabulous arts town of Johnson! Hope to see you around town again soon.
    Cheers,
    ~Kyle & Micheal
    Minėmå Gallery
    Studio Store

  5. there are alot of us artists in these hills

  6. I am a proponent of leaving New York City–as long as you have a place to return to. Relocating my studio to Massachusetts, along the coast north Boston, 20 years ago was the best thing I could have done. Property was still affordable. I sold a 500-square-foot Chelsea apartment that had doubled in value while I owned it and used the proceeds to buy a two-story former auto repair shop that gives me work (ground floor) and live (second floor) space. With my own parking space out front! But I always had someplace to return to in Manhattan–a sublet, a room in an artist’s loft, and now my own little place on the UWS. I’d encourage artists to trade their cramped and overpriced quarters for larger and more affordable spaces. You will find artists and politically likeminded people everywhere you go.I And entrepreneurs take note: The person who sets up a NYC rooming house with affordable rooms for returning artists will never be without guests. Or maybe a group of artists can create a group rental, like a time share (but probably with more drama). The point is you can leave and live more cheaply, but you can also come home again..

  7. “Emerging Art Hub” – aha, do you mean those amazing micro-epicenters of the universe that can suddenly emerge regardless of where, when skies open, pulsing with significance when seconds pause, spinning with brilliance with effervescent import, when the earth shifts under your feet and a mind-blowing sense of perfect knowledge flutters down, settling like particles on your head. No joke, it’s something to live for. It comes in a wave, it triumphs in a nanosecond, it can fill a lifetime with one moment of meaning.

    Maybe it unravels from the fabric of your imagination, or perhaps it’s pure magic. Some kind of transcendence, I suppose. I’ve felt it a few times over the decades, in foreign art places with other artists newly met… on the Hungarian-Romanian border, in southeastern Poland… in Saint Petersburg… on old trains moving across the continent… not yet in Vermont.

    But perhaps what you meant was nothing like that at all; no transcendence, no prophecy but rather, a more cogent, grounded expression of expectation, anticipation – or these days – simply conjecture, hope?

    So will rural northern Vermont reformulate itself into an “art hub” as a new wave (in this case artists) makes its way upward, carrying with it a breath of city air and ideas to stir the pot & ruffle the feathers? Could be just what is needed in these crazy times.

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