Middlebury art exhibit offers more than meets the eye

MIDDLEBURY — Kate Gridley’s exhibit “Passing Through” promises to be much more than an art exhibit. Along its travels through New England the show has stopped in the artist’s hometown of Middlebury, where Gridley will collaborate with area organizations and schools to connect her project to the local community.
Much like Gridley herself, who has been painting from her studio in Middlebury since 1991, the subjects of the 17 portraits making up the exhibit all have strong connections to the area. Some call Middlebury home, like Gridley’s two sons who are part of the project.
Others, such as Middlebury College students, have other strong connections to Middlebury. Their connections to the area are not the only factor tying the subjects of Gridley’s portraits together — all subjects were between the ages of 18 and 25 when they were painted, making “Passing Through” an exhibition exclusively featuring young adults. Gridley finds this age group inspiring, but underrepresented.
“The world’s a tough place right now,” she said. She finds this generation’s hope and resilience, “very inspiring … I also think that people are so busy now they don’t necessarily stop to listen to what adolescents have to say and I think that’s very sad. I just wanted to honor people’s voices now, in this age group, because it’s a really rich time.”
The idea of painting this age group was inspired in 2008 during Gridley’s time serving as a volunteer for the presidential campaign of Barack Obama in Ohio. Her campaign field bosses, who were between the ages of 19 and 23, possessed energy and drive that motivated Gridley. This time also coincided with a major economic recession, causing Gridley to consider whom she would choose to paint if she was no longer receiving commissions. Inspired by her experience in Ohio, she realized she wanted to paint young people.
Initially Gridley thought she would create a set of 12 oil paintings of young adults, each 30 by 60 inches, but 12 proved to be too few. The final exhibit is composed of 17 oil portraits, with six females, 10 males, and one gender queer individual.  The final exhibit, “Passing Through: Portraits of Emerging Adults,” is on display Aug. 18-Oct. 26 in two spaces in Middlebury — the lower lobby of Middlebury College’s Mahaney Center for the Arts and Jackson Gallery at Town Hall Theater.
In addition to the portraits themselves, Gridley has incorporated a sound component into the exhibit using QR codes (the little black-and-white squares seen in many advertisements) displayed alongside the paintings. Anyone with a smartphone can scan the code and listen to a three-minute audio recording — Gridley hopes to soon have two iPods at the front desk as well for those without the necessary technology. The resulting sound bites are the compiled product of an interview with the subject and music they like, meant to be played while looking at the paintings.
This is Gridley’s first work involving sound, which wasn’t her original intention; rather, the idea came organically through working with the subjects of the paintings.
“What happened was while they were sitting for me … they were telling me what they were thinking, and I was thinking, well I know their stories, but the paintings don’t tell all of their stories. How are we going to get their voices into this show? Because I chose them for their voices,” Gridley said.
She considered posing text with the paintings, but felt the subjects of the exhibit would prefer to access their stories through a different medium.
“Clearly it’s not going to be some dusty text on the wall, right?” Gridley said. “That does not fit.”
The result is a compelling mixture of painting, a more traditional art form, and the modern technology of audio recording, which is more appropriate to the age group of her subjects. The emerging adults are also painted in clothes they picked themselves and poses appropriate to their personalities. Gridley feels that painting the subjects as opposed to, for instance, photographing them, adds a different element to the project
“The actual process of layering the paint on means I spend more time thinking about each person and why they were the way they were, and why did I paint them the way I did,” she said.
This process resulted in a partnering of painter and subject. Gridley believes that this connection comes through in the work, which she says still is not completely finished. Not all of the paintings are varnished so that she can go back and make a change if, say, the subject asks her to, which has already happened. Unlike other famous personalities Gridley has painted, such as former Gov. Jim Douglas and U.S. Judge William K. Sessions III, the subjects in this exhibit are still evolving, requiring small changes.
The title of the exhibit, “Passing Through,” speaks to this coming-of-age time. Many of her subjects passed through Gridley’s life, through Middlebury, through a phase, and are now moving on. Gridley finds that this theme resonates well with young people especially.
“It’s very relevant to kids when they’re in adolescence because they’re trying on identities and personas while they’re figuring out who they really are comfortable being,” she said.
This relevance makes the 17 different representations of self in a particular time and place a good catalyst for discussions of identity.
“My goal all along was to create something that could then be used for something other than itself,” she said. “If someone has an idea of how to use it as a springboard for something they want to do with middle and high school students, bring it on. This is a public piece, not a private piece.”
The Middlebury community has responded to Gridley’s goal, using the show as a springboard for an array of other town events and programs involving the Counseling Service of Addison County, Addison Central Teens, Middlebury Actors Workshop, Town Hall Theater and Middlebury College.
The Middlebury Actors Workshop will stage a new version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” a show revolving around issues of identity. The play will be staged on Oct. 23-31 at Town Hall Theater, where part of Gridley’s exhibit is on display. For Gridley, the play answers the question of how exhibiting her work in a theater can connect to other aspects of the theater.
“We want them to reverberate,” she said of the two artistic endeavors. “It’s really what reverberations can you send up between art forms.”
In addition, Gridley will be participating in freshman orientation and parents’ weekend at Middlebury College; the other half of her exhibit is hanging at the college. Also, two Middlebury professors will be teaching courses involving the exhibit. In one class, a playwriting course taught by Dana Yeaton, students will develop monologues based on the characters they see in Gridley’s paintings and deliver those monologues in the college art gallery. In another, a psychology course on adolescence and emerging adulthood taught by Barbara Hofer, students will write papers in response to the show.
Hofer and Gridley worked together to bring Jeffrey Arnett from Clark University, who coined the term “emerging adult,” to speak at in Dana Auditorium at 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 26 about the meaning of the term. Michelle Kaczynski, an outreach clinician with the Counseling Service of Addison County, has developed a day of programming centered around his talk and focusing on clinical issues relevant to young adults.
Kaczynski has a master’s degree in clinical psychology from St. Michael’s College, where she wrote a thesis on emerging adults and their needs in the community mental health system. She visited Gridley’s exhibit in Burlington and was struck by how well it related to her thesis.
“I was very impacted,” she said, “I felt that she was capturing all the themes I had been finding in my research … but in an accessible way the world could see.”
She contacted Gridley and discovered that Arnett, whose research had been vital to her master’s thesis, was coming to speak in conjunction with the exhibit.
This led Kaczynski to create a talk for clinicians and employees of the counseling service on the morning of Arnett’s lecture. Those clinicians will then attend his lecture along with any young adults they know or work with. There will be gallery talks afterwards at both locations the exhibit is being shown in — Town Hall Theater and Middlebury College Center for the Arts — and then a performance of monologues based on the exhibit that night. Emerging adults are encouraged to attend all events except for the morning lecture for clinicians.
Kaczynski hopes to create a community dialogue around the idea of emerging adulthood, a term that only recently came to clinicians’ attention as a time period separate from childhood and adulthood. Because young people are waiting to get married and settle down, psychologists have recognized a transition period with its own needs, clinical and otherwise. She hopes to open a discussion on these needs that bridges constituencies at Middlebury College, the arts and the counseling service to help provide services that are more age-appropriate.
“It’s so important to … just have a common language … so that everybody can be on this level of understanding and provide services that make sense,” Kaczynski said.
“Passing Through” opened at the Elizabeth de C. Wilson Museum, Southern Vermont Art Center in Manchester at the beginning of August and has since passed through Burlington and Montpelier; it has exhibitions scheduled for next year in Exeter, N.H., and Geneva, N.Y. After the exhibit wraps up its run in Middlebury on Oct. 26, it will pack up and continue on its journey throughout New England and possibly other parts of the United States. Gridley hopes the exhibit will eventually find a home in a museum as a kind of small anthropological study of a group of people who came through a particular town at a particular time.
The paintings are not for sale, although she has considered giving them to their subjects. She has also contemplated revisiting the project later on, recording and taking photographs of the same subjects rather than the long process of painting.
“The young people who I asked to be my models were people who I knew had not only interesting things to say, but were not afraid to express them,” she said. “Part of me wants to revisit them again in five years or 10 years and see if they got where they thought they were going.”
“Passing Through: Portraits of Emerging Adults” is on display Aug. 18-Oct. 26 in the lower lobby of Middlebury College’s Mahaney Center for the Arts and Jackson Gallery at Town Hall Theater.

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