When Le Quoc Viet smiled, his lips parted like a theater curtain revealing his glistening jet black teeth, shining like opalescent pearls harvested from a deep beneath the ocean floor. It was such a disconcerting sight I glanced away hoping when I returned my gaze to his shy face his teeth would actually be white. But they remained black.
Le Quoc Viet, a Vietnamese artist, trained by temple priests since the age of ten in block carving and traditional printing techniques, adopted the pre-colonial tradition of permanently lacquering his teeth, once a sign of beauty and refinement for marriageable girls before the French outlawed it as barbaric. Made from aphid secretions and lemon juice mixed with either iron nail filings, copper, or tarry burnt coconut husks, it is applied as a paste to the teeth to mark the coming of age for proper Vietnamese girls. Le Quoc blackened his teeth to identify with his pre-colonial origins and openly display his rebellion and originality.
Le Quoc Viet was just one of the many artists I met while in residence at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont this past spring. The largest art colony in the U.S. (at least 50 artists and writers in residence each month), it is unorthodox in that it emphasizes community. Traditional residencies gingerly place trays of food outside your door and consider any socializing "optional." The emphasis is the brainchild of Jon Gregg, the founder and president, who believes that "Throughout the teachings of all the wisdom traditions the opening of the heart to others and the loss of self is seen as the path to fulfillment, while the ego-based competitive attitude of so much of today and the art and literary worlds in particular lead to isolation, separation and sadness."
A trim man sporting clear European-style spectacles, Gregg is a painter but trained as an architect under the legendary Louis Kahn. At one time he ran his own architectural firm out of the old red gristmill, now transformed into the Vermont Studio Center dining room overlooking the roaring waterfall of the Gihon River. Three times a day residents gather for meals cooked by a gourmet chef, a former military man who walks around with a shaved head wearing riotous multi-colored shorts. Inevitably, of course, the residents "socialize." They are a mix of old and young, writers and visual artists, and from scores of different countries. As Gregg says, "Enough to sort of make it clear that we are not supposed to be competing with each other and maintaining a destructive illusion of separateness."
Community, though, is not heaven. There are residents you trade jabs with and debate, those who understand you and, of course, those who think you are nuts. The beehive quality of all of these daily encounters force rivalries and friendships to flare up, people become edgy, and cliques form. Colonies are still, despite Gregg’s best efforts, rife with ego, reputation and competition. He tries to downplay that by stressing a more "humane" approach, "based on impermanence and non-attachment and an awareness of illusion." He shares a simple formula: "If you give people a place to work and you feed them and you let them hang out with other nice people and you don’t have to do anything else but paint or write you will end up with a bunch of happy people."
The Studio Center started humbly in 1984 when Louise von Weise, the co-founder, was sitting on the back porch with Jon deciding whether she should go to graduate school for painting, and decided that instead of leaving Vermont they could ask people to come to them. Jon enlisted the aid of the legendary art historian Meyer Schapiro, who divided his time between Vermont and New York, and Schapiro helped make the necessary New York art world connections to launch the first three summer sessions. Louise insisted that as many women as possible be hired and during that first summer she and Jon literally constructed the beds and easels, changed the sheets, and cleaned the toilets. Louise had studied Agni Yoga, originally founded in 1920 by the painter, explorer, and Tibetologist Nicholas Roerich and his wife Helena as a synthesis of Eastern and Western thought. Agni Yoga emphasizes the heart as a link to everything. The oil pump house for the Vermont Studio Center was appropriately refurbished and turned into a meditation hut.
Now the Vermont Studio Center owns 30 buildings in a village with a population of only 2,500. It shares the library, gym and other facilities with nearby Johnson State College, located on the top of a mountain. For their detailed restoration of the town’s buildings, which turned them into studios and lecture halls, they have been given awards by the national Trust for Historic Preservation. By 2002, the Studio Center accommodated 84 foreign artists from 31 countries, as well as hosting special residencies devoted just to Vermont artists as well as hundreds of artists from around the United States. It also runs a non-profit press producing etchings and monoprints by prominent artists that are sold to raise money for the colony, and has a special art program for students in the local schools.
In general the Studio Center invites seven distinguished visiting artists and writers a month. They either show slides of their work or give a reading in the former church cum lecture hall, where residents listen intently from creaky wooden pews. Each resident is allotted an hour conference or studio visit if requested. These visits can offer incredible insight or turn out to be blatantly offensive. I showed different chapters of my novel to two highly accomplished writers. One advised changing genres entirely, and the other presented me with their personal copy of a master novelist’s book in homage to the material I was writing about. Both were insightful, brilliant and honed in on different aspects, and both left me knowing more about advanced technique than I had previously. In previous residencies one writer suggested we all howl at the moon like wolves (I didn’t) and a very prominent critic traded barbs and slurs with me over the racial characteristics of my protagonist. Because he was so acerbic, condescending, and ultimately racist, he was barred from returning to the Vermont Studio Center.
The individuals who come to the Studio Center are an amalgam; those who make your heart stop with their genius and those who you groan over because of their pomposity and pretentiousness. There are those who have overcome severe political adversity and those who are pampered, privileged and spoiled trustafarians. I met individuals from the 3rd and even the 4th worlds that were stunningly humble about their great gifts and Ivy League types who believed they were self-appointed geniuses. There was, during one residency, a romance novel writer who came to every evening meal carrying a floral pink table setting replete with cloth placemats and ornate napkin holders and placed two candelabras on the table with lit candles that smelled like Kmart potpourri. She lived in a southern state and wrote clichéd bodice rippers. But I have also seen, during open studio night, or during resident’s slide shows or readings, displays of world-class talent and breathtaking originality.
Gregg says, "The model I am building this on is more of a monastic model than an art model," one he emulated after spending time with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama in 1971 at what was then Tail of The Tiger and is now Karme Choling in Barnet, Vermont. The first person he remembers meeting when he visited was Olive Colon, former wife of Carl Solomon, to whom Allen Ginsberg dedicated his seminal poem "Howl." "Trungpa scared the hell out of me," Jon recalled, and point-blank asked "do you sit?" Jon deftly outlined all the reasons he avoided doing so, and Trungpa told him "Just sit." So he did, and built upon that simple instruction by basing the Vermont Studio Center on the community model at Karme Choling. He has expanded it to include The Open Center Program whose mandate "supports the making of art as an expression of spirit through form," while acknowledging the need for an "open hearted mindfulness and awareness as a basis for meaningful art." Representatives of "wisdom traditions" come each month to present informal talks about the relationship of their spiritual practice and creative path. Arawana Hayashi, a Bugaku dancer and meditation teacher in residence at Karme Choling, lectured residents one afternoon around a large oval table in the staff meeting room about the nature of mind in relation to meditation practice. After sharing dinner with everyone, Arawana gave basic sitting instruction in the meditation hut.
In general meditative traditions have not played a significant part in the West in developing those tendencies since the late Middle Ages, but they have persisted in the East from earliest recorded history. And the Vermont Studio Center, without any didacticism, encourages mediation and the practice of making art in that direction. "We didn’t know what the hell we were doing," Gregg told me. "The board is always saying "Oh Jon, you have such great vision," and I say "I have a fucking roadmap and my roadmap happens to be Buddhism." Echoing his sentiments, photographs line his private painting studio of the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Louis Kahn. He adds, "I desperately need it. I work at it every day."
Contact information for applying for a Vermont Studio Center residency can be found at their website, http://www.vermontstudiocenter.org