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A 1988 Law Brings Art to State Buildings


Published March 19, 2014 at 4:00 a.m.

You may not have heard of the Vermont Art in State Buildings Act of 1988 — but you've probably seen it in action. With it, lawmakers guaranteed that up to $50,000 of taxpayers' money would be devoted annually to the creation of art for the public spaces of new state buildings. Today, instead of encountering bare hallways and purely functional lobbies, Vermonters entering many office buildings, courthouses, state college libraries and public safety facilities walk past site-specific paintings, sculptures and decorative art.

Or walk on them. At the Vermont Arts Council in Montpelier, employees and visitors tread across Kathleen O'Connor's 1993 marble and granite floor installation in the shape of an abstract flower. The VAC administers the program, selecting buildings and artists in partnership with the Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services.

The idea wasn't new at the time of the program's inception. Iowa, for example, had passed its Art in State Buildings law nearly 10 years earlier. There, legislators had the foresight to tie expenditures to building costs: One half of 1 percent of new construction funds is set aside for public art. Vermont's dollar allotment, meanwhile, has remained the same over the past quarter-century. If adjusted for inflation, it would now be closer to $95,000.

But granite sculptors Chris Miller of Calais, Heather Ritchie of Plainfield, Ryan Mays and Gampo Wickenheiser of Montpelier, and Giuliano Cecchinelli II of Barre aren't complaining. These artists were chosen to enhance the new Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital under construction in Berlin — one of three Art in State Buildings projects currently in progress. (The others are the Vermont Agency of Human Services in Waterbury and the Bennington Courthouse and State Office Building.)

Last week, the sculptors' designs were approved by a legislative advisory committee — the final step before fabrication and installation. The sculptures will be in place by May 1, before the 25-bed facility starts accepting patients in June.

Miller, who leads the team of sculptors, notes that granite art seems fitting for the site, given that the new building is "three miles from Rock of Ages." Using Barre gray from that quarry, as well as granite blocks uncovered on-site during construction, the sculptors will fashion animal-themed works designed to welcome touch as well as use.

All of the pieces look adorable, if the clay models are any indication. For the entry, Miller will create a "habitat tree" — essentially a maple tree trunk rendered in granite and populated by a rabbit, squirrel and bird. The lobby will feature one bench with a female Border collie curled around her pup at one end and another with a sleeping bulldog puppy, both by Mays.

Ritchie is fashioning a beaver dam for the interior courtyard, with a single beaver peeking over the bench carved into one side. That space will also include Wickenheiser's water feature with two pettable otters. Cecchinelli is making a chessboard bench for the activity yard that will sit on two knights' — i.e., horses' — heads.

Not every new state building gets art under the program. Department of Buildings and General Services Commissioner Michael Obuchowski usually selects one or two buildings a year to recommend to the legislative advisory committee, according to Michele Bailey, the VAC's program director. The decision is based on factors such as geographical distribution and degree of public access.

Bailey began working at the arts council as a receptionist the year the act was passed and has overseen Art in State Buildings since 1995. She notes that, since its inception, the program has funded roughly 50 artists' work in 30 buildings across Vermont.

The new psychiatric hospital is less accessible than most of the chosen sites. Only the habitat tree will be visible to the general public; permission is required to enter the lobby. Nonetheless, Bailey points out, "Helping the patients have access to art benefits us all."

The hospital is the first structure belonging to the Department of Mental Health to be selected for the program, according to the department's senior policy adviser, Judy Rosenstreich. As a Level 1 facility, she says, the hospital will house "acutely psychiatrically ill patients."

Hence the new building required a slightly different approach from previous projects. The VAC's call to artists generally includes a request to "be welcoming." For the hospital, it also requested proposals that would "strive to bring the natural world inside" and "reflect therapeutic and healing relationships."

Bailey explains that the call to bring nature inside reflected the architectural plans for the new hospital, which will have a secure exterior perimeter and two interior courtyards with access to shade trees and raised gardening beds. The perimeter eliminates the need for a wall or other enclosure, allowing the entry sculpture to be visible from the road.

"They designed [the hospital] with ample space for people to move around," Rosenstreich says. By contrast, the old Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury, flooded during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, "was very confined. That leads to stress," she notes.

The "therapeutic and healing" request originated with the local art-selection committee, which in this case included patient advocates and what Rosenstreich calls "peers" — people with the lived experience of mental illness.

The committee also featured the usual suspects: architect Anthony Garner of the New York-based firm architecture+; BGS project manager Mike Kuhn; and Rachel Moore, assistant curator at the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe. Kathy Bushey, who will be the hospital's associate director of nursing, represented its employees.

Granite carver Mays, 35, says he was "fairly surprised" when the committee selected the sculptors' animal-themed proposal. He has observed a recent preference for minimalism and abstraction in public art. Mays, who works in the memorial industry and carves "a lot of animal subjects when I'm not doing angels," characterizes his own realistic dogs as a "throwback."

The art-selection committee, however, liked the animal theme, which was meant to evoke therapy and companion animals. And, recalls Mays, "They told us from the beginning that representational work seemed to be more effective with that population."

Bushey, who has worked as a psychiatric nurse for most of her 30-year career, hesitates to back such a "blanket statement." But she does recall that a large part of the committee discussion focused on the suggestion that the art be "patient-accessible in a way that they could touch them."

The sculptors learned of other considerations, too, in the course of many meetings between the artistic team and the art-selection wcommittee. "Patient safety was a huge priority," recalls Miller, "so we designed the animals with all softened edges and no limbs or ears sticking out in a way that would cause any injuries." The sculptors also accommodated the committee's concerns about "animals that stood up tall and might invite people to try to knock them down." The carved animals are all in prone or curled positions.

Miller, 55, has created pieces for public parks and recently completed a crouching catamount sculpture for the University of Vermont, tail adhering firmly to a back leg. He already "design[s] for durability," he says. "You anticipate people climbing on things to get their picture taken."

The committee, however, "mentioned a lot of things that patients might do, which were all foreign to me," Miller adds. One was that patients might attempt self-injury by jumping off a sculpture. For this reason, the water feature was redesigned to be less than three feet tall.

The meetings produced "a lot of constructive back and forth," as Miller puts it. Ritchie, 38, one of only two women carvers currently working in Barre's memorial industry, first proposed the beaver dam when the committee needed a "large-ish design for the entry area."

The idea was "a departure from my other stonework," says the artist, who makes sculptures and paintings with "fantasy and grotesque" elements for her own business, Bonnie Wee Art. (The name is a reference to Ritchie's Scottish heritage; her great-grandfather immigrated to Barre to carve granite.) The committee liked the dam but decided to move it to the courtyard, and asked Ritchie to incorporate a bench.

"Sometimes you get a project where the client will say, 'We love your work; here's the budget, do what you want,'" comments Miller. "This was a really collaborative project. We would do sketches, they'd give feedback. We'd do models, they'd give more feedback. It was a really incremental thing."

The result is something all parties hope will bring comfort to the patients. "I hope the sculptures have a healing and calming effect on [the patients] that helps promote their recovery and return to their usual lives," Bushey says.

Hospital art won't be a novelty to Vermont's mental-health patients. Though the building will feel entirely different from the old hospital — not least because it meets current national standards by providing each patient with a private room and bath — it isn't in this respect. The former Vermont State Hospital had art as far back as Rosenstreich can recall.

"I have several decades of experience at that hospital; I was taken through there back when it had over a thousand patients," Rosenstreich says. "There's always been art there, and they've always had art-therapy activities for the patients." She adds that she once bought a patient's painting for her home.

The sculptures created by Miller and his team are likely to surprise and please users of the new hospital such as Bushey, who was previously unaware of the Art in State Buildings program. The nurse says she notices and enjoys the inlaid marble floor at the new Addison County Courthouse in Middlebury (by Lawrence Lazarus and Allen Pratt) every time she enters. "It's lovely," she says, "but I had no idea of the process behind it. So that's been just fabulous to learn about.

"And isn't it amazing to see talent like that," Bushey says, "bring something like that to life that so many people can enjoy?"

The original print version of this article was headlined "Beyond the Gallery"