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251: Culture (and Car Repair) in Putney

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Published March 1, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


Putney Central School students at "Winter in Place" installation - SALLY POLLAK
  • Sally Pollak
  • Putney Central School students at "Winter in Place" installation

A couple of weeks ago, as I headed south on Interstate 91 to Putney for an outdoor art walk, my windshield wiper finally succumbed to February in Vermont. So before I hit the woods, I pulled into Rod's Towing & Repair for new wiper blades. The service station is just off the highway in this Windham County town, convenient for gas and a good bet for more than a fill-up.

"I think you got a brake light out, too," co-owner Greg Winchester told me. I had no idea and no car appointment. I asked Winchester if he had time to fix it — right then. "No worries," he said. "It's all good."

I took that as a yes, left my key with Winchester, and walked across the street for a plate of rice and beans at Putney Food Co-op ($6.70 with a cup of tea). When I returned to Rod's 20 minutes later, my car had new windshield wipers and a working brake light ($57.95), and I was spared a possible ticket (priceless).

Greg and Julie Winchester of Rod's Towing & Repair - SALLY POLLAK
  • Sally Pollak
  • Greg and Julie Winchester of Rod's Towing & Repair

Rod's, which is named for Winchester's father, is a family business that opened in 1967. The garage is nearing completion of a rebuild after a fire in October 2021 burned the business to the ground. Vermont State Police determined that the flames were caused by arson. "It was very devastating," Julie Winchester, Greg's wife, told me.

Some of the firefighters who fought the early morning blaze are working on the construction crew that's rebuilding Rod's. The Winchesters have three children and six grandchildren, and they're committed to carrying on Rod's "family legacy," Julie said.

With my car intact, I left Rod's and drove a couple of miles to the Forest for Learning, 167 acres of woods and wetland behind Putney Central School. The forest is the site of an art installation, "Winter in Place," that's on exhibit until the end of March. Its elements come into view on a short walk near the forest entrance, revealing themselves as echoes of and responses to the surrounding landscape.

A mixed-media drawing of a fiddler at the kiosk of the Forest for Learning - COURTESY OF JOSH FIELDS
  • Courtesy Of Josh Fields
  • A mixed-media drawing of a fiddler at the kiosk of the Forest for Learning

The artwork was made by Brattleboro artist Stephanie Nichols and Putney Central School students. Next Stage Arts Project, a Putney-based nonprofit, organized the collaboration, which was funded by a $4,000 grant from AARP. One purpose of the exhibit is to attract the "50+ community" to the woods, according to Next Stage's website. I belong to that demographic, yet my experience at the Forest for Learning was shaped by a different 50-plus measure: the temperature.

Spring had replaced winter on the mid-February day I visited. The sky was bright blue, the sun was shining, and the trails — covered in a shell of melting snow — were a sheet of ice. Beware, 50-plus crowd!

I started my walk at the school then headed down a muddy hillside to a kiosk. Affixed to the structure are small drawings that students made with watercolor and colored pencil; old tin cans frame the artwork. These pieces welcome viewers to the exhibit and signal to walkers that they're going in the right direction. I continued across a wet and snowy field, beyond which I could see the edge of the woods. Because I wasn't certain where I'd find the art or what it might be, the stroll felt a bit like a treasure hunt.

A ceramic piece in the "Winter in Place" exhibit - COURTESY OF JOSH FIELDS
  • Courtesy Of Josh Fields
  • A ceramic piece in the "Winter in Place" exhibit

On a footbridge spanning a stream, I spotted the first clue: a series of ceramic leaf forms hanging from the bridge rail. The best view of these earth-toned pieces could be from the water, but I was unwilling to find out. Peering over the rail offers a fine view, as does a spot in the woods to the side of the bridge.

On the other side of the stream, art hangs from the trees: white orbs in netting and ceramic pieces in the shape of mushrooms. The mushroomy flowers look like something you might see on the forest floor — if the forest were enchanted.

Just when I thought I'd seen all the art, I noticed a shimmer of blue lighting up the woods. Walking toward the color, which mirrored the sky, I came to an installation Nichols made. Her work is composed of slender PVC pipes spray-painted different shades of blue and attached to a mesh frame. The piece hangs between bare trees by a big moss-covered rock, which serves as a wondrous backdrop.

Beyond the art, a roughly seven-mile network of trails leads deeper into the woods. I had planned to explore the forest further, but walking uphill on ice proved too treacherous, and I reluctantly abandoned my plan. But the woods were lovely, and I hung out for a while — sitting on a rock, watching the stream.

By coincidence, I crossed paths with people who helped put together "Winter in Place," including Nichols, the artist who worked with students to create the installation. She was leading folks on an art walk; though I'd taken a solo tour, I tagged along.

Nichols, who teaches studio art at Keene State College in New Hampshire, talked about the challenges and unpredictability of presenting art in a forest. As a visiting artist working with Putney kids, she noted the value of collaboration.

"You're in the joy of making art side by side with your friends," Nichols said, "but you're a small part of a collective piece of art."

Stephanie Nichols' installation in the Forest for Learning - COURTESY OF JOSH FIELDS
  • Courtesy Of Josh Fields
  • Stephanie Nichols' installation in the Forest for Learning

The woods are a familiar setting for students at Putney Central School, who work in forest classrooms as part of their education. The hope is that "Winter in Place" will encourage others in the community to get out in the woods, too.

"It was very intentional to put the art at the beginning of the trail, on flat ground that's easy to get to," Keith Marks, executive director of Next Stage Arts Project, told me. "The aspirational intention was for people to venture on and engage with the Forest for Learning."

We all have aspirations. The Forest for Learning's is to build a boardwalk across the wet meadow to the woods, according to board member Josh Fields. "Everyone's been turned around by water at least once," he said. It's a $70,000 project.

My aspiration is to return to the Forest for Learning in true spring and walk on solid ground through the woods. I want to see the waterfall. Then I'll walk another mile or so to the MockingBird Tavern on Bellows Falls Road, where I'll eat a Caesar salad and drink a beer. It'll cost about $15, plus gas from Burlington.

By then, something else will be wrong with my car.

251 is a series of on-the-road stories that aims to visit all 251-plus towns and cities in Vermont. We'll be coming soon to a town near you.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Into the Forest | 251: Culture (and car repair) in Putney"

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