Through music, sculpture, paintings and even clowning, six Windham County artists are expressing their personal stories in a virtual exhibit hosted by the Vermont Arts Council.
“I AM… 2021” aims to celebrate diversity and features the work and perspectives of 19 artists across the state. The exhibit is curated by Shanta Lee Gander, Dominique Gustin and Desmond Peeples.
“This project helps us to widen our understanding of who and what dwells within rural landscapes,” said Gander, of Brattleboro. “It is illustrative of the depth of culture here and the individuals who are making and doing here and all the ways that they are creating and doing here.”
The artists are all from the “I Am a Vermont Artist” interview series that began in early 2019 to explore how creative expression is reflective of ethnicity, gender identity, religion, disability or age, according to information provided by the Arts Council.
The exhibit is viewable on the Council’s website through April 30. There will be a Zoom event on the third Thursday of the month for audiences to engage with the artists. More information is available online at vermontartscouncil.org/iam2021.
The Windham County artists are Samirah Evans, William Forchion, John Hughes, Nettie Lane, Leaf Silver and Cai Xi.
Samirah Evans, of Brattleboro, submitted YouTube links to five songs: four originals, and a cover of “We Shall Overcome,” a gospel song by Charles Albert Tindley that has been used as a protest song.
Among her original songs is “My Little Bodhisattva,” written as a lullaby for her unborn child. She wrote the song after having a miscarriage in 2006 and learning through an MRI that she had a tumor.
Evans is a Buddhist; and a Bodhisattva, she explained, is a being that gets greatest satisfaction out of saving another being’s life.
“I really feel that this baby was shining the light on that I had something that could be fatal to my life,” Evans said. “If I had not been trying to get pregnant, I would not have found out until it was too late.”
The song was the title track on the album, “My Little Bodhisattva,” released in 2008. She uploaded the song to YouTube for the first time for submission to “I AM … 2021.”
“The day after I lost the child, I wrote the song and it just came out like water,” Evans said. “I didn’t change the melody. I didn’t change the lyrics. It was my lullaby, or my, just, speaking to my child in appreciation for it being in my life, even for the short time, and I would always be connected with my child through prayer.”
The lyrics “the joyous day we all gathered around to pray” refer to Evans and her Buddhist community in New Orleans, where she lived before Vermont, praying for her child.
She told the pianist, Mike Esneault, to create sound similar to that of a music box.
“That’s such a childlike sound, and I wanted that feeling of protection,” Evans said.
She is now working on an official video for the song.
“I think now is the time that this song will become something that will make a difference,” she said. “That was my goal a long time ago.”
Another song Evans submitted to “I AM … 2021” is “New Orleans Dreamin,” written with her husband, Chris Lenois, and released in 2010.
“It’s our homage to New Orleans,” she said. Evans and Lenois moved to Vermont after Hurricane Katrina.
Her newest song featured in the exhibit is “Haven’t We Had Enough?” Evans and Lenois wrote the protest song with the Northampton, Mass., band Trailer Park out of frustration with the Trump administration.
Evans won’t divulge her age.
“I still have a little bit of apprehension because of the field that I’m in,” she said. “I think women struggle with what they do in any kind of field they work in when they get to a certain age, and for me, nobody figures that I am the age that I am, and so I’ve been keeping it that way.
“I’m not a senior citizen yet,” she added with a laugh.
Unrelated to “I AM … 2021,” Evans is also participating in a livestream music series called, “MUSIC SPEAKS: AMPLIFYING BLACK VOICES,” presented by CouchMusic.Live and Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield, Mass., on Friday. More information can be found online at: bit.ly/3p3kMOG
William Forchion, 55, of Brattleboro, is a circus arts performer, comedian and poet. He selected spoken word for “I AM ... 2021” after releasing books of poetry in the last two years and embracing the art form more in the last six years.
“It seems that’s my next incarnation,” he said.
His poems in the exhibit “are really about introspection and my place on the earth.” he said. They look at the experience of being a Black man in America, although Forchion acknowledges he can’t speak to the whole Black experience.
Forchion enjoys how the digital format gets the art out to audiences. He has participated in remote question-and-answer sessions, which allow for connection.
The title of the exhibit refers to the artists being more than just one thing, Forchion said. He called the exhibit “a statement of freedom, a revolution and evolution because I am whatever I want to be.”
View Forchion’s work: vermontartscouncil.org/programs/spotlight-gallery/i-am-2021/featured-artists#Forchion
John Hughes, 55, of Brattleboro, submitted photographs of four original sculptures and a video of a musical performance.
The sculptures, created between 1993 and 2002, are made of a variety of materials, including different kinds of metal, wood and paper, and are all called “No Title.”
He leaves his sculptures unnamed in an effort to allow viewers their own interpretations of his work.
“A big part of the function of the sculpture is to inspire people to ask questions of themselves, and our culture privileges the written word over personal sense, often, or even personal experience, in general.”
He recalls the manner in which patrons approach work in museums, spending a short time viewing each piece before reading the official description.
“I want to encourage people to have their own experience, without being biased by whatever words I might include there, and also encourage people to have a more substantive experience than people often have when you give them the ‘answer.’ … If I was going to just write those pieces, so to speak, instead of building them out of wood and steel and whatever else they’re made of, it would be a whole lot easier in a lot of respects. It would be cheaper and quicker, but those are not the goals, to be fast and to be cheap. There are other goals. It’s not about the written word, so if I were going to try and summarize it in a title or something like that, that would really do a disservice to the work.”
In recent years, he has shifted his focus from sculpture to music. He has found the latter to be more financially accessible for his intended audience. He said the sculptures took anywhere from two to six months to build, and he could make around four of them in a year.
“All of the work that you see is very labor intensive and it takes a long time to build and it’s not just the building, the sawing and grinding and welding and however long that takes, but the thinking takes a long time as well,” he said. “They had to be expensive just to pay for themselves and allow me to live.”
He came upon what he described as a “moral crisis” as an artist.
“People just like me can afford to buy a CD or come to a concert, whereas people just like me can’t afford to buy my sculptures,” he said. “Making a living as a musician feels like a much more humane and ethical way to make a living.”
Nettie Lane, 57, of Guilford, submitted a photo collage of graduates from her clown class, a YouTube video of a research project, two videos related to collaborations with Sandglass Theater in Putney and a personal essay.
Lane describes herself as a multidisciplinary artist, but said locally, she is best known for her clown classes.
When asked to define “clown,” Lane said:
“Probably each person you ask will give a different answer because there is a lot of different types of clowning,” for example, theatrical and circus.
“There is a lot of misunderstanding around clowns. A lot of people are afraid of clowns, unfortunately, because of the horror film industry. … The clown is really the innocent one. It’s really the child within. They’re not worried about the future. There is no past to regret. They’re living in the present moment. Through their innocence, they have wisdom. They are just kind of unabashedly themselves, flaunting their imperfections they wouldn’t consider imperfections — they’re just being themselves.”
She is interested in art as a tool for personal healing.
“With the clown work, even though there is a lot of laughter, and the clown brings joy to the world, it’s not just about laughter. It’s about feeling, too. It’s about the heart.”
The collaborations with Sandglass Theater are “Puppets in Paradise,” a performance by Lane, Shoshana Bass, Riley Goodemote and Satnam Naur, and “Annabelle’s Kitchen,” a cooking show hosted by Lane as Annabelle the Clown, produced as part of Sandglass Theater’s Winter Sunshine Series, now taking place online.
Lane’s essay, “Darkness,” is a poetic musing on the earth’s demise, written around 2013.
“Unfortunately, it’s still current,” Lane said. “Hopefully, things are changing though.”
Leaf Silver, 23, of Brattleboro, submitted photographs of five original sculptures and installations made of various materials. The photographs are also by Silver, whose pronouns are they/them.
“I consider myself to be an interdisciplinary artist, which means I try not to limit myself to one specific material,” Silver said. “I use everything from found materials to ceramics, wood, fabric and metal.”
These are materials Silver has used in the past, but said, “I don’t see myself as limited to those things. … I like to approach each material in its own way, and the subject matter kind of comes out of the material.”
The installations include miniaturized versions of objects such as a couch, floor lamp, stove and other kitchen items.
“I’ve always been interested in scale as sort of a tool, or using scale as a tool to convey a sort of feeling about a work. I think that something being miniature makes it sort of endearing, and I feel like sometimes having it be miniaturized gives it more weight, especially if it’s a mundane, everyday object.
“It sort of subverts that direct function and makes it function in a different way, functioning to provoke thought about those objects in your life and what they mean.”
Silver graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2020, attending a graduation ceremony via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since coming home to Brattleboro, Silver has focused on graphic and digital design.
“I am trying to transition my practice to being more digital, and that’s been kind of interesting because I am a sculpture artist, so it’s kind of like, diversifying, not necessarily needing to create physical objects in order to feel like I can continue to be creative.”
Silver said the pandemic “sort of challenged me to uproot my life, and it brought things important to me into light,” such as reconnecting with nature and exploring self-worth.
“There is so much pressure around being an artist to always be producing things,” Silver said. “I still have value, as a person, because I exist, not because of what I produce.”
Silver maintains a sketchbook practice, and on some days will create only a “tiny illustration, and have that be enough.”
Cai Xi, 60, of Brattleboro, submitted five oil paintings, all titled, “Earth and Sky” with different numbers.
The finely detailed paintings depict scenes such as boats under trees, the sky reflected in a body of water, the sun glowing orange through gray clouds and different colored foliage. Xi said the paintings were inspired by scenes in Brattleboro and around New England — and gives all credit to nature.
“I don’t want to have my own ego or style to get in the way,” she said. “It’s nature speaking; it’s not me.”
Xi is the mother of Leaf Silver.
“I find myself very lucky to have a very creative child,” Xi said.
Not included in “I AM … 2021” but shared with the Reformer was a portrait of Xi’s mother as a toddler. Xi, who came to the United States from China 30 years ago, said she wants to share this painting in celebration of her heritage in response to recent hate crimes. Last week, a gunman killed eight people at three Atlanta-area spas. Most of the victims were women of Asian descent.
“I want to show that we are people, and also, we have a strong culture,” Xi said.
She noted that her forms of artistic expression have expanded during her time in the United States. In addition to realistic paintings, she also creates abstract and socially engaged art.
“I believe that art can change society.”