BRATTLEBORO — Growing up, Shanta Lee Gander said she began “spinning stories” because “my life depended on it. And maybe somebody else’s life depended on it.”
She described her upbringing in Hartford, Conn., as strict, and said she experienced physical and emotional abuse at home and very little encouragement from her teachers.
“I was not a popular kid in school,” Gander recalls.
But being an outsider helped her to focus on her own creativity.
“I always wrote,” Gander said. “Poetry or writing in my journal. Those were the two areas I started with before I knew I was an artist.”
Last September, Gander, of Brattleboro, was awarded the Arthur Williams Award for Meritorious Service to the Arts from the Vermont Arts Council. Reflecting on the award on a recent day, Gander said she has appreciated the increased recognition.
“I can sometimes feel like I’m invisible because I sometimes feel like I’m outside looking in,” she said.
The award is named after the Council’s founding executive director, who had a long career that included public school teaching, serving in the Vermont Legislature and chairing the effort to restore the Vermont Statehouse.
“The award is given to those who mirror his selfless public service and devotion to artistic excellence as one vital ingredient in a robust community as well as his desire to see the arts thrive,” states the Vermont Arts Council website.
In September, Gander told the Reformer she was surprised to receive the award “because it often feels like so much of my work has occurred unseen or unnoticed.”
“I can not deny that attracting this kind of recognition is an encouragement for me to keep doing all of the work that I am doing through my writing, photography and other means of bearing witness,” she said in September. “I am truly interested in a lifelong endeavor that involves going beneath the surface and sharing that discovery with others.”
Gander was recognized not just for her contribution to the arts but also to the community she lives in.
She has served on the Brattleboro Select Board, has been appointed to the board of directors of the Vermont Humanities Council, was the director of development for the Windham Child Care Association and was the president of the Arts Council of Windham County.
As a member of the Vermont Humanities Council Speakers Bureau, she gives lectures on the life of Lucy Terry Prince, a Guilford resident who is considered the first known African American poet in English literature. Gander is also launching a newsletter to reach out to other creatives, asking them to share insights about their crafts.
“All of those things, including my work as an investigative journalist for the Commons, has been in service to me as an artist,” she said recently. “My mission has always been inviting people to look a little deeper, beneath the surface.”
In her junior year of high school, her conception of who she could be changed when she enrolled in the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts.
“No one talked to me about being an artist,” Gander said. “But I’ve always had an ability to think beyond where I was. This was part of me always wanting to look beneath the surface.”
Her desire to look for causes behind the effects was due to the “seen and not heard” attitude of her parents.
“I knew I couldn’t talk with my parents,” Gander said. “I wasn’t allowed to ask about anything I saw.”
This included the reasons her family was homeless for a period while she was growing up.
“Instead of these things leaving a scar, these experiences showed me something: There were other avenues for using my voice, especially when speaking out loud may not be welcome,” Gander said in an interview with the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Gander is a Master of Fine Arts candidate in creative non-fiction and poetry at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has a Master of Business Administration from the University of Hartford and an undergraduate degree in women, gender and sexuality from Trinity College.
While Gander asserts she is “still earning the right” to call herself a poet, her poetry, prose and personal essays have been featured in PRISM, ITERANT Literary Magazine, Palette Poetry, BLAVITY, DAME Magazine, The Crisis Magazine, Rebelle Society and on the Ms. Magazine Blog.
She also has a book of poetry, “Ghettoclaustrophobia: Dreamin’ of Mama While Trying to Speak Woman in Woke Tongues,” which is due to be released in June. She is working on a second book of poetry. And if that’s not enough to keep her busy, she is writing a memoir, which has reached 300 pages.
Gander chafes at the idea that being Black in Vermont means you are a member of an ethnic minority.
“I don’t feel like I’m part of a minority group,” Gander said, even in Vermont, which is predominantly white.
“Vermont does have work to do when it comes to diversity, inclusion and equity,” she said, but added Vermont offers space to artists to explore their interests. “Vermont has given me space to explore certain things in different ways.”
Gander said she continues to forge her own path, a path that rejects the notion that people must find a way to play with the cards they’ve been dealt.
“Sometimes you have to burn the deck or get up from the table, saying, ‘I’m not playing this game,’” she said.