Plea-bargaining is not the typical topic of conversation in an art gallery. But that's what a lawyer and his teenage client were discussing one recent afternoon as they sat beneath one of Annemie Curlin's newly installed paintings in the Rutland County Courthouse.
The suite of 19 riotously colored oils and prints are intended to lighten the venue's somber mood and soften its architectural austerity. Curlin composed the pieces over the course of two years after winning a $12,000 commission from Vermont's Art in State Buildings program. The panels hang in corridors and waiting areas on the second and third floors of the downtown marble-pillared courthouse, which opened in 2005.
Many of the works are based on black-and-white aerial photos of Rutland County shot as part of a state initiative to map all of Vermont from the air. In her proposal for the series, Curlin said her paintings would "allow viewers to see the calligraphy of roads and railroad lines, the mosaic of fields, the surprising attractiveness of industrial landscape in unaccustomed ways."
"I stayed faithful to the maps, but I went absolutely wild with colors," the Charlotte artist added in an interview. The gaudy palette used throughout the series could be associated with the Fauves of early 20th-century France, but Curlin situates the source of her color configurations in the Italian Renaissance. She identifies the mossy greens, deep reds and glowing yellows of that art era as her "perennial favorites," and describes them as "wake-up colors" well suited for the courthouse commission.
Curlin, a native of Austria, says she became fascinated with views of Earth from airplanes as she flew back and forth between Vermont and Europe. These "very arresting" perspectives inspired her to undertake a set of paintings of Charlotte sites as seen from the skies. But that grouping remains uncompleted, Curlin notes, "because I interrupted myself."
The Charlotte series nevertheless gave Curlin the confidence to take on the courthouse job. "I got better as I went along," she says of the process of painting parts of Rutland County with a bird's-eye view.
Contemporary or historical genre scenes are woven into the aerial-derived abstractions that are now on permanent display in the Merchants Row building. A high-altitude view of Lake Bomoseen, for example, is accompanied by a depiction of waders and beached canoes. A rendition of the gold-domed Rutland Railroad Roundhouse in 1850 is similarly superimposed on a scene of the city center as glimpsed from far above. Horse-drawn and electric-powered trolleys rumble by the site of a 1908 balloon ascent in another of Curlin's fanciful juxtapositions of today's urban grid with vanished tableaux from its past.
Not all the pieces feature colorful interpretations of Google Earth-type photos, though. Curlin takes a fully figurative approach in a pair of small panels depicting Rutland County slate workers in 19th-century dress. The collection also includes two "community maps" in which extensive printed notations accompany sketches of historical personages and landmarks in Mendon and Proctor. These 30-by-30-inch works, each executed in quasi-folk-art style, resulted from meetings Curlin held with many town residents.
"Rutland County: A Heavenly View" is actually as much an exercise in historical excavation as it is an artistic endeavor. Curlin clearly conducted extensive research as part of this project. The result is a unique combination of words and images well worth the trip to Rutland to experience.