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Back Talk


“Vision” is a verb for Gary Chassman. “If you can vision it, you can do it,” says the Burlington book producer who imagined, organized and oversaw the creation of a traveling art exhibit inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. Chassman was on the scene when the Smithsonian-sponsored “In the Spirit of Martin” opened two weeks ago in Detroit. On Martin Luther King Day, the black leader’s widow presented the exhibit catalogue to Laura Bush. Chassman used to sell books on Church Street. Then he started masterminding them, hiring top-notch writers, artists and designers to carry out publishing projects he sold to major houses. “In the Spirit of Martin” started in 1998 as a personal investigation. Considering King as “the only true hero in 20th-century America,” Chassman set out to see if he could find artistic evidence of his influence — tangible results of his legacy. “I identified over 2000 responses to his life,” he explains, from a ballet to a congressman who gave King credit for her career choice. But it was the visual art tributes that struck him most, works by African-American artists such as Elizabeth Catlett, Glenn Ligon, Romare Bearden, Charles White and Faith Ringgold as well as white artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Norman Rockwell. Chassman’s book project quickly transformed into a full-scale museum exhibition. He took the idea to the Smithsonian, and miraculously, they bought in. PepsiCo put up the cash. Chassman assembled a “dream” team of curators and scholars who selected artists and writers for the project, which will travel over the next three years to Minneapolis, Brooklyn, Memphis and Montgomery, Alabama. The exhibition catalogue is, naturally, a work of art — with powerful words from poet Nikki Giovanni, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gwendolyn Brooks, Congressman John Lewis and music critic Stanley Crouch. It’s on sale at local bookstores . . .

o, brothers: True West is a play about double nature. By juxtaposing two estranged and envious brothers — one a hapless drifter, the other a successful screenwriter — Sam Shepard said he “wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided.” Actors Kim Bent and Jock MacDonald will experience that phenomenon first-hand in the Lost Nation production that opens Thursday at Montpelier City Hall Arts Center. Every other performance, they switch roles — a schizo scheme inspired by the Broadway revival, which originated the idea. Although it’s meant twice as much rehearsal time, “it’s interesting to see how the play also invites different possibilities depending on who’s playing the role,” says Bent. The real trick, of course, will be selling twice as many tickets . . .

sneaker preview: The Nike swoosh is a powerful cultural icon that is “probably more recognizable than the cross at this point,” says Pascal Spengemann. That’s why the curator of the Firehouse Gallery spends his free time deconstructing — and reconstructing — athletic shoes with the help of Burlington cobbler Matt Renna. By switching around logos and other distinguishing characteristics, he is using “confusion as a way to understanding,” as Spengemann puts it. “If you take that swoosh that you are accustomed to seeing, and put it on a pair of Chuck Taylors, it sends all kinds of mixed signals,” he says. The sneaky sneaker project is not a critique of capitalism, consumerism or brand fixation. “I love sneakers, that’s why I do it. I see them as art objects,” Spengemann says. The idea could go the distance. Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio wore a pair on stage in Albany. New York model Eugene Hutz, formerly Nikolaev and an erstwhile Burlingtonian, is sporting them, too. Now a high-end sneaker “boutique” in New York is interested in getting in on the action. Alife Rivington Club, which Spengemann describes as “Brooks Brothers for sneakers,” wants to commission a couple of pairs. Trouble is, Spengemann wants the “confusion” to continue through the sales transaction. “Like, the price tag is 500 dollars, but your credit card gets charged 50,” he explains. “Or maybe if the shoe fits, it’s yours…” A “Cinderella” story, indeed.

midd-career change: Typically, college alumni magazines are more about “messages from the president” than good writing and bold graphics. But since Rachel Morton took over as editor of the Middlebury mag, it’s been one lively feature after another — readers even got riled up about the “class notes” because a couple of gay alums referred to themselves as “lovers.” White House Press Secretary and former Midd kid Ari Fleischer is on the cover of the current issue, which is Morton’s last. At the end of the month, she takes over as features editor at The Burlington Free Press — her first newspaper job. Hey, it can’t be worse than speaking for George Bush. Barring any unforeseen national disasters, Morton says Fleischer plans to attend his 2oth reunion this spring at Middlebury.