Kunin and Musick: The politician & the artist share the stage

MIDDLEBURY — Environmental artist Pat Musick and Vermont stateswoman Madeleine Kunin come from fairly different worlds.
Musick of Manchester has a successful career that spans 40 years, in which she has created installations and exhibits all over the United States. Kunin served as lieutenant governor of Vermont from 1978 to 1982, governor from 1985 to 1991, and ambassador to Switzerland in the ’90s; she is now a professor at large at the University of Vermont.
This past Saturday evening the two women found some common ground in discussion of issues important to women when they both delivered lectures at Middlebury’s Edgewater Gallery as the conclusion of the gallery’s Women’s History Month Lecture Series.
It also was an opportunity for the gallery to showcase some of Musick’s work, and to unveil a portrait of Kunin by noted painter TJ Cunningham of Addison.
Musick said her current installation at the Edgewater Gallery, which will run until the end of the month, is inspired by the process of aging. The collection is titled “The Instant of It All” and features sculptures and drawings composed of Japanese rice paper, charcoal pencil drawings, brass and maple.
In an interview prior to her talk, Musick said the collection was inspired by the poetry of Russian author Boris Pasternak and his poem “The Wedding.”
“It speaks of the fragile nature of life and the shortness of it,” she said. “In his poem he says; ‘For life is only an instant, the dissolving of one’s self into the selves of others as if bestowing a gift.’ I think of my life as that and the image of a tree reflects that as well, particularly if it’s a fruit-bearing tree.”
In her 30-minute talk before an audience of about 40, Musick described common themes in the work of some of her favorite female artists. Her lecture, titled “Common Language: Bourgeois, Connell, Takaezu, and Pat Musick,” asserted that humans possess an ability to create a common subconscious understanding evident throughout history.
Despite being separated by thousands of years, cave-dwelling humans produced nearly identical pieces of cave-art, Musick said. Astronaut crews on separate missions from separate countries described the view of the planet Earth using the same words and terms in their own languages.
“They looked at the world around them, saw it as similar and portrayed it in their own interpretation.” she said.
Musick said she began to notice similar interpretations when she was looking at the work of other artists.
“As I began to sort through slides on the computer, I became aware of a great similarity between my work and their work, even though many of those slides I had never encountered,” she said. “So I switched from them influencing me to trying to elaborate on this deep-level communication and common perception.”
Saturday’s presentation featured side-by-side images of other artists alongside artwork spanning Musick’s career. The similarities, she discovered were striking, and served to represent how any two artists, despite being separated by a number of factors, responded to a similar impulse. 
Musick discussed with other artists these similarities and probed their inspirations. Musick described visiting Louise Bougeois in her apartment (and later being asked to leave) and drinking tea with Japanese ceramist Toshiko Takaezu (who gave her a ceramic sculpture as a gift).
After an intermission — with snacks and food provided by Fresh food, a project of Vermont Works for Women — Kunin took the floor. Marsh Scholar and professor-at-large at UVM, Kunin said that while art was one way to influence the world, the realm of politics was a way to more directly affect change.
Kunin announced the successful first session of Emerge VT, an organization that recruits and trains women to run for public office. On Saturday morning in Montpelier, the group held its first meeting with 19 women in attendance at the Statehouse. Vermont has never elected a woman to the U.S. House of Representatives or U.S. Senate. Kunin is the only woman to have served as governor of Vermont.
Aside from encouraging women to become directly involved in politics and assert themselves more aggressively and positively, Kunin said advocacy efforts do not address deeper class issues.
“It addresses a small elite group at the top of the leadership pyramid,” she said. “It puts the total responsibility on women themselves — that women have to change and not society or the workplace.”
Kunin said changes to the workforce should include paid family and medical leave, access to affordable childcare and workplace flexibility. Kunin spoke in favor of Vermont Paid Sick Day Legislation, a bill that would provide one hour of paid leave per 30 hours worked. Paid sick days could be used in the case of illness or injury or obtaining care for relatives. While she said the bill was doomed due to lack of support from the business community, she emphasized building alliances with other groups including seniors and the disabled. 
“The business community sees it as an expense and a bother rather than something that will actually improve their workforce,” she said. “If you’re treated better in the workplace, you’ll work harder.”
Kunin also advocated for a broad spectrum of services to new mothers and infants, saying that early investment in prenatal programs would mean a healthier population in the future and would be cheaper than remediation efforts.
“It’s not rocket science,” she said. “We know now that not every baby starts out equally. You have one baby that’s healthy and fit at the starting line and you have another that’s underweight and undernourished. We know we can fix this.”
Before concluding, Kunin said publicly mandated health programs are too often pushed to the bottom of the agenda or added as a footnote to larger issues for women and working families.
“The issue of women combing roles of being a caregiver and a wage earner is the reason why there is a wage gap,” she said. “We have to address these issues to help women close the wage gap and to help our children grow up healthy and not fall by the wayside.”

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