Although there isn’t a readily accessible database of artists from the Caribbean region who have participated in the Vermont Studio Center’s residency program, I was informed that the number is far greater than the nine I had incorrectly estimated in the first article of this series (it could be well over fifteen). This number is expected to increase as two more artists from the region prepare to join the program in the very near future.
Stepping up to the platform to share their experiences at VSC this week are Barbadian artists Versia Harris and Ewan Atkinson. Both reminisced on the invaluable time spent in Vermont and the importance of that time to the development of their individual bodies of work.
“The Vermont Studio Center is a collection of houses and studios made available to over 50 artists at any one time to use and produce work. I applied as a way to keep myself involved in art making after leaving school in 2012. I wanted the experience of a residency and also to hopefully connect with artists outside of my small island. The VSC's isolated location and serene surroundings emphasize the time and space that residents have. It becomes an incubator for artists and creativity, where you are not only cutoff from your regular life but also from the rest of the world.”
“I was an artist in residence at the Vermont studio center in September 2006. This was the second residency I had been privileged to attend (the first occurred in 2001 in Trinidad, at CCA7). In both cases the experience was unforgettable and invaluable. Residencies have been important milestones for me, keystones rather. Definitive developmental transformations in my practice and person are forever bound to artist residencies.
My time in Vermont began with some difficulty. The spacious white room that was to be my studio was daunting. I was not used to operating in such a space, and the perception that I was to “fill it” with work seemed improbable and shattered my confidence. Where was I to find that sense of place and familiarity that I was craving? The other artists and writers that I had met briefly at dinner had disappeared; they went straight to work. The Trinidadian residency had begun with boisterous laughter. The Vermont air carried only silence. I had to unwind. Where was the bar? A week later, much had changed. But it did take almost that long for me to make a single mark. I abandoned all the ideas I had brought with me and roamed the countryside with my camera, my iPod and my shaky singing voice. It was the place itself, its unfamiliarity that decided what was to happen in my empty studio.
As I looked I contemplated differences in structure, form, flora and fauna:
The quiet DVD rental store in the basement of a building down the street (and my new blue laminated membership card).
The old covered bridge that creaked in some kind of agony.
A small snake that hid in the gutter beside the graveyard.
The empty church that sheltered ribbons of shredded tires in its tired shadow.
The hornets nest outside my broken bedroom window.
The closet, inscribed with messages from inhabitants long gone. “We were here too.”
The television-ready skunk-sprayed dog that we were forced to shun.
An empty baseball field that must have seen better days, and less weeds.
The cold river at night, my naked body in shock.
These details wrought contemplative comparison to things at home. This is how The Neighbourhood Project was born, a project that I have continued to build over the past ten years.
I knew I had to return home, and somehow take what I was to make with me. Artist and friend Stanley Greaves once told me that Caribbean artists were nomads; their work should be able to pack up and move with them. I had smiled enough to suggest I understood, but in Vermont I took it to heart. In the need to be mobile and influenced by one particular resident who was painting the burgeoning fall foliage, I was surprisingly led to watercolour for the first time in my life. As the images developed with additional materials and collage, I had embarked on new visual style that I have since embraced wholeheartedly.
The artists I met were working in a variety of modes with a myriad of backgrounds, and it was the connections I was eventually able to make that sparked curiosities and experiment. Weekly bonfires outside the sculpture studio (and impromptu dance parties) were what I looked forward to most. Conversation was vivacious and provoking, I was certainly not alone. What strikes me most in retrospect is that the writers became slightly more influential than the visual artists. In working with a novelist who asked me to help her visualize her characters, I began to develop my own set of quirky imaginary compatriots. They have continued to inhabit and drive my work.
The residency culminated with an exhibition that my new friends and I opted to curate for the small gallery in the centers iconic Red Barn. What began in silence ended with laughter, wine, and our artwork in conversation on the gallery walls. I can hardly express how important it was to work amongst others who share similar urges, face similar challenges and consequentially drive each other towards solutions. When I returned home the work continued fervently. Four months later what I had done became a successful exhibition that was in many ways a new start, a change in direction that I never saw coming. Answers to questions I would have never know to ask, were it not for a month of quiet Vermont air.”
Visit www.theneighbourhoodproject.com to view more of Atkinson’s work, which developed as a result of his time spent at VSC.
This article was first published in the Pepperpot magazine of the Sunday Chronicle newspaper on March 12, 2017.