A black-and-white photo installation going up in the Vermont Farmers Food Center on West Street in Rutland is the beginning piece in a series of stories that take a deeper look into our local community, agriculture and history, giving a voice to many untold stories.
“The installation is like a preview,” explained Stephen Abatiell, who spearheaded the project and took most of the photos. “The photo presentation provides space for a lot of stories connected with food and agriculture that are less known.”
Three years ago, the project known as “Root Words” started with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a group effort between the Vermont Farmers Food Center (VFFC), and Shrewsbury Agricultural Education & Arts Foundation (SAGE). The two organizations worked together on VFFC ’s Farmacy Project, which incorporates the concept of food as medicine, and increases access to fresh local foods for citizens of Rutland County in partnership with local Primary Care.
“Folks were recognizing that it was a group of people that participate in the program that often don’t have their voices heard,” Abatiell said. “A lot of them had all these interesting connections to farms or food from their younger days living in the area, so the idea came from that. Let’s give these people a voice and tell their stories.”
In its first two years, “Root Words” was mostly about community events to bring people together.
“We’ve done that through story-sharing events, community dinners and some community art projects,” Abatiell said. “They’ve all had that theme of food, culture, agriculture and how that connects us and connects us to place.”
The story events featured someone in the community, maybe a sugar maker with decades of experience, who would host and facilitate a conversation and talk about how it’s changed over time.
During that time, Abatiell, who has a photojournalism background, was shooting video, recording audio and taking photos, building up to the photo installation.
“Most of the photos are from the previous years of the project, but there are some new stories that we’re going to further develop,” he said.
The installation consists of 58 or so images that stand 4 feet tall by 2 feet wide, depicting food and agriculture’s impact on our connections with community and landscape. The large format photos will be hung at the Vermont Farmers Food Center beginning in May.
Included in the photos are Chief Shirly Hook of the Koasek band of the Abenaki nation, who maintains the Abenaki Tribal Garden in Braintree, as well as the 6-generation Squier Family Farm in Middletown Springs.
“We’ve worked hard to create a broad view of our heritage of agriculture, community and food in this area, to try and make it a diverse and representative group,” Abatiell said. “I don’t know if it’s a retelling of history, but trying to do a good job of telling history and not having whitewashed it.”
Abatiell’s hope is that the collection of photos is enough to spark interest in their corresponding stories, which will be unveiled during the next 6 months to a year.
He’s currently getting ready to produce and host a weekly ”Root Words” radio series in partnership with Dave Tibbs and WEXP 101.5 FM radio, which is on the VFFC property on West Street.
“Monthly, I’m going to add codes into a guide that you scan on your phone to bring you to audio and video from the stories, which will premiere on the radio station first,” Abatiell said.
“I’ve got an hour of conversation in Tinmouth where (the Squiers) had the whole family together and the community heard stories about generations of farming,” Abatiell said. “It’s an interesting and important perspective to this area and to family generational farming. The images preview their stories, and as we add more layers to it with the audio and video, it’s going to give people something that they can explore over time.”
When asked if the intention is to encourage people to buy local, Abatiell said, “I would say it’s more like it’s to BE local.”
“’Root Words’ celebrate(s) our connections with our communities and landscape that grow from agriculture and food,” Abatiell said. “I feel that it will leave folks with community pride, and a desire to learn more, to cook more, to plant something and care for it, and share their experiences.”