BRATTLEBORO—It may come as news to many, but Brattleboro area artists are on the cutting edge of the international art world.
How did this happen?
Who are these artists?
And why are they living in Windham County? Is it by chance? Is it the beauty of the place? The quiet? The fact that it’s only 3½ hours from New York and two hours from Boston? Is it the liberal politics? The quality of the light? All of the above?
Every three years, the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center presents a juried show of contemporary painting, drawing, sculpture, and installations called In the Zone. The artists chosen to exhibit must either live in Vermont or within a 100-mile radius of Vermont.
The area within that radius includes Providence and Boston, where professional artists, colleges, and art schools abound.
This year’s show, In the Zone III, which opened on April 9 and runs until July 3, presents nine artists chosen from 270 entries. And wonder of wonders, five of the nine artists live and work in the Brattleboro area. Three more live just south of the Massachusetts line, and one lives farther afield, in Connecticut.
“It’s a total coincidence, but it speaks to the quality of what’s going on in Brattleboro and the surroundings,” said the sole juror, Christine Temin, a respected art critic and author who for years covered the international art scene for The Boston Globe.
“I was very impressed with the sophistication of all of the artists,” Temin said. “They are really in touch with what is going on with the international arts community. This is a fairly unique situation. Being able to go to the museum and see a show of that level is, I would think, quite gratifying for the people who live in Brattleboro.”
Black, black, black
One of the artists, Leonard Ragouzeos, works large. Very large. One of his dramatic black-and-white ink-and-wax drawings in the show — Butchie, of a doll he had when he was a child — is 9 feet by 5 feet.
“It’s not just Len’s scale, but his using layer after layer of India ink to get black, black, black, and there’s still incredible markings, erasures, and animated striations,” said BMAC curator Mara Williams, who put together the show after Temin chose the artists.
“The hand of the artist is fully present,” Williams said. “Then, there’s Len’s technique. Water-based ink runs right off, so he waxes over the ink, which makes the works luminous, like hand-rubbed furniture. There’s a beautiful surface tension. He takes objects that are ordinarily small, and animates them, and makes them very much alive.”
Ragouzeos said he works in black and white because “there’s a language to color that I don’t speak very well. Say red, you think apple. Say green, you think grass. I’m very good at values. I’m not very good at using color. So why do it at this age?”
Ragouzeos was born in New York, began his career as a graphic artist, and taught art at Iowa State University and Millersville University in Pennsylvania for 31 years. Then he and his wife, Bobbe, moved to Newfane.
“You grow up in New York, you have to leave,” Ragouzeous said. “I wanted to retire in New England. Politically and socially, it’s much more my own way of thinking here. I love it here. I feel like I was born here.”
Cataclysm of injuries
For the Chinese-born artist Le Xi, what draws him to Brattleboro are its different kinds of light.
Le Xi’s work in this show, “Wheelchair,” was made on Western Avenue in 2010. It‘s an extraordinarily affecting and challenging mixed-media piece in which the dark shadows of many objects, including a puppy’s tail and crosses, are flashed in staccato bursts onto a black shiny wheelchair and the wall behind it. It’s the only piece that moved Williams to tears while she talked about it.
“This is a proudly beautiful and very disturbing piece,” she said. “We’re dealing with a wheelchair. It’s a very specific chair, not a Windsor chair, and not a rocking chair. There are issues of aging in this piece, of a body that’s fragile and a mind that’s still lively.
“It’s remembering that you could walk and you don’t want to be confined to the chair, you’re larger than the chair, and you’re struggling against the chair.”
But most important, she said, it’s about the “cataclysm of injuries” that have happened to American soldiers in the past 10 years.
“Here in Brattleboro during World War II, the museum building was the railroad station, so it happened to be the building in which all the soldiers’ bodies came home,” Williams said, choking back tears. “There were 63 Gold Star Mothers who met their children here. That’s all I can say.”
Le Xi splits his time between New York and West Brattleboro, where he stays with his sister, the distinguished painter Cai Xi Silver, at the Asian Cultural Center.
“Last summer, I moved here, and working here changed my working,” Le Xi said. “Nature is here. Not many electric lights. This big contrast is perfect for my work.”
He said he chose an object from his life — it happened to be a wheelchair — and sat in the front garden one night last summer, studying the different kinds of light. There was bright moonlight coming from overhead, moving light from the headlights of the cars on Route 9, and the electric light of his projector. This is how the piece was born.
“When the cars come, their lights on the wall animate the shadows,” Le Xi said. “I am very sensitive to shadows. Lights from the projector move. The moonlight is so strong, so strong. When I’m here, I can’t sleep because the moonlight is so strong. I realize that in Brattleboro, they have light from the moon. In New York, only electric light. Light coming from nature is the big reason I live here. Moonlight, shadow, electric light, car light.”
Bone and blood
Christopher Sproat is a sculptor who lives and works in Putney. He has two almost primordial pieces in the show, both composed of recycled materials and fluorescent lights. They hang from the museum ceiling.
“They have an atavistic quality,” Williams said. “They are like some spine of a creature that has been here since there were spines in creatures on land and winged creatures in the air.”
Sproat said he began reading deeply in the world of science before he approached this phase of his work. Then, he noticed that digitalization is quite a bit like nature.
“Nature is built of cells, and we’re building things now out of ones and zeros,” Sproat said. “My work is a hybrid between man-made and beast or insect. I’m trying to bring in all sorts of sources. These pieces are what might happen if you ripped off all the skin and all you’re looking at is the bone and the blood.”
Sproat spent 30 years as a professional artist, living and showing his work in both Boston and New York.
“But my mother had bought this house up in Vermont, in Putney,” Sproat said. “Her theory was that she would move to someplace I would want to come ski. She had no roots in Putney, but she wanted to be in the mountains, and we saw a beautiful piece of property with a view of three states. And I got involved in the property.”
After 9/11, Sproat realized he couldn’t go back to New York. Also, his mother had Alzheimer’s disease, and he felt the need to take care of her.
“I had been spending six months out of the year here anyway,” he said. “I liked it more and more, and after my mother died, my wife and I decided to just stay here.
“We love it. I’d much rather look out the window and see red squirrels than human beings. I would like to know what is going on in the city more, but at this point in art, I don’t get my art from other art. And I don’t want to get it from other art. I want to get it from life.”
John Paul Gardner works in monofilament, or plastic string. His piece, “Expanse,” hangs from the central museum skylight like a delicate network of colorful planetary bodies. He has been living in Brattleboro for nine months, coming here to work for the In-Sight Photography Project as part of AmeriCorps.
“I wanted to come back East,” Gardner said. “Not Brattleboro in particular. But I love it here. It’s a beautiful town. It has a contemporary museum. There are major shows close by. And this town attracts artists. There are places like the Cotton Mill to have studios.
“Being not from here, I have the outsider’s perspective. I’m trying to figure out why this is such a great place for artists. I’m trying to figure out why I chose to live here for a year, and maybe why I want to keep living here.”
Attachment, affiliation, identity
Richard Heller also lives in Brattleboro. His work, “The Republic of Illusion,” is an installation of hundreds of witty, beautiful, and wildly different individual drawings, each done on 2 3/8” x 4 3/4” oak tags, the kind usually used for shipping and storage. Heller has been teaching art at Brattleboro Union High School for 15 years.
“The reason I stayed here was because I really loved the community,” Heller said. “Politically, I love its disposition. And as I began to meet more people through teaching, I settled here. Now my wife and family are here. I feel a significant part of the community. I have an attachment, an affiliation, and an identity with the people in this community.”
There are other places outside the major urban areas where excellent cutting edge art is being made, Temin said. The Berkshires come to mind. In Maine, they have an organized Museum Trail to market their wonderful array of museums, most of them affiliated with colleges.
But Brattleboro has something special. “I can’t think of one other small place where there’s such terrific stuff,” Temin said.
Within the art world, Brattleboro remains unknown, Temin said.
“I honestly cannot say that it has a reputation,” she said. “Obviously, it should. I was so impressed with museum director Danny Lichtenfield and Mara Williams, and the work they do, and the entire team at the museum. It might not be nationally celebrated just yet, but I think it will be if things go along the lines I’m seeing. Artists love working with a museum staff like that, and if the word gets out that not only the artists but the museum are doing very adventurous work, the reputation of Brattleboro as an arts center will inevitably grow.”