The Art of Public Art

St. Albans Messenger, St. Albans, Vermont - 1/22/2009
Written By: Janet Bonneau
© St. Albans Messenger

‘Art of Action’ finalist has a mission

FLETCHER — Photographer Clair Dunn is alarmed by the changes that have turned the Vermont landscape from farms and fields, to more and more dwellings.

“I live on land that’s been in our family since 1867. In the Sixties I enjoyed a lovely walk from my apartment on Buell Street in Burlington out to the village of Williston. Don’t think it would be quite so pleasurable now,” said Dunn.

Dunn is one of 20 finalists for the “Art of Action: Shaping Vermont’s Future Through Art,” a collaborative effort between the Vermont Arts Council and Vermont philanthropist Lyman Orton. It is based on work conducted by the Council on the Future of Vermont (CFV).

The ‘art’ behind “Art of Action” (AOA) will be inspired by a statewide survey compiled by CFV, a project of the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD). Through online surveys, community based meetings and sessions, Vermonters were asked to identify social, political, economic or environmental issues that most concern them.

In early February, 10 artists will be selected from the 20 finalists to create a suite of two-dimensional art addressing those issues identified by Vermonters in the survey. They will receive commissions ranging from $10,000 to $40,000, with an average of $25,000. The total sum of $450,000, funded by Orton, is one of the largest commissions ever offered by the Vermont Arts Council. Final presentations are scheduled for January 29 and 30 in Montpelier, where Dunn and the other finalists will submit proposals before a panel of judges.

Bittersweet endeavor

With the project work, Dunn hopes people will stop and think about the disappearing rural landscape and its impact on Vermont’s future. She says that the slow encroachment upon our fields and country roads needs some serious thought and better planning. She is also bittersweet about having sold some of her own family land, just to survive. “I’ve destroyed a splendid field. Thus, I become part of our countryside’s destruction. That was, and is, a very bitter thing in my life,” Dunn says.

“I believe the look of our country roads is one of the great Vermont attractions. They allow people to dream. The loss of that would be very great.”

She says her greatest challenge is to re-think her use of black and white photography and how to expand and draft it into service for the future, and not just the past. “I’m drawn to shooting the remains of an older Vermont and manipulating them so that their occurring loss is emphasized. I think black and white photography is best for anything that you want to be clearly seen – nothing is masked by lovely colors,” said Dunn.

Lost, Fairfield  Room with Bath, White River

Over the past few months, Dunn has explored and revised a number of ideas for her final presentation. “Everything I read about Vermont, in history and in the here and now, was marked by division and opposites. It was the hardness of the divisions, the clarity of the opposites. And, seeing that, for me as a photographer led me to contrast. Sharp, hard edges – with no areas of blur. If my project has a name, it is Hard Edges. Stark contrasts: beautiful field/growling bulldozer; untouched earth/gleaming yellow excavator. Orange-ribboned stakes in the heart of Vermont,” Dunn said.

The overarching theme for AOA is both to reflect and to contribute to the ongoing dialogue resulting from the CFV survey. The idea that artists can be engaged for the public good is not new, and in the past, artists have taken on social, economic, and political issues in an effort to provoke or educate the public. This project echoes other public art initiatives. Picasso’s famous painting, Guernica, commissioned by Spanish rulers during the Spanish Civil War, is a timeless example of art depicting the tragedy of war.

During the Great Depression, the Federal Arts Project (FAP) was created under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a way to provide employment for artists and to create works of art to be enjoyed by the American people.

Extending possibilities

Dunn acknowledges the similarities to the FAP grants, but points to the differences. “I think this project differs in that it is far more directed than simply recording what we find. There are specific challenges here and we get to select our own approach. But, I must say the economy is certainly causing WPA-like ideas to be floating around. I think the WPA produced some very fine art in this country – work that has outlived the Depression, the War, and continues to amaze. My hope is that the AOA project might go some way to doing this for Vermont,” she said. Dunn says art can do it, but it is a hard line to walk.

“It’s fairly easy to make a good strong poster, but if you are trying to make art that you want to end up on somebody’s wall and be called ‘fine art,’ there’s more to it. Concurrent with making art is getting it seen. So, because the subject of this enormous project is Vermont, I think a lot of folks who don’t normally visit art galleries might actually turn up,” said Dunn.

Long after the AOA project is over, Dunn intends to keep the idea of public art alive through a Web site, forum and annotated image database for other Vermonters to share scenes that reflect their concern. “There is a lot of money and effort going into this project and I don’t want to lose whatever we manage to get started here,” she said. “I see it as an endowment to Vermont, with artists as the conduit, but one that will bring returns in awareness about art, about Vermont, about our issues and perhaps even being able to end up with something that might be historically useful, and this is very important to me.”

AOA Project Director John Zwick, says that Orton’s vision for this project is to utilize artists – who are so often overlooked, marginalized or misunderstood – and his willingness to make it happen should serve as an example to everyone.

“His action inspired 300 artists to think about and apply for the project. If the ideas expressed in the 10 suites of artwork that will be commissioned in February each inspire 100 people to think about our future as Vermonters and actively participate in shaping that future, we should see some amazing results,” said Zwick.