Judy Zemel working on a fabric project

Judy Zemel (left) helps with a fabric project

Go Green artwork

Participants included arty children, too!

Sol Power artwork

Sol Power artwork

Some folks used carved blocks to print images on a plain or painted background.

Art Energy: A Community Happening

The word "Art" comes from the etymological root "to join." To put things together is, by nature, healing. - Paulus Berensohn

Join us from 5:30 to 7:30 or so on April 2 at an opening celebration for a month-long Art Energy Exhibit at the River Garden in Brattleboro, 157 Main St. This exhibit presents work produced at a March 6 Art Energy event, plus other art on the theme of Vermont's energy future. During the opening there will be two art-making stations (clay and fabric) offering visitors an on-the-spot, hands-on opportunity to create art that will be added to the exhibit. Entertainment will include a skit by Coyote Players and live music by Julian Gerstin and friends. Robbie Leppzer, a filmmaker working on grass-roots responses to the Vermont Yankee issue, will be filming the opening celebration.

Alan Steinberg with Safstor sculpture

Alan Steinberg works on his Safstor sculpture (photo: Michael Moore, Keene Sentinel)

On March 6, the River Garden was filled to capacity. People came from the greater Brattleboro area, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts to express their feelings about Vermont's energy options for the future. Everyone was invited to participate regardless of age, skill level, or opinion. "A community happening" would be a good way to describe this public art event. The event itself became the art form.

Musicians, poets, and storytellers offered entertainment from a stage in the far corner of the room as adults and children worked together on their art projects. Some decorated cloth with designs, words, color, or images. These pieces of fabric will be assembled as flags hanging from the ceiling of the River Garden. Others made paintings and drawings. Some worked in collage and mixed media. There also were stations to print with wood blocks, decorate paper doves, or make buttons with pictures and words. At the clay tables, some people created windmills, solar panels and other objects to add to a large clay installation started by Alan Steinberg.

For Steinberg the event seemed to be born out of nowhere. While he had been teaching regular clay classes at the Brattleboro Clayworks, for the previous year he had produced no clay work other than a few demos, or none that he could truly call "his own." Most of his energy was being directed towards the process of "being back in school." In the school office a poster was hanging with the image of a large oil tanker, its bow raised high in the air, the vessel slowly sinking into the ocean depths. Underneath the photo, the caption read: "And it may well be that the sole purpose of your life will be to serve as a warning to others." An image began to haunt him, of a ceramic sculpture, a fragmented slab of architecture, unearthed at the site of some ancient lost civilization. The badly eroded and barely discernible text on the surface of this fragment was just one word -- "Saf-stor" (a brand name for dry cask storage) -- revealing the lost civilization to be our own. It was a dark and despairing image. Nonetheless he began to work on this piece during class.

Solar Energy artwork

Solar Power was a common theme in participants' art projects.

Among the students was Judy Zemel, a retired textile artist. One theme that has run through Zemel's adult life is her awareness of the many ways that planet earth is not being cared for optimally. Along with this theme is another: a life-long search for a way to express this kind of awareness in the world, and channel the energy of this kind of concern in a positive way.

Zemel spoke to Steinberg of her vision, one in which a community of people come together to express themselves, using the language of art, about important issues such as Vermont's energy future. As it so often happens in the art world where artists inspire each others' creativity, her image gave Steinberg the idea for the part of his vision that was missing. He had, as writer and teacher Joanna Macy has put it, the "despair" part of the healing process; what was needed was the "empowerment" aspect.

From that seed he began to work on elements for a community-built clay installation that would start with a view of rows of crumbling dry cask storage units, built of clay. Then, amongst the ruin would sprout clay solar arrays: first one, then a row of three panels, then ten panels, then hundreds, then thousands of panels, with here and there a tall wind turbine, solar cars and other icons of a healthy energy future. The final result would be totally up to the collective imaginations of everyone who contributed some work.

Zemel was imagining the creation of brightly colored swaths of fabric strung up in the style of Tibetan prayer flags, hanging from the rafters of the River Garden. Participants would be offered the opportunity to experience the thrill of putting color on white cotton using non-toxic dyes and expressing their feelings about energy issues through their choice of images, words, and color.

Before either of them knew it, they were deeply immersed in the process of coordinating a small army of volunteers offering to do publicity work, staff a large variety of art stations, schedule performance artists, solicit materials donations, serve food, set up, clean up, and so on.

An energy event takes a good deal of energy. Was it all worth it? Volunteers and community members had this to say after the event:

"I sat at the welcoming table for a few hours. People of all ages flowed in and got to work making art. It was like a big party -- a really joyous event." - Sarah Cooper-Ellis

"Art Energy reminded me of what a great place Brattleboro is to have kids and to be a kid. There was an awareness of the issues, a knowing of your neighbors, and a sense of looking out for each other that I haven't seen many places. A real sense of community." - Annie Sexauer

"I organized a station at Art Energy for people to work together on large pieces using mixed media. Working with others making images of our personal visions of a sustainable energy future for Vermont was a very positive, eclectic, inclusive, energizing experience." - Terry Carter

"I participated in Art Energy because I feel strongly about seeking alternate energy solutions to nuclear power. It was wonderful to see the community come together. It felt as though people were really engaged in the process through art, music, skits, and readings. I was moved by the experience, and felt a connection to the people who attended." - Ellen Troy

"I have often found that activism involving protesting is very draining because it is an experience of 'fighting against' something. Being given the opportunity to be involved with the Art Energy project was a way of engaging in activism that was creative, joyful, and nurturing." - Amy Enochs

But judge for yourself. You can view a 3-minute video on You Tube made by Jerry Stockman at www.youtube.com/watch?v=EvGWzhcxU5Q.

For further information on the Art Energy project, or to discuss contributing something to the April art exhibit, email artnrg@sover.net or call Judy Zemel at (802) 254-3530.

Copyright 2010, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont

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