Oenophiles and gourmands understand the concept of terroir: that the natural environment in which plants are grown — including soil and climate — affect the flavor of wine and food. Similarly, the importance of “location, location, location” is a bedrock truth in real estate. Vermonters know there is something unique about their state. All of these judgments point to the significance of place. And so it is with the creation of art.
That’s the foundational idea behind “Of Land & Local,” an ambitious, seven-venue exhibit organized by the BCA Center. The Burlington gallery’s segment opened last Friday; another launches this Thursday, October 3, at the Shelburne Farms Coach Barn. Two exhibits in Newport had shorter runs. And the other three — in West Rutland, Fair Haven and Brattleboro — opened earlier and will close on varying dates weeks from now. Some 60 artists are involved.
When he moved here from Cleveland last year and observed the state’s ardent locavorism, BCA’s curator DJ Hellerman says he “wrestled for about two months on how to do a show about food.” But he didn’t find food-related artwork “compelling enough to do a statewide exhibit.” And then, he says, “I saw a farmer explaining [the price of] a tomato to someone at the farmers market, and I thought, There are similarities between farmers and artists.”
The obvious parallels, Hellerman realized, are that both groups are creators who typically don’t have enough money and constantly have to innovate, and that consumers often don’t want to pay what their products are worth. “In addition,” he says, “farmers visually shape the land.”
So he started thinking about issues of land use and the working landscape of Vermont, and artists, and the exhibit began to take shape. But don’t get the idea it’s about traditional landscape images. Some realist paintings are included in “Of Land & Local,” Hellerman concedes, but there are also abstract and conceptual pieces, contemporary sculptures, video pieces and other mediums — plenty of works that do not scream “land” or even “Vermont” but rather embed these ideas in subtler ways. “Most push the content a little,” the curator explains.
Just as land issues are vital statewide, it’s significant that this exhibit is not confined to BCA’s Church Street gallery. “This isn’t about BCA coming in [to other venues] and saying it has to be a certain way. Each venue is going to be different,” Hellerman says. “I used the concept of terroir for each one.”
But while each site features artists from its part of the state, Hellerman says he also “exported” some artists — those with enough work available to spread around — to multiple sites. And though the vast majority of artists are Vermonters, he invited some others from out of state, as well — because, he suggests, “one of the ways we learn about ourselves is from who we aren’t.”
How did he choose the dozens of artists taking part? “I went on a rampage,” Hellerman says with a smile during a recent BCA Center tour. Many studio visits and curatorial collaborations later, he had seven venues filled with art and a lot of new relationships to draw upon in the future — not to mention a partnership with the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing. (Full disclosure: Seven Days is the media sponsor of the exhibit.) Indeed, Hellerman is already thinking ahead. “I’d like to make this a semi-annual, or even annual, exhibit,” he says. “The name may change, but land and landscape issues aren’t going away.”
Meanwhile, viewers can contemplate such works as Jean Luc Dushime’s color photographs of New American farmers; Duncan Johnson’s abstract panels using discarded wood; Meara McGinnis’ small houses made of cloth; Francis R. Hewitt’s minimalist dirt paintings; Christopher Curtis’ elegant bronze sculptures; Pamela Fraser’s mixed-media pieces combining geometric shapes with found vintage photographs; and, on the BCA website, Iona Fox’s evolving cartoons. And there is so much more.
As the brochure for “Of Land & Local” relates, the show “begins with the known connections between culture and place. The projects will explore the notion that culture helps define place, but also that place plays a significant role in establishing culture.”
Other than stating this conceptual underpinning, though, BCA and Hellerman have not created materials or programming to facilitate community discussions about place and land, or our place on this land. In a state that loves to navel-gaze, this is surprising and rather refreshing. We’re entrusted to look, and think, for ourselves.
On the other hand, perhaps there is a lost opportunity here to more fully engage viewers in just how the participating artists think about these concepts and explore them in their work. And one could ask how the artists view — and make — their own “place” in that elliptical thing we call culture.
In a future issue, Seven Days will review the Burlington-area exhibits and pursue these notions further.
“Of Land & Local,” a multi-venue, statewide exhibition: at BCA Center in Burlington through December 7; at Shelburne Farms Coach Barn, October 3-20; at Carving Studio & Sculpture Center in West Rutland through October 27; at Fair Haven Welcome Center through November 8; at Gallery 2: Vermont Artisan Designs Gallery in Brattleboro through October 31; at MAC Center for the Arts in Newport through October 3. Burlingtoncityarts.org/oflandandlocal
The original print version of this article was headlined "This Land"