University of Vermont

The College of Arts and Sciences

UVM: An 'art-fueled community'

University of Vermont professor Major Jackson breaks down a poem into themes during a recent creative writing class on Oct. 25, 2011. / EMILY McMANAMY, Free Press

The Bulrlington Free Press sent reporter Sally Pollak to campus to observe classes in poetry, music, sculpture and printmaking.  Below is her article:

An artist can emerge out of anywhere.

That's what Jane Kent thinks. She is a New York-based artist who teaches printmaking at the University of Vermont. Kent has taught studio art at several universities and colleges, including Cooper Union in New York City.

"I'm a born and bred New Yorker, but I don't believe it's the only game in town by any means," Kent said. "There are people all over the place doing all kinds of amazing things. Is there life here? Yes. Art people come out of anything and everything. There are all different ways to emerge, thankfully."

UVM provides an environment that is suitable and desirable for certain artists, she said.

"It's a quieter place," Kent said. "That's its benefit. If you're in a quieter place, it might be the most wonderful place to emerge. It's possible for people to emerge where they feel like they can."

A student can emerge out of anywhere, too. Even a dark corner of the newsroom. From the newsroom, I walked up College Street a number of times in the past few weeks — to classes, lectures, studios. I lingered at UVM longer than I should have, probably; but apart from a deadline there seemed little reason to walk back down the hill.

I toured the printmaking studio when it was empty, showing it to visiting family. We admired the room, the view of the college green and silvery lake, the old presses. The Mondrian-like painted tables in the hall and kitsch museum are worth a look, too; good for another College Street stroll.

Students told me the creative community at UVM happens outside the classroom as well as within, and sometimes starts in a formal setting before moving in its own direction.

"The faculty is amazing and there are plenty of intelligent kids, people who are motivated enough, with enough energy, to have a creative center," said Pete Willett, a junior music major who plays guitar. "It takes energy to be creative."

The students' creativity emerges in writing classes, literary magazines, art exhibits and open mike forums, Magistrale said. Poetry readings like the Painted Word, organized by Major Jackson, Magistrale's colleague in the English department, are part of a renaissance of poetry as a spoken art, Magistrale said.

"I think you've got these two strands of creative enterprises that don't necessarily touch each other," he said. "And every so often they come together in the classroom."

In visits to classes that teach creative arts - poetry, music, sculpture and printmaking — I discerned an overarching theme: the vocabulary and parameters of the disciplines may not be the same, but the creative endeavor has common characteristics and approaches across fields.

The classes involve teaching the particular vocabulary, what it means and how to use it; finding and refining your creative voice within the conventions and context of the discipline; and the old standby: Practice.

As Magistrale said of his poetry writing: "Less inspiration and more sweat."

'To divine the world is to name it'

Students in Jackson's advanced creative writing class were discussing the work of two poets on a recent Tuesday morning, January Gill O'Neil and Deborah Landau. The writers who would be visiting the campus the next day to read at the Painted Word Poetry Series, a monthly poetry reading at UVM's Fleming Museum of Art.

Jackson asked his students to think about the poets' work "relative to what you know both craft-wise, and what's happening emotionally in the poem." They were throwing around words like lineation, lyric, narrative, reflection.

A poem by O'Neil, "The Only Time I Ever Saw My Mother Drunk," was described as confessional — and Jackson took a moment to talk about confessional poetry.

"If it was just a confession, can it be a poem?" he asked. "Why not go to the therapist with it? Does it transform into literary art?"

Through clarity, imagery, particularity in evoking a world, and courage in addressing a topic, it moves in the direction of art, the students and Jackson proposed.

"One of the important roles of the artist is to divine the world around you," Jackson told his students. "To divine it for the poet, is to name it."

Landau's poetry presented the class with another opportunity to talk about what is and isn't literary art. One student made this observation about Landau's writing: "The only time it's clear is when it comes to sex."

Jackson used the comment to ask his students: "If she's not clear, how is she making art?"

Tone, mood, color, meaning, rhythm, cadence, were the ideas that emerged in the discussion.

"The thing about poetry is that it wants to be more than everyday prosaic speech," Jackson said. "It wants to elevate to sacred speech."

The next night at the Fleming, Jackson's students made up a share of the Painted Word audience. After the reading, a few students talked to me about Jackson's poetry class. Usually they discuss each other's work, the students said.

"I feel like everyone's been getting better about talking about literature," Ross Doree, a senior English major, said. "Good and bad."

Student Ethan McBrien added: "That has a lot to do with the community of the people in the class. The more you get to know people, the more useful the feedback. That comes with time, and is only possible with a relatively small class."

The students are starting to use Jackson's language when they talk about poetry, Doree said.

Jackson will be the fiction/poetry editor of the spring 2013 edition of Ploughshares, a prominent literary journal. Four poems from his collection, "Holding Company," were selected for the "Best American Poetry" 2011 anthology.

"I think there is a symbiotic relationship between my own creative efforts and the kinds of conversations that I engage in with my students," Jackson said. "There's this kind of porous exchange of ideas about what makes this provocative work of art that I bring to my writing.

"I can't say that my writing would be any greater or less if I were isolated somewhere in the Northeast Kingdom. I can say that that dynamic does exist, to which I am granted, and grateful."

'To the shop'

"The artist is the jock of today," said Zeke Maxwell, a sophomore art major with a sculpture focus. "I think UVM is a very art-fueled community."

Maxwell grew up in Washington, D.C., the son of artist Rogelio Maxwell. He chose UVM because he wanted "the college experience, plus good art."

In late October, he presented to sculptor/professor Kathleen Schneider the piece he was working on, and explained that its base — or foot — was a can of Red Bull.

"The entire project has been Red Bull-fueled," he said. "The Red Bull can will hold it up aesthetically."

After discussing technical and structural aspects of his work, Schneider made one more comment: "All right," she said. "To the shop."

The wood and metal shop is in the basement of Williams Hall. It's the place where students work on their projects, equipped with supplies, tools and Paul Decausemacker, the shop keeper with 30 years tenure.

"There's a continuity to making things," said Decausemacker, over the roar of power tools and between advise to students. "I think students learn here that they can actually make things. The assignments are not to end up with a beautiful piece of art, it's to think about how to make a beautiful piece of art. It's how to solve problems."

In Schneider's class, students were asked to respond to Picasso's guitar sculpture. Jessica Snook used the idea of an "implied shape" to build an object that resembles a stereo. She grew up in Africa, and has loved art since she was a little kid.

"Ever since I could hold a pencil, I've been drawing," she said. "It just felt right, to do something that I'm loving."

Two days before her sculpture was due, she was shaping and sanding in the basement of Williams Hall. Snook stopped working for a few minutes to talk about the creative community she's found at UVM.

"From what I've seen from my peers, they have very different points of view and I'm very appreciative of that," Snook said. "I've grown up with people from all over the world. I like being around other people's points of view."

Box of crayons

A few days later and a few floors up in the printmaking studio, Kent's students were presenting and discussing a silkscreen project — one that investigated color values. In formal terms, it was called a critique.

Each student had to construct an image in three screens, using two different color solutions. The value of the colors had to be consistent with a previous project, in which students explored tones of gray. The students had free choice about the content of the image - a component of the assignment that was decided by student vote (and not necessarily how Kent would've cast her ballot).

"I make them do a ton of work," Kent said. "Cause I just don't think you grow unless you do a lot of work. I only have them for 15 weeks: a studio class is where we have to emerge as artists."

The students pinned their related images to a wall, and each work was subject to discussion - about color and content, about technique and process, about the relation of the images to each other.

Not infrequently Kent reminded her students to draw, draw, draw, and draw some more as the foundations for their projects.

I know the word draw, but learned some vocabulary in Kent's class. Terms like pictorial behavior and optical action.

One student, using words we all understand, commented on the two images made by a classmate. "The first one, for me, looks like you got to the box of crayons first," he said. "The second one, you were the last one to get to the crayons."

Kent told her class about discussions that took place when she was a student at Philadelphia College of Art in the early '70s. The questions of the day were: Is printmaking stupid? Is painting dead? That kind of categorization is no longer reliable or relevant, she said.

"The dominant, overarching idea is hybridism," Kent said. "If you break apart all these categories, then how are you going to find a way in? Then how do you find meaning in a work of art? There's so much work in the world, I hate to freak you guys out. In every city, think of all the making, making, making. So how do you find your way? Clearly, by the work you make."

Pastrami on rye

The window was open in the practice room of the UVM Recital Hall, where trumpeter/music professor Ray Vega directed a nine-piece jazz ensemble. The students were rehearsing for a gig at the Davis Center for homecoming weekend.

They were running through jazz tunes under the direction of Vega, a touring musician who moved here from New York City in 2008 to teach at UVM.

The students played "Georgia" and "Joy Spring." It was lively and fun in the practice room, with the discipline and direction of a pro-type rehearsal.

The music was enlivened and elevated by the friendly - and instructive — banter of Vega. "Let's do 'Georgia,' featuring the beautiful voice of Ray Leslie, our resident chef," Vega said. (Leslie, on alto sax, had recently cooked dinner for the Vega family.)

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Good, good, good, good, good, good," Vega said, in time to the tune - offering one exclamation for each player in the group.

Willett, the guitar player, took some good-natured heat for missing the UVM performance in favor of a Pat Metheny show in New York.

"He's full of energy, but he's also a perfectionist," Willett said of Vega, after the rehearsal. "He will hear anything. If anybody's lagging behind, he'll hear it."

Sure enough, Vega had heard some lagging in practice - when the band came in after a drum solo, and the tempo slowed.

"You don't have to make all those hits, it's messing with the tempo," Vega told the drummer. "Don't put too much pastrami in the sandwich."

Contact Sally Pollak at or 660-1859