The Appeal of 'Call and Response' at the Fleming Museum Is Human Stories | Visual Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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The Appeal of 'Call and Response' at the Fleming Museum Is Human Stories


Published November 9, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 9, 2022 at 10:17 a.m.

"Invest in the Environment" by Annie Caswell - COURTESY
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  • "Invest in the Environment" by Annie Caswell

Many visitors to the University of Vermont's Fleming Museum of Art this fall are headed to "Rockwell Kent: Prints From the Ralf C. Nemec Collection" — and for good reason: The black-and-white works are gorgeous and historically pertinent. But, according to museum assistant director Chris Dissinger, most of those visitors find themselves equally drawn to the smaller Wolcott Gallery for "Call and Response: Personal Reflections on the Fleming Collection." In fact, the exhibition has been an unexpected hit in both the academic and broader Burlington communities.

The neutral title doesn't give away the show's secret power: human stories. Lots of them, both overt and implied. And that's apropos in this room, which the museum dubbed Storytelling Salon last year as part of its "The Fleming Reimagined" overhaul. The artwork on display is by 15 members of the Howard Center Arts Collective who, earlier this year, were each invited to select a work from the permanent collection's online database and then create a piece of their own in reaction. The results are accomplished and thoroughly engaging, and the artists' diverse explanations of their choices hint at life circumstances. A photograph of the Fleming work, along with an artist statement, hangs next to each "response" piece.

"The Journey to Peace" by Rafad Amjed - COURTESY
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  • "The Journey to Peace" by Rafad Amjed

In a video accompanying the exhibition, viewable on the Fleming's website, Arts Collective coordinator Kara Greenblott explains that members are adults who have experienced mental health and/or substance-use challenges. The collective's goals, she notes, are to provide community and create opportunities to both make and exhibit their work. "Call and Response" is the group's first collaboration with the Fleming. For the museum, the show puts into practice its commitment to inclusion.

Jacob Weber's mixed-media creation is on point: Using pencil, ink pen, wax crayon and paint, "Shattered Fragility: A Portrait of Henry F. Perkins (1877-1956)" takes on the early director of the museum, who was a eugenicist. Inspired by Arshile Gorky's disjointed "Head of Margules/Abstract," Weber drew a portrait of Perkins and then cut it into puzzle-like pieces. These are scattered about the picture plane, along with geometric shards of color and drawings that allude to Perkins' misbegotten doctrine. Cleverly, Weber layered a blueprint of the museum in the background, as well as a mirror. When you look at the piece, you see yourself, too, he notes in the video.

"Shattered Fragility: A Portrait of Henry F. Perkins (1877-1956)" by Jacob Weber - COURTESY
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  • "Shattered Fragility: A Portrait of Henry F. Perkins (1877-1956)" by Jacob Weber

Related hot-button topics appear throughout this exhibit. Among them: racism, immigration and the climate crisis. Annie Caswell, who describes herself as an activist, chose a 1917 Navy recruitment poster as her inspiration. But her painting, "Invest in the Environment," turns the image on its ear: Rather than uniformed men, she depicts 10 female activists from around the world, including Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai and Vandana Shiva. "I believe a part of my work on this planet is to educate and advocate," Caswell writes. "This piece is my 'Artivism.'"

"Saint Man of Peace" by Amjed Juma - COURTESY
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  • "Saint Man of Peace" by Amjed Juma

Iraqi artist Amjed Jumaa painted "Saint Man of Peace" after the 17th-century etching "Saint Simon" by French artist Jacques Callot. Jumaa's oil features a white-haired man in a blue robe holding a large open book; a pair of doves accompanies him. The background is a grim scene of destruction, presumably akin to one he fled before arriving in Vermont. "You cannot separate peace from freedom," Jumaa declares in his artist statement, "for no one can have peace unless he is free."

Jumaa's daughter, Rafad Amjed, has a similarly themed acrylic painting in the exhibition: "The Journey to Peace." In it, a group of figures, bags in hand, is silhouetted against a dusky sky and mirrored in a parallel river. The canopies of two trees loom overhead. Amjed's apt inspiration was a 1959 watercolor, "St. Vincent, West Indies," by Jack Hofflander that features white-clad individuals making their way through a tropical landscape.

"Progression of Modern Medicine" by Thomas G. Stetson - COURTESY
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  • "Progression of Modern Medicine" by Thomas G. Stetson

Thomas G. Stetson's complex pen-and-ink drawing "Progression of Modern Medicine" is both disturbing and brilliantly executed. A large face fills much of the picture plane, with one half revealing "rooms" inside the head like an architectural cutaway. In one scene, a pair of long-beaked figures is opening up what we have to hope is a cadaver; in another, a person in a hospital johnny sits attached to an IV filled with ... blood? This is not a single-sheet drawing. Stetson carefully cut sections and layered them, giving the head a rather startling dimensionality. The "frame" is a shallow cardboard box painted glossy black.

Stetson's Fleming selection is nearly as ominous: William C. Palmer's 1935 "Study for Controlled Medicine," in which a group of presumed doctors surround a small child in an operating room. It does not look like a sanguine situation.

Stetson did not write an artist statement, but he was invited to show a remarkable handmade book, as well as a notebook crammed with his pencil drawings. In the video, he says, "I make art because it keeps me sane; it gets me through life."

"Call and Response" is on view through December 9.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Call and Response"

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