Constellations in the sky are different in the northern hemisphere. Orion is closer, and the Big Dipper seems to be lower in the sky. It’s possibly just my imagination, but I met an artist from Brazil, Gui, who thought the same thing. We noticed this one night when we were sitting on deck chairs by a creek on the Mason Green lawn. The creek played its symphony of rushing water as a small group of artists and writers congregated, late at night, with bottles of wine and packs of olives and cheese after a long day isolated in each of our studios.
We were an assorted bunch of people. There was myself, the Pakistani Muslim who drank wine. With me were Madeleine from Chicago, Anne from Boston, Adaya and Uri from Israel, Thien from Vietnam, Gui from Brazil and Steve from Florida. We were the usual, core bunch of artists and writers who had staked a claim to the beautiful lawn by the creek at the Vermont Studio Center. We got together almost every night, either at the lawn or at the pizzeria bar in the small town of Johnson. Sometimes, we were joined by others, sometimes it was just us. We talked about our differences (especially between countries) and celebrated our diversity. We were artists and poets and writers and translators. We spoke several languages between us, followed numerous belief systems and religions and still ended up good friends.
A month spent in the scenic little village of Johnson (with a population of less than 1,500, it can’t be called anything else) might sound like a long time, but it felt like a lot less. It felt like the weeks zipped by too fast. I wasn’t expecting that. The first day I arrived, I was shown to my small room in a house just two minutes down from the Red Mill building, which is the heart of the Vermont Studio Center (VSC). My house was called the Pearl House, and it was old and quaint, with uneven, creaking floors and doors that stuck. I barely spent any time in the room, however. I had an office in the Maverick Studio where I was to spend most of my days. Or, when I wasn’t outside, I was at the Red Mill building for meals.
The Red Mill building houses the administrative offices and the dining hall. Outside the door of the Red Mill is a sign: please turn off all devices and cellphones. The dining hall has several large and small tables arranged so that no one sat alone. It’s a space that fosters community. It’s almost impossible to sit at a table and not say hello to one’s neighbor, or to sit in silence (unless you grab the ‘Silent Table’ sign and condemn the whole table to silence) when at meals.
The Red Mill stands on the bank of the Gihon River, right across from the Mason Green Lawn. Buildings belonging to the VSC can be found scattered throughout Johnson. Studios stand on either side of the Gihon River, and in the town itself. The ‘village’ of Johnson may be small, but it sees 50 to 60 new artists and writers pass through its streets every month. With every contingent of residents, the Vermont Studio Center invites four established artists and two well-known writers to visit, to present their work and ideas and to provide feedback on the residents’ work. The peaceful little town facade is just that: a facade. Behind the serenity and quaint appearance is a bustling community of artists and writers from around the world.
This month, September 2015, the VSC had artists from Cambodia, Taiwan, Canada, England, China, Pakistan, Vietnam, Israel, Brazil and the US. There were more, I’m sure. Somehow, every time I came into the dining hall, I met someone new, someone I hadn’t been introduced to before. It was odd, three weeks in, to be sitting next to someone I didn’t recognize. But that seemed to be what VSC was all about: discovery.
Not only did I discover a whole new set of friends, I discovered a creativity that poured out of me every day in my tiny little writer’s studio. Perhaps it was the enforced quiet, the small room, the beautiful view, but I think it was a little more. It was the company, the art, the stimulating discussions, the crazy weather (in one day, the temperature would range from a 70° high to a freezing 42° at night). Everything in Johnson conspired to fire up the imagination, especially the art.
Twice that month, the artists opened their studios to show off their work. There were sculptors, painters, performance artists (including a musician, the talented harpist Adaya from Israel. Adaya held several impromptu outdoor concerts over the month), installation artists and an actual rocket scientist who brought art and science together in a series of astonishing visual computations. The first night, we came out of the Schulz Studio for sculptors, out past the firepit where we had our bonfires, to a setting sun that painted the sky in glory. Long fingers of red and orange flames cut through the blue horizon, casting a fierce glow on the buildings as we walked around the town.
Hours later, I sat on the porch of the last studio, shivering a little in the crisp night air, drinking wine and wondering how so much talent and beauty could thrive in such a small place.
It wasn’t just the artists who astounded me. On two separate nights, the writers also read out their works in the lecture hall on Main Street. Seven to eight writers got up on a small podium, and shakily read out their poems, their excerpts and their short stories to a room full of artists and writers. They made us laugh and cry in the space of a single hour, with words that stayed with us days later.
I did it too. I was nervous and read too fast, even though I had practiced in front of a small group of friends just a few hours before.
The experience emboldened me, made me believe in myself in a way I haven’t for many, many years. They didn’t laugh. They didn’t scoff. They liked my work, and asked to read it when it was finished. Days later, when I flew out of Burlington on the last day of the residency, I carried the support and encouragement I had earned with me, along with a suitcase stuffed with numbers and email addresses and gifts and reminders of friendships from around the world. And stories.
I soaked up stories from everyone I spoke to. When we weren’t lounging on the banks of the river, and when it got too cold to sit outside without winter gear, we would get together behind the sculpture studio and burn wood and twigs and rejected works around the fire pit. We argued over sports and politics, agreed on beauty and love and told each other our life stories. Perhaps it wasn’t the smartest thing to do, telling life stories to a group of writers, but alcohol and the intoxication of a warm fire in the cold night air loosened inhibitions and tongues.
My residency included artists who had suffered under Polpot’s regime, artists who fled Communist fascism, artists disillusioned with their own countries, and artists who were struggling with deep personal issues. My residency was a collection of stories that will help me add life and color to my own work, to my words; a range of human emotions and reactions that will help me write believable characters. It’s a reservoir of visual clues, of ideas and forms created from stone and wood and fabric and paper and found items, painted colors and shapes and textures, created sounds and performances.
It was a bit like stepping into Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge and being bombarded by new experiences. Like eating chocolate for the first time, or jumping into a freezing lake. It’s a shock of sensations until you settle into it, and then it’s a velvet ride.
Art, Music, Performance and Words
I’ve left Johnson, but I’m still a part of that community. A month later, I reunited with two of my fellow artists in Boston. That’s a post for another time.
I’m also working towards two collaborations that should materialize over the next year. The first is a series of stories that I will write, and which Gui, the intense artist from Brazil, will translate into images. We’re working towards a book, which we hope to print at the end of the project.
The second is more a political statement. Uri, Adaya and I became friends over a glass of wine in the town bar. We had circled each other for a few days before, the Pakistani and the Israelis, without ever talking, but that night, we talked politics and religious bigotry. I showed them my passport, which clearly states ‘valid for all countries except Israel’ and we lamented the fact that we each had to travel hundreds of thousands of miles to meet. We didn’t agree on everything, but we came to respect each other. At some point, we decided to work together.
So, along with the stories that I will be writing for Gui, I’ll be writing letters (paper letters, written by hand) to my Israeli friends and sending them snippets of life in Pakistan. They’ll do the same for me. It’s a small interaction, but one that intends to breach borders and create bridges where our governments don’t want us to.
It’s not as good as looking up together at the same night sky, but I’m going to do my best to keep our fragile links alive.