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Stealing Beauty

State of the Arts


Published January 28, 2004 at 5:00 p.m.

When Elma Skopljak was a teenager in war-torn Bosnia, she kept her spirits up by teaching herself to draw. "I just felt I had to create something," she says. A friend gave her a book of paintings, on the cover of which was an image that became her favorite: Orphan Girl at the Cemetery by the 19th-century French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix. It's an arresting portrait of a beautiful young woman, eyes widened in either defiance or shock, with headstones faintly visible in the background. Skopljak saw in the painting a connection to her own experience of losing friends to a terrible war.

After Croatians took over Skopljak's town, she fled in 1999 with her Muslim family to join a relative in Burlington. She entered the Community College of Vermont and began taking art before she'd even learned English. In one class, the assignment was to copy a painting of one's choice; it was obvious which one she'd select.

And when Skopljak, now 25, was given the chance to have a solo show of her work at CCV before transferring to the University of Vermont, there was no question which painting would be given pride of place. Her stunningly accurate recreation of Delacroix's Orphan Girl showed just how deeply she'd connected with the artist and his subject. People unfamiliar with the original assumed it was Skopljak's self-portrait.

The show went up in the hallway gallery of CCV's Pearl Street building in December. Then, earlier this month, Elma got a call from the college. Sometime in the first few days of the semester, the painting had been stolen. Skopljak was devastated.

The police are investigating. Posters have been placed all over CCV. So far, no clues have surfaced. CCV is offering a reward, no questions asked, for return of the painting or for information leading to its return (865-4422). Meanwhile, Skopljak will continue to wonder, "Who would do something like that, or why?"


Lights out… When Middlebury College opened its $11 million-plus Center for the Arts in 1992, the skylit upper galleries of the Museum of Art were among the new building's more highly touted features. No more. The college has announced that the museum, which was designed by the esteemed Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer architectural firm, will close from May 3 to September 6 for renovations -- including the removal of those skylights. "We had been led to believe they would work," says museum director Richard Saunders, despite the fact that skylights often cause problems in museums located in cold climates.

But the retractable shades in the original plan were scrapped for budgetary reasons, and the mix of high humidity inside and cold temperatures outside led to condensation. In other words, a skylight that dripped -- not a comforting thing in a gallery full of priceless art objects. Engineers are currently determining how much the renovations will cost. Having to close the museum for even a short time is "not something you're really thrilled about," allows Saunders, but he's looking forward to fall shows on Rodin and vintage Vermont photography. Current exhibitions of photorealism and narrative art continue through April.


play day... The heat will be warmer at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, the lights will be brighter in Montpelier City Hall, and curtains will open on a new performance venue at Barre's Socialist Labor Hall. Totaling more than $54,000, cultural facilities grants from the Vermont Arts Council will be awarded to 16 nonprofit groups next Monday at the Sudbury Meeting House. The awards range in size from $750, for the installation of environmental controls at the American Morgan Horse Museum in Shelburne, to $4000, for an upgrade to the lighting system at Montpelier's Lost Nation Theater.

A rehab footnote: The Northeast Kingdom Arts Council, which received $4000 for handicap-accessible restrooms at the Hardwick Town House, is staging another kind of reclamation project this Wednesday through Friday: NeKArts and the Hazen Union Drama Club will stage a 1917 play at the Town House called Battle of Wits. It's a comedy by Charles W. Henry, whose hand-painted theater curtains beautified a number of the state's cultural facilities. On Saturday the play will move to the Vergennes Opera House, where it was originally produced.

It's not the White House, but… At least one Vermonter is guaranteed presidential status this year. Burlington author Gerard Colby recently won the top spot in the National Writers Union, an affiliate of the United Auto Workers. Also president of the Champlain Labor Council, Colby is interested in issues of copyright infringement and the Internet, and says he wants to protect writers against "poor contracts and lackluster promotion." Colby describes his victory as a "dramatic upset." He's something of an expert on the subject. Colby is the author of two books on the DuPont dynasty and a co-author with his wife, Charlotte Dennett, of Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil. He'll commute to New York City for his new job.