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The work of painter Kathleen Kolb is featured in the new exhibit, “Shedding Light on the Working Forest,” at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.

The Arts

Seeing the forest, and the trees, and the people who make their living from them

New BMAC exhibit uses words and imagery to show the woodlands of southern Vermont

BRATTLEBORO—The Windham Regional Commission (WRC) has collaborated with Vermont landscape painter Kathleen Kolb and Vermont poet and performer Verandah Porche to create a singularly beautiful 17-picture and poetry exhibit about the working forest for the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center (BMAC).

The exhibit, called Shedding Light on the Working Forest, is opening at the museum on Oct. 2 and will run until Jan. 3, 2016. It combines Kolb’s paintings of men working in the forests and in the mills with the life narratives Porche has collected from the people Kolb has painted.

While the Vermont brand relies heavily on the image of the working landscape, artists mostly depict farm scenes of Holstein cows, organic vegetables, and exotic cheeses.

Yet we rely on forest products for everything from the paper in the books we read to the heat we draw from burning logs, from the napkins we use to wipe our faces to the poles that hold up our electric wires.

This forest project came together in a unique way.

“We had a working group on Windham region woodlands,” said WRC assistant director Susan McMahon. “Windham County has the best hardwoods in the state and we have some really strong sawmills. So we were trying to find a way to make working forests as important as agriculture.”

McMahon contacted BMAC Executive Director Danny Lichtenfeld to try and get an exhibit of art showing people working in the forest and sawmills and trucks.

“Then someone came and showed us Kathleen’s work. We showed Danny, his staff contacted Kathleen, and she was happy to exhibit her work here. And she has wanted to do this piece with Verandah since forever. It was just serendipity.”

Kolb is often described as “a painter in love with light.” She began applying her vision to the subject of men working in the forest in the mid-1990s.

“I started as a landscape painter, but I thought to myself, ‘It’s been done.’” Kolb said. “But there’s three times as much land committed to trees as to farms. And I know from personal experience, because I was once married to someone who was a woodworker, and we did large-scale sugaring and heated with wood, so I was familiar with the integrity of it.”

Some of her highly detailed paintings show sawmills, flowers, vistas, farm equipment, downed trees, men sawing down trees and loggers turning felled logs into lumber. You can tell that these are real people doing real things with real — and sometimes dangerous — machinery.

Kolb and Porche have been friends for a long time — “since the 20th century,” Porche says drily — when they both taught at the Vermont Governor’s Institute on the Arts.

Porche is well-known for her ability to interview “ordinary people” — in schools, Grange halls, cancer wards, jails, literacy programs, or colleges — and turn their conversations into short works of literature.

“Porche’s sort of a human poem catcher, in the way she can sit with taciturn Vermont loggers and filter poetry out of blunt prose,” writes David Mance III in his introduction to the book of poems and paintings that accompanies this project.

When Porche saw Kolb’s forest paintings, she knew they needed a voice.

“I was so impressed with the sensitivity of people working in the woods,” Porche said. “‘Take down these trees,’ ‘Assess which way they’re going to fall!’ ‘Save the baby hawks.’ My first wilderness was Manhattan. The sense of teeming life, the verticality of it. It’s not a new idea, the wilderness of the city and how everything fits together. Then in 1968 I moved to a farm in Guilford, Vermont, and I had the feeling I’d never been outdoors before.”

Today Porche describes herself as a “passionate mushroom hunter” who has a “more nuanced attitude towards interdependence and how plants and animals rely upon each another, and how we’re all part of this process.”

She said that the loggers “were people who were very in touch with all that. They were trying to make a living in an evolving and challenging economy and it was partly received tradition and partly just changing with the times.”

What impressed Porche the most, she said, was the realization that people working in the forest were “right in our midst but completely overlooked.”

“People were talking about global warming and sustainability and the people who were practitioners — skilled workers in the forest — were to my likes never part of that conversation, neither asked nor welcomed,” Porche said. “Our project isn’t about global warming. It’s about dedication and the logging road into the place where people are doing this work that nobody thinks about. Kathleen had done the series. I fell in love with the paintings and said, ‘Hey, let’s do a project!’”

Kolb said she is happy with the collaboration.

“Verandah just added a really critical piece of enthusiasm and energy to my efforts,” Kolb said. “She gave me an opportunity to stretch as an artist by doing it collaboratively. I’d been asking myself that it’s taken an enormous amount of energy to create this project. She says, ‘Why would you go to the trouble of the deepest notation if your heart wasn’t full of the deepest love?’ That rings true to me.

“I love the woods, I love trees, I love knowing that this is a white cedar and that’s a red cedar — that’s part of who I am. I also have enormous respect for physical labor of any kind, done with skill and intelligence. And this was a way of combining it with the landscapes I love. I feel as if the whole society stands on the shoulders of people who are willing to do that work.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #325 (Wednesday, September 30, 2015). This story appeared on page C1.

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