BRATTLEBORO -- Bathed in the glow of a spotlight they had earned for themselves, the four Windham County artists chosen for the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts spent Monday night trying to redirect as much of that light as they could.
Spouses, children, friends, family members, collaborators, partners, neighbors in Brattleboro, the people of Vermont -- in fact everything about Vermont -- all caught the rays originally sent toward the four honorees -- Karen Hesse, Archer Mayor, Sharon Robinson and Stephen Stearns -- at the 2012 Vermont Arts Award Gala at the Latchis Theatre.
"Down-home comfort-food good" was a phrase Hesse used to describe how her life in Vermont makes her feel, but those words could apply to the whole evening, which began as a love letter to four extraordinary creative souls but became a love letter to the arts and to life here in the southeast corner of Vermont.
"They finally figured out in the rest of Vermont that the center of culture, the center of taste, the center of virtue and the center of creativity is right here in Windham County," said Gov. Peter Shumlin, showing his hometown pride. "If you want to be hip, if you want to make it in the arts, you gotta come to Windham County."
Certainly the Vermont Arts Council, which presents the award, got the message. Typically given to one or two people in a ceremony in Montpelier, the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts went to four people for the first time in its 45-year history. Since all four were closely linked to Brattleboro, the Vermont Arts Council held the ceremony in the Latchis Theatre -- and was rewarded with a crowd of roughly 400 people, who enjoyed a night that mixed the serious business of honoring four deserving people for their staggering accomplishments with a whole lot of fun.
Stephen Stearns, dressed for success in a bright yellow shirt, rainbow-striped pants, rainbow-striped socks, clown shoes and a trademark hat, even got Shumlin to try on a red clown nose. The governor did for a second or two, then removed it. "It's just so small," the governor quipped.
Alex Aldrich, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council, recounted to the crowd a trip he made to Brattleboro shortly after Tropical Storm Irene devastated the area. Encountering a group of men in HazMat suits cleaning the muddy mess in the Latchis basement, he discovered they were from Texas -- and that they liked it in Brattleboro very much.
"'We love it here. The spirit is just wonderful. ... ‘Before you can spit, this place will be back,'" Aldrich recalled them saying.
"We celebrate the recovery of Brattleboro. We celebrate the four world class artists we are honoring. We are also celebrating what the arts mean to our local communities," said Aldrich.
Picking up on that theme, Shumlin said the arts are integral to strong, healthy downtowns and to communities where people care for one another. The arts, he said, are also "a vital part of the economy."
The four honorees are united not only by high achievement in their artistic endeavors, but also by the fact that they all moved to Vermont in adulthood, making the intentional choice to live here. All four delivered paeans to the state.
In a video aired before she spoke, Hesse described how she and her husband drove around the country looking for a place to put down roots, then crossed the bridge from New Hampshire into Brattleboro and immediately felt at home.
"We discovered such a level of decency in everyone we met," said Hesse, author of more than 20 novels for young people and winner of a National Jewish Book Award, the Newbery Medal, the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, two Christopher Awards and the Kerlan Award.
Sharing with the crowd that a house she and her husband once owned in Williamsville was swept away by Irene, Hesse recounted how she had met FEMA workers who were astounded by how much work had already been done and by how willing Vermonters were to roll up their sleeves and help one another.
"It is that spirit that sustains me as a writer and as a Vermonter," she said.
Mayor said he chose Vermont after rejecting the idea of moving to his parents' house in New Hampshire because he didn't want to live in a state whose motto was "Live, Freeze, or Die" -- a remark which brought down the house.
Feeling at home in Windham County, Mayor honed the skills as a writer which have allowed him to produce 23 Vermont-based crime novels featuring Detective Joe Gunther. He also works as a death investigator for the Vermont State Medical Examiner's Office and as a deputy for the Windham County Sheriff's Department. He has 25 years' experience as a firefighter and EMT.
"You have given me my song to sing in this interminable series of books, and for that I thank you from the bottom of my heart," Mayor told the crowd.
Robinson has done her "singing" as a cellist who has performed with symphony orchestras all over the world and with chamber ensembles, including the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, which has dazzled audiences for 35 years. A passionate teacher, Robinson is a native of Houston, Texas, and moved to Guilford with her husband, renowned violinist and 2006 Governor's Award-winner Jaime Laredo.
In introducing her, Zon Eastes, a fellow cellist and important player in the Brattleboro area arts community, now on staff at the Vermont Arts Council, praised Robinson as a supremely gifted collaborator. He also touted Robinson's "Herculean commitment to the creation of new music."
"She's made a remarkable investment in the future of classical music," Eastes said.
For her part, Robinson effused about how much living in Vermont means to her and spoke with humility about her life in music. "In (my) own small way, I get to serve you all," she said.
Introducing Stearns, Vermont Arts Council board member and local cardiologist and artist Mark Burke praised Stearns for the ways his work -- as clown, teacher and founder of New England Youth Theatre -- has transformed the lives of others.
"For Stephen, waiting for the other shoe to drop is not about fear, it's about anticipation," said Burke.
Pledging his devotion to "the infinite realm of possibilities" and the "ever-changing world of ‘interesting,'" Stearns touted the power of partnerships.
"I know that it has to do with so many other people besides myself," said Stearns, who sprinkled gratitude, like clown noses, to his family, the NEYT family and to his longtime partner in clowning, Peter Gould. "Dreaming big is an important thing for all of us to do, but big dreams don't happen without partnership."
Big events don't either. Among the other collaborators in Monday's ceremony were Robert Burch of Brandywine Glassworks of Putney, who made the awards, and Vermont Films videographer Tim Wessell, who produced the short videos.
The four honorees also received letters or proclamations from the Town of Brattleboro, through the Town Arts Committee, and Vermont's Congressional Delegation. Members of the Arts Council of Windham County were on hand to pass out buttons that said "Working Artist" or "I Work in the Arts," so that event-goers could show the state officials just how big a role the arts play in the area.
The event was co-sponsored by Local 300 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (represented by president Jeffrey Wimmette) and by Entergy Vermont Yankee (represented by Mike Twomey, vice president of external affairs).
For more information on the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, visit www.vermontartscouncil.org.