Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Game Supper

The Pawlet Volunteer Fire Department Annual Wild Game Supper is a major community ritual. Traditionally held the first Saturday of hunting season it is an important fund-raiser for the fire department, frequently drawing over 300 people. Everyone - I mean everyone - participates. A couple of weeks ahead of the Great Event you get a card in the mail with your cooking assignment and a pointed reference to a number to call in case of fire (as far as I know this is not meant as a reflection on anyone's cooking skills...). My first year in town I drew "chopped salad". Sigh. Fourteen years later I have clawed my way up the culinary ladder and am now trusted to contribute "two pies".

The line forms early and stretches halfway to the church. Although Game Supper night usually coincides with the first bitter cold of the year, the mood is festive. People tend to come in groups; the savvy ones tote bottles of red wine and a corkscrew. Inside the hall you see an astonishing sight: hunters, hippies, people who grew up in Pawlet and people who grew up on the east side of Manhattan all crowding together as the disparate groups that make up the Pawlet community come together to share a feast.

That was the inspiration - but how to gather enough notes to make a painting in the short window of opportunity. I like to work from life but no one could sketch fast enough to take everything in - and I had students coming for a weekend workshop scheduled months before. Workshops generally last until 5:00; Game Supper starts at 4:30. Rescue arrived in the form of my friend George Bouret, a wonderful photographer who runs the PAC gallery in town. A week or so earlier he had volunteered to help with the Art of Action project saying that he and fellow photographer Karin DiChiara wanted to do something purposeful with their photography. They thought my Art of Action project might be a place their work could be of service to the community (!). Wow. I told them I needed the Game Supper photographed from A to Z and they cheerfully agreed to do so. The next step was to talk to the fire chief, explain my project, and ask if it would be alright for my photographers to be in their way documenting the supper (I'm feeling like a big movie producer at this point). We had a great conversation. I learned a lot about the department and its challenges and told him I am planning to be their shadow for the next few months...that I may be needing models...

Game Supper night I grabbed my sketch pad as soon as the last student was out the door and zoomed to the fire hall. There I found George and Karin hard at work and immediately joined them, sketching furiously and pointing out interesting faces for them to snap. At the end of the night we collapsed in front of heaping plates of game supper fare, but the haul was worth it: 473 invaluable photographs and four precious pages of sketches.

Friday, November 21, 2008

On Fire

My project is going to be about the community of Vermonters. It was my friend Eric Mach who inadvertently pushed me in this direction. He was the guy who told me he was optimistic about the future of Vermont because of the people. That really stuck with me and ultimately changed my focus - I had been leaning towards doing something about preserving the landscape.

From the idea of focussing on the community and its future it was but a short step to focussing on the institution at the heart of our community - the Pawlet Volunteer Fire Department. The firemen are at the center of Pawlet life. We rely on them not only to provide help and protection in case of natural disaster, but to provide a steady stream of rituals that bind our community together: pancake breakfasts on Mother's Day and New Year's Day, at the height of summer the Fireman's Auction (chance to get rid of your old stuff and buy someone else's), and, grandest event of all, the Annual Wild Game Supper in November.

These days the fire department is under stress. Every year at town meeting the fire chief rises to plead for volunteers. Everyone is busy and fire training takes many hours of commitment - not to mention time spent flipping pancakes. Our community grows richer and grayer by the year - that's fine for the library, but no help for the fire department. We need young people and, increasingly, they can't afford to live in Pawlet or, if they can, must work so many hours there is no time to volunteer. I want to do a series of paintings about the fire department, highlighting their role from fire-fighting to providing the means for people to reinforce their bonds as a community. The fire department's indirect work is to bring home the awareness that ultimately we depend on each other for our survival and our identity: "No man is an I-land..." The immediacy of this awareness is, I believe, one of the unique aspects of life in Vermont and one that I very much want to see continue into the future. Perhaps my paintings will inspire a couple of young folk to join the fire department or, at the least, spark serious consideration of how we are going to cope with our fire department's dwindling population.

And the idea of painting that Game Supper really gets my artistic juices flowing.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

And Now for Something Completely Different

'Bout time I posted some actual art work on this blog. The first image is a recent page from my sketch book. The other two images are from the life drawing group I attend in Pawlet. Click on the images to make them larger.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


I've decided on a project for Art of Action and I'm very excited about it. Too soon to write about it though, I need to get some sketches going first - images before words. If all goes well I should have some preliminary drawings by next week. Took the whole stack of Vermont books back to library and heaved a sigh of relief...

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Inventory of Ideas

Though my fellow finalists are no doubt half way through their proposals by now I am still sorting out ideas. I've had quite a few since my search for a subject began so I thought I would list them.

In order of appearance:

1) Adam and Eve. Vermont as Paradise; Paradise Lost (work in something here about eating the Apple of Over-Development); Paradise Regained = land conserved; good public transit and infrastructure; alternative fuels. Tom [husband, fellow artist, best friend] liked this idea. I saw Eve as a sturdy young farm girl and Adam as a hardworking young farmer (he doubled as an allegory for the Working Landscape). Somehow I couldn't move this idea to the sketch stage so I moved on...

2) Inspired by the phrase "We are all living in someone else's future" which I found in one of the panel discussions (part of the information supplied by the Council on the Future of Vermont) I decided to do a series of paintings of various stages of Vermont's history showing how one era gives birth to another. The design was inspired by Ghiberti's Florence Baptistry Doors. I started an oil sketch of the first one and managed to pack Ethan Allen's conquest of Fort Ticonderoga, the primeval Vermont Forest and the beginning of husbandry into a 10" x 12" canvas. But it wasn't what I wanted to say at all.
As I read through the packets of information it became clear to me that of all the things that needed fixing in Vermont the first one, to my mind, was infrastructure. Good roads, excellent public transportation for both goods and people, and a state of the art cyber-network would boost the economy, create jobs, and save energy all at the same time - but go try and make a painting out of that. I decided that Land Use and the preservation of the working landscape would be my issue. It is after all something I care deeply about. And that decision led to my first really good idea...
3) A recreation of Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want" in which the feast being consumed would be a farm, not a turkey. I was in heaven - I had it! This idea had everything: ironic bite, an opportunity to paint figures, a reference to another artist and a famous work of art. Sadly, what it lacked was a couple of companion pieces. Looked everywhere, couldn't find 'em. Not that I didn't come up with any ideas that would fit with this one, but rather that the ones I thought of were awful -really, awful - so bad that I am embarrassed to write about them on this blog. And there was something else wrong, something deeper, and that is that I am not really a satiric artist. It just isn't natural to me: there is something in this approach that is too juvenile for what is, to me, the noble art of painting.

I tried to think harder about land use and the working landscape. Which led to...

4) Two wild fanciful ideas. The first was an image of a skyscraper that looks like a barn. It sits in the Vermont landscape; cows and sheep pour from its open doors; trees grow on the roof... The other was a landscape supported underneath with rotting supports like an old covered bridge. This bridge/landscape spans a deep chasm that takes the shape of a "V"...

I went to the Farmer's Market to sketch and search for information and struck up a conversation with a cheese maker. I explained the AOA and inquired into every detail of how she is able to live on her cheese-making. Then I asked if I might visit her farm and if she would consider posing for me - she cheerfully agreed. On election day I chatted up friends who were working the polls and got their views on Vermont's future. I told them about AOA and asked if they would pose for me -they cheerfully agreed. One, a native Vermonter, surprised me: he said he is optimistic about the future of Vermont because of "the resilience of the people". It turned out he is on the Regional Planning Commission. I learned a lot about land use and development that day but what stuck in my mind was what he said about the people. I realized that while I did not yet have a proposal at least I finally knew for sure what I wanted at the center of my project: the people.

5) Not allegory, not satire - metaphor - that is my real voice; everything else is forced. I'll do a painting of the farmer's market: the potato man, the cheese-maker, the guy who sells samosas. The metaphors will come as I work; they always do. There is a metaphor there about the land feeding us - the potatoes are roots...get it? And what about the scene at Mach's Market, the country store at the center of Pawlet. All day long it buzzes like a hive as all types of Vermonters come and go: farmers, carpenters, hippies, summer people ("summer people" as we all know designates a type, not someone who is in Vermont during the summer months...) the young, the old, and those of us in between. In summer a group sits on the bench outside, but if your family hasn't been here for a couple of generations don't try to sit down - be pleased you get a wave and an acknowledgement. Winters the conclave is on the bench by the deli counter. This group endures. Winter, spring, summer, fall, they are always there; to my flatlander eye they are always the same. Like rocks in the river they are our sign and our landmark. The river flows around them, ever changing, ever the same, life in Pawlet, Vermont.
This is better. I really am happiest painting figures and if I manage to get a commission it has to be for something I really want to paint. I crack open Paul Searls's "Two Vermonts" which I had ordered from inter-library loan. Searls was one of the panelists that the Council on the Future of Vermont consulted; I had been struck by his presentation enough to order the book. Bingo. The book is a revelation. It leads to idea #6 ...

Sunday, November 02, 2008

If this project does nothing else it has certainly changed my relationship with the state of Vermont and - for the moment - my relationship with everyone in it. Suddenly everyone looks like material, everyone potentially has something to tell me about Vermont, something that might clarify my thinking and help me with this project. I remember that in my book group I have a friend who used to work for the Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences (at least that is what I think VINS stands for); I'm thinking I should take her to lunch - find out what she thinks about the future of our forests. I remember that the guy who delivers our firewood has a degree in forestry; I'm betting his perspective is different from that of my VINS friend - better call him too. Come to think of it, our State rep. lives in our town, has been a farmer all his life and is the gentleman friend of another book group buddy...this is starting to look like a dinner party. I send an e-mail to a friend and student, a watercolorist: she and her husband live on a 400 acre dairy farm that has been in her husband's family for generations; she grew up on a farm nearby. I remember she once told me that when she and Bob took over the farm, 25 (or was it 30?), years ago it was a "disaster farm". Now it is stunning, a treasure. We have always talked about art, now I want to talk about Vermont. I want to know what it was like to turn a farm around, what they think will happen to it and what they think will happen to Vermont - what they think should happen. They have two beautiful, talented daughters. One plays the cello, the other the violin. The violinist is in her second year at McGill where she is an academic star; she is passionate about anthropology. The younger one is graduating from high school this year. She is imaginative and artistic like her mother. Do either of them want to take over the farm, I wonder. Do their parents want that for them? I don't know Bob well; he seems like an incredibly kind man. Once I remarked that the farm was so beautiful; how amazing that it was his and had been in his family so long. "Yes", he said, "the land" then added "it's a burden". And as I looked at his beautiful valley and felt a pang at the thought of my immigrant, landless, family history I knew that he looked at me and felt a reciprocal pang for my freedom.