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Painting and poetry shed light on forest work

MIDDLEBURY — Lincoln artist Kathleen Kolb has been painting enchantingly radiant, realistic scenes of local forestry for two decades. Three summers ago, when Kolb shared her work with Vermont poet Verandah Porche, her longtime friend and former colleague at the Governor’s Institute on the Arts, the writer suggested they collaborate. So Porche spent last spring conversing and writing verses with foresters featured in Kolb’s paintings, complementing their visual depiction with words.
In the traveling exhibit “Shedding Light on the Working Forest,” the evocative power of Kolb’s visual art and Porche’s poetry unite to tell the story of the surrounding woods and the people working within them. It will open at the Vermont Folklife Center this Friday evening and continue until April 30.
Consisting of 27 or 28 paintings, more than half on loan from private collectors, the exhibition features landscapes and forestry professionals from Addison County. Twelve poems, mostly composed with the foresters themselves, accompany the artwork.
It follows the Folklife Center exhibit “Portrait of a Forest: Men and Machine,” which profiled, in photos and writing, seven men who make their living from the Vermont forest.
Kolb remarks that although “Shedding Light on the Working Forest” constitutes a fraction of her landscape work, this collection is unique because it gives greater focus to people through a theme, and includes paintings never displayed together before. She chose to explore forestry because three-quarters of our Northeastern environment is forested, and a significant portion of human interactions with the landscape in this part of the world occurs in the forest.
“The forest resource is very important. How we appreciate and use it are fundamental to the quality of our life and life of the planet going forward,” she said. “We need to keep upping the ante on those things. We can only do that with a level of awareness and care that comes from paying attention; the goal of art is to pay attention.”
The artist maintains that she did not necessarily produce the paintings with a message beyond their aesthetics. However, she hopes they will encourage observers to turn their attention to the forests we live in and the resources and services they provide, such as water, habitat and storm management.
As a writing partner creating what she calls “told poetry,” which she has done for at least 35 years to help people preserve their stories, Porche honored the experiences of the forest professionals she chatted with. She distilled their conversation and edited the resulting text using their feedback.
“I said, tell me what people need to know to walk into these paintings, into your world, and understand your experience,” said Porche, a Guilford resident. “People have been so impressed with the eloquence of the narrators. I didn’t make their words into poetry … I made it pretty clear this was (their poetry) as well as mine.”
The poet aims to make her audience more aware of the role of the woods in their lives.
“We’re entirely reliant on forest products for our most intimate experiences, from breathing to relieving ourselves. Yet there’s a disconnect because there’s an unease about cutting down a tree, and a lot of stereotyping,” she said. “I want them to see what gifts are offered to them by the people in the paintings and the landscape portrayed there.”
The pair learned much about the forest through the workers.
“Our understanding grows and changes every day,” Kolb said. “I’m hoping this exhibit will be a piece of growth and understanding.”
Talking to the foresters also taught Porche about the boundlessness of curiosity.
“There’s always the next phrase that will shed light on a piece of the unknown,” she said.
The women enjoyed collaborating on this exhibit. Kolb says her respect and affection for the poet grew through the process. Porche reflects that she and Kolb brought out the best in each other, the painter’s meticulousness complementing the poet’s impulsiveness. Working with the foresters also helped Porche cope with the death of her husband, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer during the period in which he was helping her with the project.
“It’s really helped me return to the life world,” she said. “The steadiness and dedication of the workers was a good influence. They were extremely compassionate and no strangers to hardship. They were my friends.”
Kolb began painting landscapes when she moved to rural Vermont in 1977 after earning her BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design.
“I wasn’t seeing many people so I painted the hills,” she said.
Her interest in the forest stems from spending time in the woods, using firewood, building furniture, making maple syrup and painting wildflowers. Intrigued by producing a charcoal drawing of a Bristol band mill in 1996, she realized she wanted to pursue the subject of forestry further and present a body of work on it in several years. It took longer than expected, but she eventually gave up her daily studio practice to organize this exhibit.
Kolb notes that the financial support of many individuals and foundations made this exhibition possible. This includes the collectors who loaned their paintings, as well as regular patrons. The forest industry, desiring to better convey its perspective and improve its image, has been especially supportive. The International Paper Foundation funded the installation of the text display at the Vermont Folklife Center.
The collaborators expect a good turnout and high engagement at Middlebury, their second stop, since the paintings contain people and places from the area. They launched the exhibition in Brattleboroin early October, fulfilling their hopes of drawing not only the museum- and gallery-going crowd, but also many working folk who do not frequent cultural centers.
“It’s been outstanding,” said the painter. “I got an email at the beginning from a woman who said her husband never goes to museums, but had happened to see this, and was really impressed with one painting… She had never seen him moved by a piece of artwork before.”
According to Porche, the Brattleboro Museum claims the exhibit was their most effective combination of visual art and text to date.
“That’s because the text was created because of the paintings; the text is the path into the meaning of the paintings,” she said. “Kathleen’s paintings are luminous, effortful and serious … The humanity of it all, the dignity, is implicit. You can’t help stop in awe at what she can do.”
And opening reception for the exhibit “Shedding Light on the Working Forest” will be held Friday, Jan. 15, from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Vision & Voice Gallery at the Vermont Folklife Center, 88 Main St., Middlebury.

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