On the night Tropical Storm Irene pummeled her home state, Charity Clark was relaxing on her couch in Brooklyn, relieved that the much-hyped hurricane had passed without incident in New York. She took a break from reading The Count of Monte Cristo to noodle around on Facebook. That's when she saw the video of floodwaters swallowing up the Lower Bartonsville covered bridge.
"When I saw that video, I practically had to breathe into a paper bag," says Clark, who grew up in Ludlow and Manchester. Then she saw a post from her cousin, who lives in Ludlow, saying she and her mother had to evacuate their home. Clark was horrified. "Immediately you think of not just the covered bridges, but all the people who are suffering," she says.
Clark, 36, isn't an artist; she's a lawyer. But when her childhood friend Shane Chick, a stay-at-home dad and printmaker in Maine, posted a call to artists on Facebook for a flood benefit, she knew she had to get involved. Within 48 hours of the tropical storm, Chick and another Ludlow buddy now living in Brooklyn, Heather Conrad, had hatched "Highwater heART," a four-day online auction to benefit the Vermont Food Bank.
So far, more than 20 works from artists around the country have been donated, plus several pieces by Vermonters, including painters Warren Kimble and Katharine Montstream, cartoonist Jeff Danziger and woodcut printmaker Mary Azarian. The auction opens on the one-month anniversary of the flood, Wednesday, September 28, and continues through Saturday, October 1, at myworld.ebay.com/highwaterheart2011/?_trksid=p4340.l2559.
The organizers created their own work, too. Bill Wadman, Conrad's partner, shot portraits of expat Vermonters and arranged them on a grid (pictured), an homage to Norman Rockwell's 1948 painting "The Gossip." The photo tells the story of how the word got out about Tropical Storm Irene, "from a wet exhausted lady, to a utility worker, to cop, to cub reporter, to the masses of horrified people outside Vermont who heard the stories and saw the cell phone videos and decided to do something to at last make sure the initial lady had food to eat," Wadman wrote on his photo blog.
It was Conrad's idea to riff on Norman Rockwell, simply because he was a Brooklynite who lived in (and loved) Vermont. But the Highwater HeART group has a deeper connection to the iconic American painter: Clark's grandmother grew up in the West Arlington house next door to Rockwell's. She and her family and neighbors appear repeatedly in his photographs and paintings. In Rockwell's well-known "Homecoming" painting, which depicts a soldier returning to a bustling back stoop, Clark's grandmother is the girl in the blue dress in the center.
Her great-uncle, James "Buddy" Edgerton, who appeared several times in Rockwell's Boy Scout calendars, wrote a book about his famous next-door neighbor called The Unknown Rockwell. In it, "you kind of get the picture that it wasn't just like Rockwell used his neighbors as models because they were there," Clark says. "He really was inspired by them."
Rockwell wasn't the last New Yorker to find inspiration in Vermonters, as the "Highwater heART" project shows. Another show of affection from the Big Apple? This Monday, September 26, a bunch of Broadway folks, including actor Christopher Lloyd, are throwing together a benefit concert for the Weston Playhouse, which sustained roughly $300,000 worth of damage as a result of Irene. "New York City Loves Vermont — Broadway Floods the Weston Playhouse With Love" plays for one night only at New World Stages in Manhattan.
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit telecharge.com. Or make a donation to the theater directly here.