What does it mean to be a Vermont artist?


'QUEEN MOTHER,' BY Will Kasso

'SELF-PORTRAIT' BY Will Kasso

CHRISTAL BROWN Photo / Jonathan Hsu

Looking for an artist in Vermont? Easy, check any home studio, any shared collaborative space, look on the stages, and in the workshops and sheds that cluster in the “artsy areas” of Vermont towns, or out behind some bucolic farmhouse. They’re there — the violinmakers, dancers, painters, musicians, potters, thespians, glass blowers, metal workers… they’re everywhere. But when you stop to try and identify who a Vermont artist is, suddenly the task isn’t so easy.

The Vermont Arts Council’s Spotlight Gallery in Montpelier is attempting to shed a little light on who artists in Vermont are these days with the exhibit “‘I AM … : Exploring What it Means to be a Vermont Artist.”

This multimedia exhibition explores what it means to be a Vermont artist to more than 20 participants. The show culminates the first year of the “I am a Vermont Artist” e-newsletter series, which documents how artists’ creative expressions reflect their experiences of ethnicity, gender identity, religion, disability or age.

“The inspiration for these artists covers a broad range,” said exhibit co-curator Shanta Lee Gander. “For some, their muse dwells within their cultural lineage, heritage and roots. This is highlighted by intricate textiles of Vera Longtoe Sheehan, who describes herself as an Abenaki culture bearer. For others, the act of bearing witness to ourselves or our current cultural moment takes center stage within a poem, song or visual work. This exhibition fits within a national landscape that is seeking to inspire spaces to reach beyond the traditional comforts of how we see and experience art.”

Three of the participating artists are local.

Christal Brown, program chair of the Dance Department at Middlebury College and dance director for Middlebury’s Parks and Rec Center, contributed a video recording of her dancing in “Somewhere in a Memory.” Will Kasso, a mural artist and community organizer, recently moved to Brandon and began teaching courses at Middlebury College more regularly. He’s contributed two paintings to the exhibit. The third is François Clemmons, actor, singer, composer, playwright, author, activist and most recently the recipient of the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. The exhibit will feature a digital compilation of music, dance performances and spoken word from Clemmons.

“What does a Vermont artist look like?” Brown asked semi-rhetorically earlier this week. “I think there’s a preconceived notion of what Vermont artists do, and what they look like. This exhibit helps illuminate what artist communities look like here in Vermont.”

“I’m single, gay, an artist, writer and singer, black person,” Clemmons articulated as one artist. “Even a dedicated, versatile artist searches for the elusive path to their deeper, more profound, purposeful self! After all these years my soul is only satisfied when I can feel that I am truly serving the greater purpose of humankind. Peace, kindness, unity, extended-family, and love.”

An exhibit like “I AM,” while focused on expanding notions of what it means to be a Vermont artist, walks a fine line.

Like all Equity and Diversity Impact Assessment (EDIA for short) efforts, it’s important to back up any good intentions with integrity, Brown added.

“Gathering artists from all over the state is something that isn’t often done,” she said. “These types of gatherings (that are focused on a growing diversity) may lead to deeper collaborations across the state.”

But it doesn’t have to be grand gatherings and exhibits like this one to help all Vermonters recognize our artists. Take Kasso as a prime example.

He moved here from Trenton, N.J., and settled in Brandon just last year. First thing he did to his home was paint “the love birds” on the exterior — a big mural that looks like two giant eyes that form sparrows with a hot air balloon hanging in between.

Quite a statement. And that’s something Kasso is not afraid of.

Since he can remember he’s always been drawn to art. He got into graffiti and street art in the early 2000s (prior to social media.)

“Back then to get your name out there you had to go and do the work,” he said. “I started out tagging and bombing… I always wanted to do something that set me apart. The bigger and badder you can be the more attention you get, so I started painting 15-20 feet off the ground.”

Kasso’s graffiti art grew into murals and one day he decided to quit painting in the middle of the night.

“I’m considered an urban legend where I’m from,” Kasso said flatly. “I never ran from authority. I was very intentional with my art. I would paint inspirational figures and quotes, in broad daylight. I would get the community involved. My whole intention then was to start a dialogue.”

And, dialogue, is what Kasso and his wife Jennifer Herrera-Condry (who helps him in the conceptual phases) still focus on with their newest initiative, Juniper Creative. It’s a community mural venture, where communities can hire Kasso and Herrera-Condry to help them design and execute a public mural.

“I know what looks good, but I also know how to stir the pot in a way that doesn’t make it overflow,” Kasso said. “After we’re done the community has to live with it… You have to have fun with it. I know I still have as much fun painting now at 42 as I did at 14.”

To see one of Kasso’s murals check out the side of Ben & Jerry’s on Church Street in Burlington, or see if you can spot his house in Brandon. He’s contributing two canvas paintings to the “I AM” exhibit: one a self portrait he did in 2015, and another called “Queen Mother” that he completed here in Vermont in 2018.

The “I AM” exhibit will open on Friday, Nov. 8, with first a panel discussion held at 4 p.m. at the Vermont History Museum in Montpelier. Brown and Kasso will be on the panel, along with Lee Gander, Toby MacNutt (disabled multidisciplinary artist, author and teacher), and Vera Longtoe Sheehan (Abenaki culture bearer, master artist, educator and activist). The panelists will explore the ways in which their own art forms and life experiences inform their work as Vermont artists.

After the discussion, all are welcome for an artists’ reception from 5 to 7 p.m. The exhibit will remain on view through Dec. 20 at the Spotlight Gallery, which is located in the corridor and conference room of the offices at 136 State St. in Montpelier.

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