‘Art virus’ infects Addison County

MIDDLEBURY — Nestled among his cows in Cornwall, a dairy farmer holds up a large-scale image of Switzerland crafted from pink insulation material.
Down the road, a husband-and-wife pair running a Cornwall farm stand posed with the outline of the United States. A Middlebury shopkeeper hides behind the long, boot-like silhouette of Italy, and a Burlington woman hunkers down beside the image of Africa, posted on the wall of her house.
This is “Suddenly Visible,” a community art project masterminded by Swiss artists Graziella Weber-Grassi and Monalice Haener that will be part of the Arts Walk in downtown Middlebury this Friday. Suddenly Visible is an “art virus,” Weber-Grassi said, that the two artists hope will jumpstart grassroots conversations about the global financial crisis.
It’s a project where the personal meets the political: Individual stories about getting by in tough times brush up against a hodge-podge map that the artists hope will symbolize the extent of the economic recession.
“We just hope that people will talk to each other,” said Weber-Grassi, a painter who has lived in Whiting for four years. “We wanted to get people involved, letting them know that art is not just a painting on the wall or going to a church to see a beautiful stained glass window. It can be something simple. A dialogue can be art.”
So far, that project has taken them to the homes and offices of Vermonters around the state with large-scale depictions of states, countries and continents cut out of pink insulation material. The subjects of the photographs were asked to choose a country near and dear to their heart with which to pose.
The artists then photographed the individual with their chosen country or state, and interviewed each person about how the recession has affected their life. Those photographs will eventually be part of an exhibit in Switzerland, and have been posted online at www.suddenlyvisible.com.
This week, Suddenly Visible hits Middlebury, when the project will play a central role in Friday’s Arts Walk. Beginning at 4:30 p.m., Arts Walk participants can pick up their own cutout pieces of a large-scale map at the gazebo on the Town Green. The evening will also include a procession to the Battell Bridge in downtown Middlebury at 5 p.m. The event will culminate at 7 p.m. in a community conversation about public art and the global economy back at the gazebo.
Meanwhile, many of the venues participating in the Arts Walk will post countries from the map posted in their businesses, and a depiction of the world turned upside down will appear on the side of the Frog Hollow Craft Center building on Mill Street.
Using the symbolism of countries and maps has worked well for the two artists, who pointed out that the pieces of the map reflect both the extent of the global economic crisis as well as the connections between individuals in different countries and regions.
“We’re all interconnected,” Weber-Grassi said.
But on another level, the use of maps was an “in” for the two artists, who were looking to speak with a cross-section of Vermonters.
Each individual who has participated in Suddenly Visible has chosen a country or state to hold up in their photographs. The question that the artists posed, Weber-Grassi said, was simply, “What is dear to your heart?”
For some subjects, that might have a country of ancestry, or a place someone visited once on vacation, or a country someone is longing to see. Certain countries were requested more often than others, she went on — like Norway and New Zealand.
That meant the conversation about place broke the ice, letting Weber-Grassi and Haener ask tough questions about how Vermonters are getting by in the current economy.
For Weber-Grassi, this has meant learning to approach art in a completely new way. She is a painter (a few of her works are on display now at the offices of 92.1 WVTK in the Marble Works in Middlebury), and has typically worked in private.
“It’s interesting to the say the least. I’m not a public person, but I learned a lot,” said Weber-Grasi. “It’s really wonderful. The whole thing is really about dialogue.”
Some of the stories they’ve collected so far have been heartbreaking. A dairy farmer in Whiting told the pair that his 150-head herd of cattle will be slaughtered next month because his farm is losing $30,000 every month. Another Whiting resident told the pair that she’s lost her job, and has had trouble finding a replacement.
But the two Swiss artists, the project also raises interesting questions about the relationship between Vermont and Switzerland. Both regions are roughly the same size, Weber-Grassi said, though Switzerland’s population is significantly larger than Vermont’s.
Still, the stories that Vermonters have told the two artists point to one large difference in the attitudes of the two regions, Weber-Grassi went on.
“American people have a totally different outlook if you ask them (about the economy),” she said. “It seems to be more positive. They say, ‘There’s always a solution,’ or, ‘It’s only money. No one died.’ Or, ‘Well, we’ll plant more vegetables.’”
That conversation will continue Friday at the Arts Walk in Middlebury. For more information about the Suddenly Visible “art virus,” visit the project online at www.suddenlyvisible.com, and check out the map of photographs the artists have compiled so far.

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