It was the middle of lockdown, and Rutland was a ghost town. Photographer Jon Olender drove around looking for something, anything interesting to capture for the local newspaper.
“No one was out,” he said. One photo he took showed a view from the parking deck downtown. “The whole town was empty.”
But that photo captured a major moment in history, and it’s currently on display in the Chaffee Art Center’s new exhibit, “Reflecting on the Past and Future.” It opened July 30 and features many talented artists including Olender and artist Jennifer Rondinone in the main downstairs galleries.
Neither artist was shy about revealing their own personal struggles in their art, but the end result is a picture of hope.
One of Olender’s photos, “Colorado Clouds,” has an accompanying blurb.
“Two months after my cancer surgery in the spring of 2019, I took a trip to Colorado with my wife,” it begins. The photo shows an enormous cloud mass, dyed orange from the sun. Another perfectly captures a darkening winter sky in Vermont, a single car on the road. His work is full of color and perspective and after more than 20 years in his field it was difficult to narrow down a collection from the thousands of photos he’s taken.
“I had an idea of maybe half a dozen shots that I wanted to use,” Olender said in a recent interview. “Like the picture of Steve Tyl from Henry’s Barber Shop. It has a classic Norman Rockwell look and got a good reaction when it ran in the paper. I knew I wanted to print it and put it in a show someday.”
“My father used to do weddings,” he recalled. “He was really into photography, he still is. He’s really passionate about it. And when I was a kid, my mother would run to the lab to pick up the pictures. I remember going and it would be really cold and air conditioned, and had this strong chemical odor, but there was a vibe about it. The guys there you could tell just liked their work.”
After a couple of detours he decided to get a degree, devouring any photo course he could take. He interned with photographer Peter Miller in Waterbury, and later started taking pictures for a local newspaper, which led to the next job and the next.
“I think the first night I worked was Halloween 2000. I covered the parade,” he said recalling his early days with the Rutland Herald. “There was a lot of change in the first couple years. Things started going super modern and by 2001 we had digital cameras and the D1, which was the first Nikon digital, which is kind of a joke now. The cameras we use now are 10 times the resolution of that camera. But we were pretty on it back then, and it was exciting.”
As a newspaper photographer, his subjects range from carnival workers to local school sport teams, government dignitaries and Vermont scenery, to name a few. It’s a job he tries to schedule, but, “invariably things pop up with two days’ notice.”
Olender’s collection in the Chaffee is a mix of some of his favorites, and the use of color in his work complements Rondinone’s in the adjoining rooms.
When I walked into the Chaffee last week to meet Rondinone something immediately grabbed my eye — a life-size painting in the middle gallery of a police officer standing in the shadows of a sunset. It’s a memory of one of the many times she reported her abusive ex-husband to the police, but wasn’t able to go through with pressing charges. This painting, like most of her work, is large, emotionally charged, and contains hidden messages.
“That piece was really hard — I had to keep stepping away from it because it was so emotional,” Rondinone said, but that’s the point of much of her work. “I paint my feelings. I felt so alone for so long, I wanted others to know that they’re not alone. I want to start conversations.”
Rondinone always knew she wanted to be an artist, but that dream was repressed by a whirlwind romance gone bad, which in hindsight waved red flags from the start. Her installation came from years of painful experiences that feel a lot like reading someone’s diary.
“Getting my story out there is helping,” she said. “I want to ultimately help change laws to make it easier for women like me to fight back against their abusers.”
Sometimes her work is painted from photos, or from physical objects, but once she has a paint brush in hand, the main element in bringing them to life is emotionally putting herself in the place she was in back then.
“If I pour myself into it, I feel like I have a better piece, and I feel more thoroughly released of it,” she said.
Even less emotionally charged pieces, like a series of individual flowers strung together, came from the same place.
“It’s all my feelings,” she said.
Rondinone’s work is even more impressive when you learn she has severe nerve damage in one arm, and most everything you see is done with a small brush so she doesn’t have to lift her arm.
“That’s why they take so long,” she said, “but I can get great detail.”
At the opening, strangers would initiate intimate conversations with her, and Rondinone welcomes it, saying, “That’s the whole point of putting this out there. My artwork is ultimately my cause.”