After the Flood, Vermont Studio Center Goes Back to the Drawing Board | Visual Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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After the Flood, Vermont Studio Center Goes Back to the Drawing Board

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Published August 16, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


Hope Sullivan near the Vermont Studio Center's Red Mill Building - KEVIN GODDARD
  • Kevin Goddard
  • Hope Sullivan near the Vermont Studio Center's Red Mill Building

For the past 39 years, Vermont Studio Center has been a sanctuary for creatives. Visual artists and writers from around the world have flocked to the Johnson campus for monthlong residencies that foster both intense, solitary work and the supportive conviviality of peers.

For artists ensconced in VSC's private studios, the flow of the nearby Gihon River normally provides a soothing soundtrack. But on July 10, amid torrential rains, the Gihon abandoned its composure and surged over VSC property and throughout downtown Johnson.

The water rose 20 feet beneath the Pearl Street bridge and poured into the 80-year-old Red Mill, the heart of VSC's campus. The former gristmill's lower level, which extends over the swirling river, housed the resident lounge and other common areas. Those were destroyed. The flood also soaked about a third of the more than 1,200 prints in the center's art library, which held archives of work donated by alumni.

Trevor Corp, a Wolcott artist and VSC's buildings and grounds manager, maintained a studio in the Wolf Kahn Barn for nine years. Floodwaters submerged four feet of the building's ground floor, ruining his supplies and about 45 paintings, Corp said. Three resident artists' spaces were also decimated.

When he entered his studio after the water receded, "things were upside down and inside out and in every direction," Corp said.

VSC leaders had been deep into designing a new master plan for the campus, including the renovation of several old buildings, when the flood upended their priorities. They shifted to immediate damage mitigation, such as restoring heating systems and other utilities in saturated basements. Next, they'll need to rethink where artists should live, work and gather and how to ensure those places can withstand the threats of future disasters.

"We don't want to just rebuild and then be flooded again in 10 years," said Hope Sullivan, who became the studio center's executive director two months before the flooding.

The ongoing renovation plans are intended to set up the center for the long term, particularly as it increases its number of residents. Some of the remaining studios, for example, needed updating to address leaks and accessibility, Sullivan said. "We have absolutely zero buffer for the current size of residency, let alone when we expand," she said.

During a meeting in the Red Mill last week, architects and engineers who've worked with the center for years discussed new flood-zone models and sites that could be raised above potential water levels.

Harlan Mack, sculpture program manager, pointing to the high-water line on the bottom floor of the Red Mill Building - KEVIN GODDARD
  • Kevin Goddard
  • Harlan Mack, sculpture program manager, pointing to the high-water line on the bottom floor of the Red Mill Building

The VSC campus has flooded in the past but usually upstream along the Gihon River, staff said, doing minimal damage in basements. Looking back 50 years, they couldn't remember another flood that submerged the Wolf Kahn Barn, which sits about 200 feet from the river.

The July 10 deluge stemmed from the Lamoille River, which runs southwest of Johnson and intersects there with the Gihon, turning the peaceful spur into a soaking pipeline.

"The water was up to the windows," Corp said. "It rose so much quicker than anyone expected."

Since the flood, state historic preservation officials have given VSC permission to demolish the Wolf Kahn Barn, which was built in 1950 and once served as the town garage. That will require relocating its eight studios, four on the lower level that flooded and four upstairs.

The art library will move, too. Vermont Arts Council restoration experts rushed in to help salvage as many works on paper as possible, showing VSC staff how to dry, clean and re-flatten the prints in layers.

"We've got a long path ahead to restore those prints," Sullivan observed. "But at least we got them dried."

The most pressing challenge for the center's leadership is figuring out where to relocate crucial common areas, including a business center with high-end digital printers, rooms for private Zoom meetings and a yoga space.

"This is the heart of the residencies, the place where people came together," Sullivan said, standing in the Red Mill's gutted lower level.

For now, the resident lounge occupies a makeshift location — not ideal, Sullivan said — in the corner of the upstairs dining hall. It holds two sofas, side chairs and a coffee table donated by Stowe Living. Kate Carpenter, owner of the home goods and interior design store, delivered the furniture personally after her staff helped with flood cleanup.

"The communal space there is so central and so critical to the experience," said Janie Cohen, a Burlington textile artist who has attended VSC residencies. "The interactions are so important."

VSC was founded in 1984 by artists Jon Gregg; his partner, Louise von Weise; and Fred Osborne. As the program grew to accept more residents, so did its campus, which now encompasses 20 buildings.

Today, numerous sources cite the center as the largest artist residency program in the country. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, VSC welcomed as many as 55 artists at a time, selected through a jury process, for monthlong stays. More than 600 creators arrived in Johnson each year, including state residents who came for the annual Vermont Week.

Cohen, the retired longtime director of the Fleming Museum of Art at the University of Vermont, attended Vermont Week twice to work on her art and twice for writing. The time the center offers "out of your normal routine" is invaluable to artists, she said.

"It's being taken care of, having three meals a day that are so good and so healthy and so fantastic," Cohen said. "And then it's being among artists. However many hats you wear in your regular life, you are an artist when you are there."

Damaged artwork - KEVIN GODDARD
  • Kevin Goddard
  • Damaged artwork

In the past, two artists shared each room and bathroom in the center's living quarters. When COVID-19 hit, the center closed its campus for almost two years and adapted most of the lodgings to single occupancy. It added new ventilation systems and brought older buildings into modern code compliance. Artist talks via Zoom and other virtual events filled the time until the campus reopened in February 2022.

Residencies have dropped to about 30 artists at any one time, though VSC continues to create more space. When it returns to full capacity, the campus will host 42 people at a time, Sullivan said.

Through the center's partnership with nearby Vermont State University-Johnson, master of fine arts students can pursue their degrees through residencies. That relationship has stagnated in recent years, Sullivan said, and she hopes to restore the cohort to 10 students a year.

"Being part of the regional landscape for arts and writing is an important part of the mission," she said.

Sullivan is the third executive director since Gregg stepped away from leadership in 2015. She relocated from Massachusetts to Stowe to become the executive director of Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center in 2017, but even then, she had her eye on VSC, she said. When the director's job opened up earlier this year, she jumped.

Despite its global reputation, VSC doesn't seek out publicity — and that's by design, Sullivan said.

"For years it was a protective mechanism, to really protect the experience of the residents," she said. Artists typically live under the pressure of delivering work and putting it and themselves on display, Sullivan explained. "This organization is all about nurturing artists and writers, nurturing a creative spirit, the translation of spirit into form, whatever form they want."

Sullivan sees her current role as elevating the public face of VSC as she solicits funding for post-flood rebuilding costs and the remaining 25 percent of a $2.55 million long-term campus project. More than 450 people have donated since the flood, covering half of the estimated $500,000 restoration price tag. State disaster-relief funds will cover no more than three buildings, Sullivan said.

The flood has had a silver lining, she said, in that it has opened up new reasons for her to connect with VSC alumni and new ways of "communicating who we are and what we need without jeopardizing the experience."

In the studios that flooded, some of the artists' work floated on old doors, which they had set across sawhorses to use as tables. That work suffered minimal damage, said Corp, who helped to retrieve the materials. VSC paid $50,000 to cover residents' ruined supplies, but the value of the destroyed artwork is difficult to determine, Sullivan said.

As Corp put it, "Any artist puts their heart and soul into what they make."

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Art of Recovery | After the flood, Vermont Studio Center goes back to the drawing board"

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