Six Windham County artists are among the 27 participating in a multimedia exhibition designed to explore what it means to be a Vermont artist.
I AM . . . at the Vermont Arts Council’s Spotlight Gallery at 136 State St., co-curated by West Brattleboro artist Shanta Lee Gander and Arts Council Communications Director Kira Bacon, will display two-dimensional art and offer a digital compilation of music and sound, spoken word, poetry, dance, and movement — all of which, according to press materials, reflect “a deep connection to the Earth, the landscape, and the history of Vermont.”
The show opened Nov. 8 and will run through Dec. 20 in the capital city. A version will appear in Brattleboro in May.
I AM… commemorates the first year of the Arts Council’s “I Am a Vermont Artist” e-newsletter series, which documents how artists’ creative expressions reflect their experiences of ethnicity, gender identity, religion, disability, or age.
Following are brief profiles of the six local artists participating in the show.
Desmond Peeples, of Brattleboro, a poet, writer, musician, and publisher, contributes “a breadth of recent writing and a taste of my music.”
The exhibit includes “A Light and Diplomatic Bird,” their musical rendition of a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. The work is part of brewing album of poems in song. An excerpt of fiction is also on display.
Peeples’ writing has appeared in Five [Quarterly], Big Bridge, Goreyesque, and elsewhere, and they are the founding editor of Mount Island, a literary magazine for rural LGBTQ+ and POC voices. A native Vermonter, they are an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts.”
With their art, Peeples seeks to express “the pleasure and pain of solitude” as well as “Mother Nature, human connection, and our shared histories.”
Deidra K. Razzaque
Deidra K. Razzaque, an artist, writer, workshop leader, and intercultural coach, describes herself as “passionate about creating opportunities to increase intercultural connection and understanding, fostering the idea that each of us can be conduits and catalysts for positive change, and uncovering and sharing beauty.”
Razzaque has written work in the show, along with her mixed-media piece, Oh Donald, What Would Your Mother Say?
“I aim to make my visual art and writing about the intersection of witnessing, connecting, and flourishing,” she says. “I believe that each of us is sacred, and that the uniqueness of our talents, visions, and paths matters — to us, and to every aspect of the planet. I also believe that each of us is intensely complex.
“Trauma and fear can shift us away from the beauty of our essence, and cause us to make choices that we might not make if we felt completely loved and whole,” continues Razzaque. “I hope that my work is a conduit and a catalyst for increased understanding and positive change."
“When I was a little brown girl growing up in Michigan, I lived with my white relatives. There was only one family of color on my street. In many ways, I felt isolated. I had a hard time relating to those around me.
“Years later, after having lived in the U.S., Europe, and Central America, I found myself in Vermont. The little girl in me thought, ‘What have I done? Is this really the environment I want to live in?’ It was. For years, my family and I thrived here. For me, Vermont was a place where the people who lived here were curious about one another. And they were kind,” Razzaque says.
“In the past two years, I’ve noticed an increase in wariness, as well as outright hostility from whites toward people of color. These past two years have felt exhausting. And yet, I’m still here. I am Vermont, too.”
Cai Xi, of West Brattleboro, a painter, educator, Taiji master, chef, gallerist, and curator, contributed “Tevi,” a 50 in. x 32 in. oil on canvas from her “You and Me” series.
Xi emigrated from China to the United States in the 1980s and has lived in Vermont since 2001. She “transcends the convention that an artist needs to stick to one genre or mode or style by operating in multiple threads simultaneously in her art making and her life,” according to a news release. Her artmaking encompasses calligraphic abstraction, landscape, portraiture, mixed media, art-life performance, installation, art-as-food-as-art, and The Pink Slip Project, a fabric, installation and video art piece that was part of Xi’s MFA studio work at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
“My art is a tool, a channel, a bridge for me to be connected with people and to recognize the beauty of all people,” she says.
“The open sky and breathing land immediately inspired me to follow nature’s lead,” she says. “I believe Vermont is about people and their positive changes coming from within themselves.”
Shanta Lee Gander
Shanta Lee Gander, poet, writer, photographer, multi-faceted professional, and co-curator of the show, contributed a preview of a photography project, Fly, which will premiere in 2020. This sample features a photo and interview with performance poet/singer/educator U-Meleni Mhlaba-Adebo.
Fly will feature individuals “across age within the African Diaspora and will focus on the link to the myth that African Americans had the gift of flight as retold in various oral histories in the early part of the 20th century,” says Gander, of Brattleboro.
Her writing ranges from prose to poetry to investigative journalism. Her poetry, prose, and personal essays have been featured in Rebelle Society, on the Ms. Magazine blog, and in The Commons. She is the co-author of the forthcoming Ghosts of Cuba: An Interracial Couple’s Exploration of Cuba in the Age of Trump—Told in Images & Words.
“I am interested in going beneath the surface of what is unseen,” Gander says. “I do this in my writing, my regular interactions with individuals which often includes just posing questions, and in my investigative journalism. I want to shine a light on the places where people may not go. Sometimes it is as simple as illustrating physical places in my photography, encouraging individuals to unzip parts of themselves behind my camera lens. For me, the holy grail is using any of my artistic mediums to explore the forgotten parts of our human history and psyche that I can hand back to all of us.”
William Forchion, performer, poet, filmmaker, and “circus arts cultural exchange ambassador,” reads his poem “Black Friday.”
Forchion, a longtime circus professional who serves as the director of Circus Smirkus summer camp in Greensboro, was born and raised in Hammonton, N.J. He graduated from Hammonton High School, received a certificate of training for the Complete Actor for the Musical Theater from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, received a Bachelor of Fun Arts from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, and a B.S. in Metaphysics from The American Institute of Holistic Theology.
Forchion is a U.S. Cultural Exchange Ambassador for the Arts having completed two trips to Turkmenistan in 2017.
“My art is from the soul, an expression of self projected through the filter of my body,” Forchion says. “My work is my search for the divine within me. Every piece of art that I create is a direct result of divine love flowing through the conduit of me.”
“Artists create work based on the song their soul is singing,” Forchion says. “My work is as much of part of where I am (Vermont) as who I am. If we were to compile complete works of any one artist we could begin to see a greater picture of the artist. My work is an extension of who I am.”
Samirah Evans, a singer and educator from Brattleboro, describes herself as a vocalist who sings primarily jazz and blues standards as well as her own compositions. The show includes her 2009 performance of “I’m Walkin’” by Fats Domino.
Evans is known for her dynamic, soulful approach to jazz and blues, among other genres. Her style is also heavily influenced by the New Orleans sound, where she was one of the city’s most in-demand singers.
At age 8, Evans was influenced by hearing vocalist Nancy Wilson on the radio. A photo in the exhibit depicts when Evans met Wilson two decades later.
“I seek to express and share my interpretations of the stories,” Evans says.
“I am an African American artist who expresses my art through audible and visual means,” she says. “It is my mission to interpret, with feelings from my heart and soul, in an effort to connect to those who witness. It is my intention that what and how I convey a story will enable the witness to receive and interpret the experience in a way that will best move and serve them.”