Artistically speaking, you might call Janet Van Fleet a late bloomer. The Cabot painter and sculptor began her first major, public work only about 10 years ago, when she was 49. But she paid her dues real fast with a project from hell. Literally. "A Guided Tour of Dante's Inferno," a 9-by-14-foot mixed-media installation, presents the Nine Circles of Hell on descending surfaces, and includes numerous horrid-looking figures with whom you would not want to spend eternity -- even if they are just clay, fiber and papier-mâche. It was an ambitious project that nearly exhausted its creator. "That was a humongous amount of work and I was completely doofy," Van Fleet admits. "I had no idea what I was getting into."
Supported by a grant from the Vermont Arts Council, the self-contained piece traveled to several venues around the state, including Burlington's Rose Street Artists' Co-op. "Inferno" was many Vermonters' introduction to Van Fleet, but it would not be the last time she made them stop, look and think. Indeed, that may be her primary motive for making art.
In the years since her brush with the underworld, Van Fleet has been in artistic hyperdrive; her website lists 30 solo shows, 16 juried and 25 group exhibitions. Her work is in collections as far-flung as Australia and Japan. And the site is not up to date: It doesn't include, for example, two overlapping solo shows this month at the Flynndog and T.W. Wood galleries.
Van Fleet's "Circular Statements" exhibit at Burlington's Flynndog comprises three large, wall-hung installations and half a dozen smaller, framed works, and enlists cut-metal pieces, buttons, paint and wire grids to explore the metaphorical circle. "The two branches of my work -- painting and the three-dimensional -- sort of came together for this show," she says. And the humble button represents the human scale in the cosmos, Van Fleet suggests. "We're at the center between the macroscopic and the microscopic, or at least we think we are," she says. The buttons also represent connections -- "They connect one thing with another."
Flynndog curator Bren Alvarez, who had included Van Fleet in previous group shows, didn't hesitate to hand her the entire venue for this one -- though that's often "a leap of faith," she says, in this long, high-ceilinged room. "I knew she could fill the gallery not only with artwork but also people," Alvarez says. "Her work is tremendous, and it transforms the space in a way that's always unpredictable. Everyone has loved it."
Van Fleet will have a more modest space to fill for "Museum Cases" -- the South Gallery at the Wood in Montpelier -- but the work is more contained. Sort of. In the show, which opens June 1, figurative sculptures made from found wood are displayed in eight "implied" cases. Narrow steel rods rise from the four corners of the pedestals and delineate the edges of a box -- as in a line drawing. But there's no glass.
"People say, 'What is this shit? She just picks it off the ground and doesn't even carve it or paint it or anything,'" Van Fleet says of the beach wood and other detritus with which she assembles surprisingly compelling figures. "Nature is such a fabulous sculptor," she says admiringly. "I wanted to do something to kind of 'privilege' this work. I want people to spend more time with them, to really look at them. How do you beguile people to do that?"
Van Fleet's answer was to house these little anthropomorphic sculptures in her version of museum cases, but without distancing the viewer too much. The resulting tableaux have implied narratives as well; in one, four "people" sit in a tree. Beneath it are small piles of bones -- "from take-out," she reveals. She has numbered rather than titled these works, opting to let people imagine their own stories about them.
"The way I feel about making art," Van Fleet says, "I feel like I'm a tool; I just make it. I'm not one of those people who needs to express herself -- the last thing I want to express is myself," she says wryly. "I put these together and then I'm in the same position you are, wondering, 'What is this about?'"
Van Fleet was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her mother was a poet and lab technician; her father, an artist and adobe-house builder. Though art was always a part of her life, she abandoned the Art Institute of Chicago after one semester and instead earned a degree in psychology from the University of Michigan. For four years she lived in Europe -- primarily Denmark -- "doing the hippie thing" with her husband, writer R.D. Eno. When they returned to the U.S., the couple wanted to live in New England, and that's when they made their way to Cabot.
Van Fleet first found work as a graphic designer. After she had two children, she says, "I became fascinated by kids and their development," and returned to school -- Goddard College -- for a teaching certificate. She taught first through third grades in Montpelier for the next decade. In 1996, the same year that Van Fleet won her grant to create "Inferno," her father-in-law passed away. "He left us some money that enabled me to do art," she explains candidly. "It was an opportunity to build my professional career."
Van Fleet is feisty, funny, plainspoken and progressive. So it's no surprise that her artwork can be openly political. Her "River of Blood" paintings and "Bombing of Kosovo" installations decry violence and war; her small "Ethnic Encampments" figures make a large, collective statement about human displacement. Her womanly "Red Dress" series of large-scale paintings inspires introspection. Some of her work, though, is just plain cute: In recent years Van Fleet has created delightful "button people," cut metal fish with distinctive personalities and button gills, doll-sized "clothing" fashioned from buttons and wire, and nonfunctional teapots made of found wood. "I do these crafty things to make money," she says. "Vermont is a great place to make art and to show art, but it is not a great place to sell art."
Van Fleet's mark may be most evident in Barre; she is a co-founder of Studio Place Arts, the member-based gallery and arts-education facility, which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary. She also occasionally exhibits there, and curates one show annually. One perk of her founder status: first dibs on a third-floor studio. That room, like most artists' spaces, is pleasantly cluttered with finished and in-progress works and the tools of her trade -- in Van Fleet's case, this includes boxes filled with unidentifiable found items. "I've always loved garbage," she announces, then adds faux-sternly, "but I've taken a pledge recently to only pick up items that I know I'll use."
On her website Van Fleet shows a group of paintings she calls "people trying to figure things out." In one of them, titled "Retrospect," three lines of cursive text on red stripes separate two rows of three faces each. The faces, which appear to be enclosed in nests, all have different miens -- puzzled, troubled, vexed, blank. The text: "When you look back you have to wonder who that person was." It seems suspiciously autobiographical. Or maybe Van Fleet is just expressing all of us.