Vermont Arts Council award winners reflect on divisions, unity

Vermont Poet Laureate Chard DiNord of Westminster shows the first painting that Eric Aho ever did as a young teacher at the Putney School. Aho was honored with the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.

Vermont Poet Laureate Chard DiNord of Westminster shows the first painting that Eric Aho ever did as a young teacher at the Putney School. Aho was honored with the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.

By Kevin O’Connor

When printmaker Eric Aho tried teaching at The Putney School in 1989, his challenge wasn’t just that he was 22 and had no classroom leadership experience.

“The position was to teach painting,” he recalls, “and I had never painted before.”

A quarter-century later, the Saxtons River resident, whose brushwork is now acclaimed, returned to campus in the fall to receive the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.

“What I can tell you about Eric is he has an extraordinary sense of color, of landscape, and of light,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said in bestowing the prize Nov. 15. “He, I believe, is the world’s best modern landscape artist.”

Eric Aho, holding award, is congratulated by Alex Aldrich, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council; Governor Peter Shumlin; and Bob Stannard, chair of the arts council board.

Eric Aho, holding award, is congratulated by Alex Aldrich, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council; Governor Peter Shumlin; and Bob Stannard, chair of the arts council board.

The Vermont Arts Council program was billed as a celebration of the accomplishments of Aho and five fellow Windham County artists. But coming a week after a divided nation voted Donald Trump president, it sparked plenty of other creative expression.

“Last week’s election changed things for our country,” Brattleboro Union High School music teacher Stephen Rice said on receiving his Arthur Williams Award for Meritorious Service. “Our president-elect gained his office by sowing seeds of division, exploiting distrust, and tapping into fear, anger, and even hatred. Artists and arts educators have a tremendous role to play in what happens over the next four—and hopefully only four—years. Because art is a uniting force.”

Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion, the founders of New England Center for Circus Arts, speak to the audience. The twin circus artists and entrepreneurs received the Walter Cerf Medal for Outstanding Achievement.

Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion, the founders of New England Center for Circus Arts, speak to the audience. The twin circus artists and entrepreneurs received the Walter Cerf Medal for Outstanding Achievement.

Self-described Brattleboro theater director, teacher, clown, and Shakespeare consultant Peter Gould accepted the Ellen McCulloch-Lovell Award in Arts Education by reading a poem he titled “The Slow School Movement” that sought to upend everything from “cardboard food” to “violent speech” to “unequal power relations.”

“So many students are hooked by other bait, phones and screens and social networks and carried with them, a huge commercial influence upon their desires, their styles and habits of speech and dress and thought,” Gould said. “We artists are some of the only people in the state who are both poised and equipped to make and bait the hook that will pull all children in.” [Check out the full text of Gould’s acceptance speech in Talk of the Arts—Ed.]

The event featured a few lighter moments. Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion, the identical-twin founders of Brattleboro’s New England Center for Circus Arts, drew smiles when they each received a Walter Cerf Medal for Outstanding Achievement.

“We’re so used to having to share,” Elsie Smith said before recalling wearing an animal costume at a past ceremony. “You can get from the back end of a camel to being the recipient of an award.”

Rockingham Arts and Museum Project Director Robert McBride spoke of creativity’s impact on community development in accepting the Margaret L. (Peggy) Kannenstine Award for Arts Advocacy.

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Robert McBride, founder of Rockingham Arts and Museum Project, displays his Margaret L. (Peggy) Kannenstine Award for Arts Advocacy. Joining him: Sara Coffey, executive director of the Vermont Performance Lab; Governor Peter Shumlin; and Bob Stannard, chair of the Vermont Arts Council board.

“The scale of Vermont allows and encourages us to connect and meet other people,” McBride said. “You can roll up your sleeves, get involved, and make a difference in our communities.”

But the program kept returning to politics. Vermont Arts Council Executive Director Alex Aldrich spoke of his daughter’s fears about society’s current divisiveness.

“Now it is time,” Aldrich said, “for her and me and all of us to roll up our sleeves and create more allies.”

Added Shumlin, “We need more than ever what this organization represents—inclusiveness, love, celebration, fun, creativity, diversity. Let’s take everything we’re celebrating tonight and put it on steroids. Because of—and not despite—diversity, that’s what enriches our lives.” 

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