• Artists Slayton and Colburn colored Vermont
    By Jim Lowe
     | June 13,2010
     
    Photo Courtesy of Fleming Museum

    “Granite Quarry,” by Francis Colburn (1942)

    No artists left a greater mark on Vermont than Francis Colburn and Ronald Slayton. Not only were they among the state's best native artists, they were both teachers and larger-than-life personalities in their communities.

    "They were lifelong friends," said Tom Slayton, longtime editor and now editor emeritus of Vermont Life magazine. Slayton is the son of Ron Slayton and was an art student of Colburn's at the University of Vermont.

    "I don't know precisely how they met," Slayton said, "but I assume it was through the (Works Progress Administration) art project, as Francis being from Fairfax and my dad being from Barre, they both went to Burlington and painted within the orbit of the University of Vermont."

    Their work is full of similarities as well as differences, explored in the Fleming Museum's new exhibit, "A Centennial Celebration: The Art of Francis Colburn and Ronald Slayton," up through Aug. 29 at UVM. The exhibit, curated by Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, consists of more than 50 paintings, drawings, watercolors and prints drawn from the Fleming's collection and public and private collections across the state.

    Colburn was a raconteur and Slayton a poet, and their voices can be heard in recorded stories, monologues and poetry as part of the exhibit.

    Colburn (1909-1984) was the founder and longtime chairman of the UVM art department. Slayton (1910-1992) was a teacher in central Vermont public schools and longtime curator of Montpelier's Wood Art Gallery.

    "Francis Colburn and Ronald Slayton were among the first Vermont artists to paint in a distinctly modernist manner," Tom Slayton wrote in his essay, "Vision and Friendship," for the Fleming exhibit's catalog.

    "They began their careers as artists in the 1930s, and at first, both painted in an earthy, muscular version of the prevailing Social Realist style. In later years, as their lives followed different paths, their styles changed, each becoming more personal. Nevertheless, the two men continued to be strongly influenced by 20th century modernism throughout their lives."

    After attending prestigious New York art schools - Slayton at Pratt Institute, Colburn at the Art Students' League - they both moved to Burlington in the 1930s. From 1935 to 1943, both painted for the federally funded WPA Easel Painters Project, which paid professional artists a stipend to paint a certain number of works a year.

    "According to my dad's memoir, there was a Burlington discussion group and it was a place where people of a progressive bent - artists, intellectuals and that sort of thing - gathered to talk about social problems," Slayton said. "In any case, they met in Burlington."

    Much of the work in the Fleming exhibit is from the artists' Depression-tinged WPA period.

    Their early work has a lot in common, Slayton said. "But as they aged and matured and each of them developed their own life, their art became more individualistic."

    Colburn began incorporating cubist elements into his art and in his landscapes, especially in his later years.

    "You can see how he's playing with some of the ideas that began with Cezanne and developed through Picasso and Braque and so forth in his compositions like 'The White Church' (1950) and 'Granite Quarry' (1942)," Slayton said. "That's the style he was painting when I was his student at UVM."

    With Ronald Slayton, there was a connection with Van Gogh.

    "If you look at that painting 'The Planter' (1937), the boots are highlighted with little tiny strokes of pure color," his son said. "That's a technique that's very reminiscent of Van Gogh."

    Colburn continued to paint and teach at UVM, while Slayton moved to Tennessee, where he virtually stopped painting, focusing on raising his three children. When Slayton returned to Vermont, he turned to watercolors because they were quicker, allowing him time to teach and for his family.

    "I think they started off doing something quite similar," Tom Slayton said. "As they developed, I think it was quite clear that Francis Colburn developed a very strong graphic talent. He could really draw - with incredible accuracy and precision. My dad didn't have that ability."

    Conversely, Slayton credited his father with a brilliant sense of composition.

    "You'll see these muscular guys really expressing an internal composition of flowing energy that flows through these paintings," he said. "In 'Mowing Away' (1937), with a guy with a pitchfork, look at the energy as it flows up from the bottom to the top of that frame. It's really a powerful composition."

    Slayton's other big strength was his color sense.

    "The watercolors show that really strongly," Slayton said.

    Colburn, in his later years, became more introspective and focused on his family life.

    "He blended early photographs and pictures of himself and depictions of other family members, his children and friends and so forth, blended them into surrealistic compositions that, I think, attempted to explore his feelings about all these interconnected worlds," Slayton said.

    Ronald Slayton, already political, focused more on current human injustices.

    "Toward the end of his life he was an overt pacifist and an overt populist," Slayton said. "He had a strong feeling for common people throughout his life. He really loved people both in the abstract and in the particular. And he expressed his affection for people and his concern that the powers that be were oppressing and failing to recognize the dignity of the common people."

    This is summed up by the elder Slayton's multimedia presentation, "The Rock and the Spark," which premiered in Montpelier in 1987. Slayton's poem, his own version of the creation legend, was illustrated by his watercolors and Montpelier composer Jim Miller's rock score. (The recording is part of the exhibit.)

    While his role at UVM kept Colburn in the limelight, Slayton's star seemed to be fading. But that changed when Bobby Gosh, an internationally known songwriter living in Brookfield, began buying Slayton's work.

    "Bobby really promoted him, and my father knew very well that his reputation, which was growing at the time of his death, his re-establishment as a well-known artist was in large part due to Bobby's championship," Slayton said.

    As people, both artists were full of humor, though Slayton's was more private.

    "Francis was a raconteur," Tom Slayton said. (In fact, Colburn made recordings as a humorist and storyteller. His takeoff on a graduation speech is part of the exhibit.)

    After Colburn's painting class, all would head to the cafeteria for coffee.

    "He would hold court," Slayton said. "Dad didn't do that so much. He related to people very strongly one-on-one."

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