This Saturday, an exhibition titled "Systematic Paradox" opens in the Gallery of the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. More than 30 pieces by Vermont artists including Jennifer Koch, Gowri Savoor, Alisa Dworsky and Brian Ziegler are displayed beside contributions from noteworthy international artists, such as Japanese contemporary artist Taiyo Kimura and Serkan Altinoz, a fifth-generation Turkish paper marbler.
"Just about every medium" is represented, according to Ella Hill, one of the show's six curators. She adds that the "systematic paradox" theme "deals a lot with balancing chaos and order in one's life, and how each of us categorizes that differently. Each artist sort of disturbs [order] or creates a pathway through chaos."
Hill and co-curators Natalie Kenney, Lucy Leith, Sarah McNamara, Alice Schroeder and Sophie Zeman Hale know a thing or two about chaos. The six teens — yep, you read that right — routinely juggle work, classes at Burlington High School, extracurricular activities and their own art making. Each has racked up an impressive curriculum vitae; their collective track record includes multiple wins from prestigious Scholastic Art and design contests, acceptances to the Governor's Institute on the Arts, exhibitions at Vermont museums, and freelance art and design work.
Though their schedules seem to be booked from morning to night, the young artists have been meeting twice a month since last September to practice a different arty skill set: curating.
The six students are the first "class" of Young Curators of Vermont, a program launched at the start of the academic year by Kate Donnelly, Sumru Tekin and Elise Whittemore. The three Chittenden County artists and longtime friends first collaborated as members of Burlington's 215 College Gallery, a female artist collective, which closed in 2011. "When that gallery closed its doors, we decided we wanted to keep meeting just to talk about art," says Whittemore.
After more than a year of discussion, the trio founded Young Curators last September; the BHS students already knew one another and had taken Donnelly's after-school art classes since elementary school. The initial seed of the program had been planted in 2012, when Donnelly participated in a show at NURTUREart, an arts and education nonprofit in Brooklyn. While in town, she happened to observe NURTUREart's student-curators program in action.
Inspired, she brought the idea home to Whittemore and Tekin, who were similarly enthused. "There's nothing like it around here," says Donnelly. The group members say the educational benefits are multifold: Aside from introducing high schoolers to a potential career path in the arts, learning to curate an exhibit hones skills that young artists can apply in various circumstances — including the creation of their own work.
"As an artist, you pick a theme or a topic, and you follow it with research and with experimentation," says Tekin. "And that's what happens in curating. You're struck either by a particular artist or work, or an idea, and you follow it."
That attitude, it seems, applies to educational projects as well as artworks — at the moment, Young Curators of Vermont exists as a labor of love. The adults volunteered their hours; the students didn't receive any additional school credit. "All of us had a working relationship, and this trust [of one another], so it was a good way to start," Donnelly says.
For eight months, the young curators and their older mentors met twice a month and went through each stage of curating an exhibit. The students came up with a theme — the tension between chaos and order — that's relevant to their day-to-day lives and interesting to a general audience.
Though their conceptual starting point was, well, high school, they gathered an impressive roster of artists and strove to develop a sophisticated selection of works that would appeal to adult audiences. The students searched the Vermont Arts Council's artist database, among others, to find artists whose work they admired, then culled specific pieces.
"There was a lot of work that we all liked as individual pieces, but that didn't necessarily work for the overall theme or with the rest of the show," Leith says. The group established selection criteria — no pieces with figures, for example — but several decisions came down to a vote.
"Creating a show is a lot like working on an art piece," observes Zeman Hale. "You have to work on it over time."
Once their ideal hypothetical show was fully planned out, the students drafted letters to their chosen artists and contacted area galleries, having no idea whether anyone would want to participate.
They needn't have worried: 16 out of 20 artists the Young Curators invited to be part of their show signed on (and paid their own shipping and insurance). VCFA donated use of its gallery.
Montpelier artist Gowri Savoor says she was "delighted" by the invitation to participate. "It is such a valuable and meaningful program," she writes in an email. "I've been impressed with the level of professionalism through every step of the process, from selecting a range of incredible artists to writing a thoughtful curatorial statement and maintaining good communication with the artists involved."
This Friday, May 23, the students will travel to Montpelier to hang the show. "It'll be so exciting," Schroeder says. "It'll just make it feel real." Though they've plotted out how VCFA's gallery will look using a miniature model, most of the students won't set foot there until Friday, and it will be their first time seeing the art face to face.
Next year, Donnelly, Whittemore and Tekin hope to keep the Young Curators Program going, preferably with funding and an organizational umbrella. "This year we decided to just do it, and that's an attitude that's in our art as well," Tekin says. "There's fearlessness I think you have to embrace as an artist, and I think [Young Curators] was a piece of that for us, just being all ready to jump in."
This year's batch of students concurs that the experience gave them a boost. "It really made me appreciate how much work goes into a show," says Kenney. "Just knowing how much work we put into this."