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A Foundation with Art and Soul

Most often I write about exhibits of art on the white walls of galleries or museums. But can art also help a community to prepare itself for the future? Should artists play a role in a community as fundamental as an elected official would or a city planner? Why not?

That's a question that Lyman Orton is asking. Better known as the heir to the Vermont Country Store empire and later forming the Orton Family Foundation, Orton has long been a supporter of the arts and artists in Vermont, searching for fresh and creative ideas to encourage local communities as they re-think their futures. This past weekend I traveled to the village of Starksboro, Vermont, for a barn dance and dinner, prepared from the local community garden (yumm), to celebrate the successful completion of an Orton Foundation, Art and Soul project conceived by Orton Fellow and my friend, the artist Matthew Perry. (Matthew also runs the Vermont Arts Exchangeand its fabulous Basement Music Series, which I've written about previously.) After a challenging vetting process, Matthew's proposal was chosen over two others for an Orton grant working with the Starksboro community.

Matt has a renovated school bus, turned into a mobile art studio, that he uses to bring art classes and programs to schools and the veterans' hospital in the Bennington, Vermont area. Recently he took the art bus on a road trip north to Starksboro, which began what he called his Roadside Conversations. The first stop was the Volunteer Fire Hall to ask the fire crew what they liked best about their community or what wasn't working. Slowly they warmed to this outsider -- an artist no less -- and had some solid responses and ideas, like how do we protect out town when we can't find local employment and have to travel long distances. Much story telling ensued.

Another engagement was at the town meeting, where Matt got attendees to air their dirty laundry. He then painted the issues on shirts and towels, issues including how the youth are moving away and lack of jobs; then Matt strung them on a clothes line literally to blow in the wind. It was brilliant and a very effective way for the citizens of the community to start a discussion, visualize their thoughts, and take ownership of them.

Of the many projects undertaken over the past summer, one of my favorites was a discussion of safety with local school kids. Each child was given a generic "Slow Children" street sign, but on these signs they drew self-portraits in place of the generic stick figures. The results personalized the importance of public safety: the child you save may be someone very familiar. The signage is also very cool and quite noticeable: this a definite keeper for a national program.

Is there a place for artists in community planning, an official designation? My response is a resounding Yes! And it's about time. In this perilous time of tanking art markets it's also an opportunity for some artists to rethink their own value to the community: are you missing something in your current career path? Can your talent as a musician, poet, or dancer have a tangible benefit for your community beyond the traditional formats? The Orton Foundation believes so. More images on Flickr.

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