Those who grew up during the Great Depression and fought World War II are often referred to as the Greatest Generation. Rutland artist Bill Ramage calls the generation born between 1938 and 1949 the “Exceptional Generation,” suggesting that in coming of age in the wake of war, beginning as young people, “they challenged, dismantled, and inventively replaced a culture that had outlived its viability.”
Artists, as with musicians and writers, were set free from old forms and subject matter. Thus, we had rock ’n’ roll and jazz and the Beatles, free verse and stream of consciousness, pop art and abstract expressionism, for examples.
In organizing “70+: Gero-Transcendence,” the exhibit currently on display at 77Art in Rutland, Ramage sought to celebrate this generation and its contributions. The exhibit, which opened this past weekend with more than 300 in attendance, features the work of 75 Vermonters more than 70 years of age. As varied as their creators, the offerings are quirky and transcendent, representational and wildly experimental, gorgeous and disturbing.
And, not surprisingly, much of it challenges the viewer, speaks to injustice and responds to world issues. The exhibit includes paintings, fabric art, wooden and stone sculptures, interpretive installations and much more. Indeed, it’s almost more than one can take in in one visit; fortunately, the works are on display until May 17.
Two of Brandon artist Fran Bull’s large paintings, nearly facing one another across one large room, provide a rich example of one artist’s development. Her 1985 “Flamingo Streryopticon” is vivid and photo-realistic while the later pieces are highly abstract, such as “Magdalene Cycle: Sun. Treader,” one in a series that explores how goddesses have played starring roles in world mythologies. Burlington artist Alexandra Bottinelli’s work also reflects the freedoms embraced by this generation, working in many mediums as evidenced in two of her collages with oil on paper, “Children Playing” and “outdoors (twentieth century mythology),” each a deep dive of symbolism and irony.
Ramage’s own offering, a large-scale installation charged with sexual energy and spiritual elegance, dares the viewer to reflect on creation. It consists of numerous panels that create a curved space in which a cutout figure of a woman seems to be observing some sort of transformation, perhaps creation itself. Over the decades, the retired Castleton University professor developed what he calls “centripetal photo-sculptures” as visual metaphors for “all the things I can’t completely understand about perception.”
By contrast, for delight and accessible truth, Rutland resident Sally Jenne Keefe’s colored pencil drawings of the familiar world up close — vines, jars, a kitchen corner — remind us of the everyday beauty we too rarely appreciate.
And for contemplation, there is “Counting,” Cabot resident Janet Van Fleet’s mixed media installation of shelves holding a mathematically significant array of items — long white gloves, handmade wooden clothespins, large pinecones, for example. Accompanying text begs the viewer to reflect upon the random, the mundane, the utilitarian and the absurd.
John Douglas, a 1960s political activist and radical filmmaker now living in Burlington, is still at it at 81. “Crushing Violence,” a print made by dipping an assault rifle in paint and then running an industrial steamroller over it, certainly makes a statement, while his “Homeland Security” is both fascinating and creepy. It’s a photographic series in which the artist himself, naked except for the M16 slung over his shoulder, fills the foreground while other images of the shooter are superimposed against a lush landscape, the naked man in myriad positions from crouching to fallen. It’s a powerful statement on guns and violence in which the shooter is both assailant and victim.
B. Amore’s work also reveals her political sensibility. The Hubbardton writer, sculptor and founder of the Carving Studio & Sculpture Center in West Rutland has created large compilations entitled “Workers’ Mandala,” “Tracing the Journeys” and “No One is an Island.” Each and together, they viscerally tell the story of workers and migrants through the use of found and created objects — workers’ gloves, burlap coffee sacks, paper, flowers, tin and photos printed on silk.
Several of the artists brought works that were both interpretive and representational. Mary Crowley, a Rutland artist, retired teacher and PegTV host, explained her two impulses in one of the dozens of short artist interviews that supplement the exhibit. Crowley paints what “gives me joy,” often colorful still life watercolor paintings, and what “makes me mad” as seen in her black-and-white collage comprised of photos of children killed at Sandy Hook, the shooter as well, newspaper headlines, text and questions left unanswered.
Mark Prent also lives in a world of dark and light. His large white sculpture “Icarus” hangs from the gallery’s ceiling, the good angel presented in beautiful, lifelike detail. Prent lives in St. Albans but travels the world for commissioned work for famous people, Yoko Ono among them. He purposefully did not offer the current exhibit any of his much-celebrated but discomforting sculptures, such as one of a rope-bound amputee or another depicting the union of man and animal. Like Icarus, many of his sculptures are molded from Prent’s own body. He considered the more disturbing pieces inappropriate for a Vermont audience whose sensibilities, he believes, are more connected with the land and community.
Chris Jacob’s work certainly shows that connectedness. He makes beautiful mirrors, but the glass is there only as a vehicle for the wood to frame. A builder of unique structures — homes built into hillsides, with angles, turrets, unusual shaped windows — he made his first mirror as a wedding present for his son, who quickly saw its artistic quality.
Today, making wood-framed mirrors is his main occupation. Constructed from cherry, apple, hornbeam and maple, all dead or dying Vermont trees, each mirror’s frame is carefully designed so the grain seamlessly wraps around the mirror. Size is determined by the wood or, as Jacob puts it, “the wood tells me what it wants to be.”
For photographer Lowell Klock, art and nature have transformative values. Klock always wanted to be an artist, but her mother reminded her often to be practical. As the wife of a Foreign Service officer, she traveled widely and discovered photography, developing her own film until recently. Now living in Rutland, Klock’s color photographs have a luminescence that make one want to step into the photo, while her black-and-white photos are so richly detailed that you feel you know that corner of the room or that archway.
In the interviews, many of the artists reflect on how choosing their pieces for the exhibit helped them think about their life’s work and the reasons why they make art. Debbie Scranton, of Wallingford, chooses to capture familiar landscapes and animals, including her own sweet dog — subjects that give her solace in difficult time.
Nancy Storrow, of Putney, experienced a “confidence in my work” by considering its long evolution. Her paintings are reinterpretations of her world, the plants and animals, the land where she lives, rendered elemental and spare, more emotion or response than simple representations.
Likewise, Wallingford resident Ruth Anne Barker came to understand her painting as a way to express often-conflicting emotions in a kind of personal language. Barker returned to her craft after years as a teacher and school principal. Today, her pieces may celebrate nature while others allow her to vent anger, especially political anger, a subject matter that could only plague her during a busy life with little time for artistic expression.
Ramage had been thinking about the exhibit for a long time as he aged. He realizes it’s human nature to take the accomplishments of people over a long lifetime for granted, but regrets that a generation’s efforts to create a greater understanding of human nature and a more open society are not more publicly acknowledged.
Yet, Ramage notes one large mistake he believes the exceptional generation made — the idolization of youth and youth culture. In the past, the elderly were venerated and their advice was sought and respected. But in a time when it is youthfulness that is revered, “now that we’re old, we’re invisible; we’re not venerated. I don’t want to go back to the old days. That’s not possible and no one sane would want that,” he says. “But being invisible makes us a wasted resource. We need to tap into that resource.”
While tapping into that resource, the exhibit is also part of a larger impetus he’s involved in to provide opportunities for other artists to work unimpeded by daily demands. The exhibit will come down May 17 to make way for a residency program that began last summer with six women working on their artistic endeavors at the former CVPS building. Each participant is provided a room in the sprawling building to work on their projects; housing is also provided.
The program expands this summer to three sessions, offering residencies to 45 artists. Working with local developers and investors, Ramage and 77Art see the gallery and the residency program as a catalyst for growth in the area and a valuable use of empty or nearly empty buildings.
“Art can’t take the place of the loss of retail in our community, but it can pioneer a new direction for us and our city,” he says, hoping to make Rutland a center of art appreciation for generations to come.
Yvonne Daley is a former Rutland Herald reporter.