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Aesthetic Activism



Published November 2, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

A greeting card sold by the Syracuse Cultural Workers says a lot about Bonnie Acker. The image -- also available on a poster, T-shirt, button and sticker -- is just one of many she's created for the activist organization, which sells these "tools for fundraising" worldwide. The phrase "Celebrate Community - Honor Diversity" appears at the bottom of the card. Above it is a cut-paper phalanx of maroon-colored figures with arms raised toward a large round disc -- a sun? -- which is filled with bits of colored paper in random, geometric shapes. Surrounding that, like a flock of birds startled skyward, are dozens of hands in a rainbow of hues.

Anyone familiar with Acker knows that this exuberant, positive-vibe image could represent the Burlington artist herself. A petite, energetic 57-year-old with a graying ponytail and perpetual dimpled smile, Acker is a socially conscious artist whose distinctive, graphic illustrations have enlivened the printed materials of some 100 nonprofits over the last few decades. Many of her designs have been in the service of affordable housing, her husband's field -- a founder of the local land trust, John Davis is now a partner in Burlington Associates in Community Development.

Other images have reflected Acker's passion for sustainable, organic agriculture. She has been volunteering at the Intervale Community Farm since 1989; her daughter Dia, now 15, has accompanied her for most of those years. "Being on the farm with a young kid growing up made me feel rooted as a socially conscious artist for the first time," says Acker, an activist since she herself was a teen. The Philadelphia native and Sarah Lawrence grad adds that Burlington is "the best place I could ever have ended up." Vermont, she suggests, nurtures the interests that "transplanted people" bring with them.

In Acker's case, nurturing works both ways: In addition to farming for free, she has cheerfully maintained flower gardens for City Market, Merrill's Roxy Theatre, the Fletcher Free Library and other sites around town. Only in the case of the co-op does Acker get paid -- in the form of a 12 percent membership.

The Syracuse Cultural Workers are also among her few paying patrons; Acker is the quintessential selfless, committed activist who apparently doesn't often say no. "Much of my artwork in my life has been donated," she concedes. "Most of these groups have no money. But I've been able to get enough here and there to make ends meet."

Not surprisingly, Acker also seems to find more hours in the day than most of us. And, along with making art and digging dirt, some of those hours are spent convincing 'tweens to eat their vegetables. That's because for the last three years Acker has volunteered at Edmunds Middle School for FEED -- Food Education Every Day. This latest "cycle in my useful life," as she puts it, came about as her daughter, raised on organic food, entered seventh grade and faced the institutional lunch.

Under the auspices of the Burlington School Food Project, Acker has coordinated efforts to bring locally grown produce to the school cafeteria and, more to the point, encouraged the kids to create their own recipes for such items as pesto pizza and minestrone so they'll actually eat the fresher fare. In monthly student taste-tests, some recipes have been approved for the whole school.

But visual art is a component of the food-education program, too: Acker oversees classroom sessions in which the kids produce their own cornucopia -- beautiful illustrations of vegetables -- and learn, accordingly, about such exotic edibles as fennel and kale.

Acker loves to talk about food and flowers. She's a lot less inclined to tell you about the awards and accolades she's received for her work. This year alone, she's received a Vermont Alliance for Arts Education award for her contributions at Edmunds; a Campus/Community Partnership Award for linking UVM students with food and farming projects in the community; a Herb Blumenthal Award for Community Activism from the City of Burlington; and a Governor's Award for Outstanding Community Service for connecting Burlington students to food, gardening and farming.

This month, the Fletcher Free Library has found a way to honor Acker, too. A November exhibit will feature Acker's art and community works, alongside sculpture maquettes -- a.k.a. models -- by Burlington artist Kate Pond and photos of Pond's large-scale public art around the world. The library is also purchasing, and dedicating to Acker, the maquette of Pond's sculpture "Kiss II." The model will reside in the Reading Room. Acker has planted a flower garden around the 6-foot-tall version in front of the library.

"Bonnie is out there at 5 a.m. working on it," reports reference librarian Robert Resnik. "There's also a little section by the pay phone that she's beautified." Patrons comment on the flowers "constantly," he adds. "They say it's just one of the nicest things, so colorful; it cheers everybody up."

Indeed, cheering people up -- and on -- seems to be the foundation of Acker's life. And she's got her own cheerleaders in turn. Tari Swenson is one admirer who does not allow Acker's do-gooder reputation to overshadow her very good art. A painter herself and co-owner of Stowe's West Branch Gallery & Sculpture Park, Swenson was also the judge at this summer's annual Art in the Round Barn juried show in Waitsfield. She chose Acker as "Best of Show" for her pastel landscapes.

"Her work had an emotional quality and mysteriousness to it; I kept coming back to it," Swenson says. "You were supposed to give [the prize] to one piece of work, but I gave it to her because her whole body was so compelling. She has a bold, innate color sense."

Swenson has also added Acker's pastels to the West Branch Gallery's mostly abstract offerings. "I thought it would be good to get some diverse artists in the mix," she says. "I wouldn't go traditional, but I love Bonnie's nod to the landscape. They have a mood . . . and they're pretty, too."

The works are utterly different from Acker's graphic, cut-paper illustrations; her pastels have a soft, impressionistic beauty -- a look she achieves, the artist confides, by smudging them with a paper towel. That technique, borrowed from the great pastel artist Wolf Kahn, "freed me up and made it more fun," Acker says. She reveals, too, that the scenes are drawn from memory. Who has time to sit for hours contemplating a Vermont vista?

Acker seems pleased that her pastels will, finally, fetch a price closer to what they deserve -- over $1000 apiece -- at the West Branch. But she quickly deflects the attention, illustrating again what makes her unique: While Burlington benefits in myriad ways from her good works, she's the last person to draw attention to it.

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