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Evie Lovett.

The Arts

A river runs through it

An artist and a poet draw inspiration from the Connecticut River in a new installation at Next Stage

PUTNEY—Artist Evie Lovett and poet Diana Whitney have each drawn inspiration from the Connecticut River in their work in a multimedia exhibition entitled Thaw: A Conversation in Words and Imagery.

Lovett’s encaustic paintings and several of Whitney’s poems will be on display in the gallery at Next Stage Arts Project in Putney from Feb. 17 until May 15. The opening reception is Saturday, Feb. 17, from 4 to 6 p.m., which includes a poetry reading by Whitney at 5 p.m.

Lovett photographed the Connecticut River for the 2016 From the River, To the River public art project in Brattleboro. Patterns and rhythms of the river seeped into work she was creating in the encaustic studio at that time.

For Whitney too, the river is a presence that has resurfaced repeatedly in her writing. Since living along the Connecticut River in college, she has written poems informed by its changing moods and states. Witnessing the river’s seasons has become a source of imagery, consolation, and insight.

Thaw is the outcome of two artists discovering a felicitous connection and seeking to connect with others through their shared contemplation of the river.

“The theme of Thaw is to recognize the cyclical nature of the river, as the river freezes and then the ice breaks up during unfreezing,” Lovett says.

Artist and educator

An artist and educator, Lovett lives in Westminster West. Most of her personal work is in documentary portraiture, encaustic and mixed media. In 2016, Evie and two collaborators created From the River, To the River, a creative placemaking public art project of five interrelated art installations for the town of Brattleboro, funded by an Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Lovett is a teaching artist with the Vermont Arts Council and a digital media instructor with the Vermont Folklife Center, and she teaches photography at Vermont Academy.

Whitney is a writer who works in many genres. Currently she is finishing a memoir-in-essays about generational patterns of female silence.

Her first book, Wanting It, became an indie bestseller in 2014 and won the Rubery Book Award in poetry. Whitney is the poetry critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and her work has appeared in publications as varied as Glamour, The Kenyon Review, and The Washington Post, and many more. In addition to all that, she is also a yoga teacher, practicing out of her home in Brattleboro.

“Evie and I have been talking about having a show together since we first met at the Vermont Studio Center [in Johnson] in 2004 where we immediately became friends.” Whitney says. “Evie was working at the Center as a photographer and I as a poet. And although we each worked in different genres, using separate artistic languages, we felt that we really connected.”

Lovett adds, “When Diana and I met at Vermont Studio Center, we quickly discovered we had many similar interests. At our first meetings, we talked about topics ranging from yoga to depression to art, and found we had so much in common.”

Uncanny similarity

Even then, both sensed an uncanny similarity between Whitney’s poetry and Lovett’s photographs. Although neither knew it for a long time, one thing common to both was the Connecticut River as a source of inspiration.

Thaw came together last summer when we discovered that we shared the same muse, the river,” Whitney says.

“As friends we shared work,” Lovett says. “When Diana was publishing her first book, she came to me for imagery for her cover. This didn’t pan out but I did give her some advice. We traded our art back and forth.”

A long time ago (neither is quite sure how long), Whitney had asked Lovett to read Rivers, an unfinished poem of hers that captured the contrasting forces of calm and peril, freeze and thaw that compelled Lovett to the river.

Lovett tacked a copy to her studio wall and returned to the words again and again as she navigated her own work.

However, Whitney had no idea how much her words meant to Lovett until about a year ago, when they began discussing the idea of a collaboration, and Lovett returned the poem to Whitney.

“I first wrote Rivers in an odd period in my life,” Whitney says. “I had recently had a child, and at the time I was involved with baby care and early motherhood. I am not sure how others react to this experience, but for me motherhood rendered me mute. Nonetheless, I did compose this early draft of a poem, which I gave to Evie.

“Yet, strangely for how this turned out, I always considered Rivers to be a failed poem and I put it aside and it went into the junkyard folder of my work. It was not included in my first book, and I never even consider revising it. Frankly, I considered the piece sentimental and raw.

“Evie, on the other hand, took to the poem. She posted it in her studio for a year and claimed it was a touchstone for what she was attempting to do. Last year, she returned the poem to me — and to my surprise told me how important the poem had been to her. I then took another look at what had seemed to me a lost work and revised it.

“Sometimes, it takes another person to help you see what was incipient in a work you set aside.”

Lovett elaborates.

“Ordinarily I am not a person who easily respond to poetry, but when I read Rivers, I thought ‘Wow! The way she writes is seeing.’ I then began thinking about rivers.

“I perhaps had been thinking of rivers already, but when I brought this poem and another of hers about rivers into my studio, her work became a source of connection for me.

“Diana’s poems became an anchor for me. Here was this other artist articulating so wonderfully what I was grappling with. Ironically, Diana didn’t know for a long time that her poem turned out to be a point of connection for someone else.”

Returning to the river

Lovett suspected that Whitney didn’t realize how the image of the river ran through all of her work until they began exploring the theme together — and Whitney confirmed it.

“I really didn’t know how deep the river had been a source of inspiration for me,” she says. “But it is an image I constantly return to. I may begin in the woods or the kitchen, but I invariably make my way back to the river.”

Both artists have greatly enjoyed working in collaboration.

“Being an artist is such a solitary existence,” Lovett concedes. “We lose sight of the world outside us. Diana didn’t know for a long time how much her poem meant to someone else. Collaboration is a way to break that solitude.”

“Writing can be very lonely and isolating,” Whitney adds. “There is only you, your computer, and words. So it was liberating and freeing to work in collaboration with Evie. I could see how she also responded to things in which I found inspiration. This enabled me to see with new eyes. I also found myself inspired by her encaustic paintings, which are haunting, layered, and evocative.”

“I have a somewhat eclectic history as an artist,” Lovett says. “I began as a photographer. My background comes from a love of documentary portraiture. But then I found myself becoming uncomfortable with these photos, feeling that in a way they were invasive. It was from that that I began working with encaustics.”

Encaustic painting, also known as hot wax painting, involves using heated beeswax to which colored pigments are added. The liquid or paste is then applied to a surface — usually prepared wood, although canvas and other materials are often used.

“It is a millennium-old genre,” Lovett says. “”I especially like it because with encaustics I can start with a photograph. I make art to figure out myself and to see what’s important to me.”

In Thaw at Next Stage, Lovett’s encaustic paintings will be displayed alongside several of Whitney’s poems. With the use of a smartphone, during the entire run of the exhibition visitors can access Whitney reading each of her poems.

For her live reading on Feb. 17, Whitney said she “will read about 10 poems, those included in the show and several others. This will last about 25 minutes, after which Evie will have a Q&A about both our work.”

During her reading, Whitney will be backed by a new video created by Lovett of historical photographs of the Connecticut River and Lovett’s own encaustic paintings. Lovett’s video will be seen only during this poetry reading.

“More than just a video, Evie’s work is a fantastic art installation that — for now at least — will only be shown for one time at this reading,” Whitney says. “So this opening will be very special. People will be given the opportunity to look at Evie’s painting, hear my reading of the poems, and watch a new video created especially for this occasion.

“You have to be at the opening to experience Evie’s video. I like the one-time occasion of the event. In a world where everything is reproducible, here is a singular time to catch this remarkable work. Of course, perhaps in the future, the video may make another appearance, but for now, this is it.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #446 (Wednesday, February 14, 2018). This story appeared on page B1.

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