By KATHRYN FLAGG
LINCOLN — Kathleen Kolb has a foot in the past and an eye toward the future — but the Lincoln artist is looking for a few extra pairs of eyes when it comes to envisioning that future.
Kolb was recently named one of 20 finalists for the Art of Action: Shaping Vermont’s Future Through Art project, culled from an initial pool of more than 300 artists.
Of the finalists, 10 will be selected in January as the recipients of commissions that could range from $10,000 to $40,000 per artist. These artists will each produce a suite of work in their chosen medium to address the issues identified by Vermonters as essential to the state’s future, which will eventually be gathered together and exhibited throughout the state.
In creating her final proposal for the Art of Action judges, Kolb is soliciting feedback from county residents about what they cherish about Vermont as a state that we can all carry into the future.
Kolb is the kind of artist who believes, deeply, in art’s ability to make change — and that, in part, is why she’s attracted to the Art of Action project.
“I know that art can inspire people, and I know that it can comfort people, and we need both of those things,” she said. “We’re in a difficult patch. We’re in a time of transition and challenge and opportunity.”
If selected as a finalist, she said that her task will be to think about how to do just that — comfort and inspire. And while painting in a basement studio can be a solitary affair, Kolb is reaching out to her neighbors around the county to figure out just how to achieve that goal.
“I’m wondering what it is that people want and would find useful in that way,” she said.
Art of Action, funded by philanthropist and entrepreneur Lyman Orton, is being orchestrated by the Vermont Arts Council and the Council on the Future of Vermont. That council has already taken up the work of soliciting feedback from Vermonters about what they hold dear about their state, and values Vermonters share, and what the state’s priorities should be as Vermonters look towards the future.
That project is one that resonates with Kolb — a Vermonter by choice and not birth.
“It’s one of the great things about this state,” she said. “The scale of the state makes it feasible to relate person-to-person and to have access to each other. That is really special, and certainly one of the things that I think a lot of people want to preserve.”
Kolb, 54, grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where she took Saturday art classes at the Cleveland Museum since she was a small child. She wanted to be an artist for as long as she can remember, and headed off to art school in Providence, R.I., after high school.
It was as an art student, at 20, that Kolb fell in love with Vermont — and she’s been here, more or less, every sense.
The Vermont of the ’70s was a different place, of course, Kolb said: significantly fewer people, and more farms, smaller farms.
But she’s stayed put, and in supporting herself and her children as an artist for over two decades, Kolb has turned her artist’s eye on Vermont’s landscape with unwavering interest. She’s interested in vernacular architecture — Vermont’s old buildings — as well as the land itself. In addition to her traditional landscapes, she’s also worked on a series of paintings of and from Vermont mountain summits. That long view, she said, inspires a sense of perspective.
She’s also taken an interest in Vermont’s logging industry, which she has painted scenes of since the mid-1990s.
“Most people, when they think of the working landscape in Vermont, think of farms. They think of agriculture,” she said. “I look at the state and see that it’s mostly forest at this point in our history, and the working landscape to me is about the forests.”
This could play a role in Kolb’s future work. If selected for the Art in Action project, Kolb said that at a gut level, she’d like to paint pictures about housing and forestry — lack of adequate housing being a serious problem, she said, and forestry a serious industry.
Kolb is interested in looking ahead, she said, “to the place we want to arrive at” — but she doesn’t want to make literal illustrations, and she’s not interested in what she called a “prettified, false” picture of the state.
For Kolb, whose work is very realistic, the project is a challenge — after all, as she wryly noted, “you can’t see the future.”
But the realism in her work derives from an affinity for capturing a specific moment in time, a quality of light — and what she calls a “nub of truth.”
“If I can be completely honest and faithful to what I see, without second guessing it … my experience is that people will be moved by seeing a representation of a truth that they’ve also experienced,” she said.
And that, she said, is something in her work to which she will remain faithful.
Kolb said that her interest in Vermont’s past — the state’s old houses and barns, and well-worn landscapes — is something that she’ll also bring to a project that, yes, has at its heart the state’s future.
“I do tend to keep a very firm foot in the past and use that as a reference point, as a rudder, as a compass,” she said. “I’m not likely to change on that.”
But that, she argued, isn’t detrimental in looking ahead to Vermont’s future, as both a painter and a resident of the state.
“In terms of thinking about the quality of life here, and what to keep, what to hold on to, I think that’s useful,” she said.
Ultimately, what she hopes to create is something that will not only contribute to the Art of Action project, but also stand alone as strong, true art.
Kolb remembers sitting in a lecture during art school when a professor showed a slide of an 11th century Chinese landscape. He told the students that it had been a very political painting in its time — though what they saw then was simply a lovely piece of art.
It was an “epiphany moment” for Kolb.
“I thought, ‘That’s the kind of art I want to make. I want to make art that will stand on its own two feet 900 years later and will have had meaning in its own time as well,’” she said.
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To contribute to the dialogue about Kathleen Kolb’s project — and the future of Vermont — consider responding to one or all of the following questions:
• What do you love about Vermont?
• What do you find visually inspiring in our state?
• Can you share instances or memories of being inspired by art?
Responses — or any other thoughts about Kolb’s project — can be e-mailed to [email protected], or sent to the Addison Independent at P.O. Box 31, Middlebury, VT 05753.
Please include your name and hometown when sending in responses.
These responses will be shared with the artist, and featured in an upcoming issue of the Independent.