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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.