Portrait of the artist on a dairy farm
I once went to a violin concert in a large concert hall where, in the middle of the first movement of a sonata, the soloist stopped suddenly, turned, and walked off stage.
What was happening? My colleague, who was very knowledgeable about music and musicians, informed me that a string had broken on the violin and the violinist had gone to replace it. Later I asked him why the violinist had not announced to the audience what had happened. He explained that a work of art should stand on its own, without the artist intruding in any way.
I no longer agree with the convention that the person producing the art always remains aloof. So it was refreshing to learn the Vermont painter Gary Hamel chose to go and actually live on a small dairy farm when he wanted to portray this very fundamental part of New England rural life. To Hamel the family farm was more than a pretty hillside with cows grazing; it was a way of life that was being threatened by the new economics of size and machinery. He felt an emotional tie to the places and the people, and he wanted to preserve them through his art.
On the Illsley farm in Braintree, Vt., Hamel spent four months of winter and spring following the three generations of family members on their chores, roaming the fields, sitting in the barn with the animals, and cooking in the kitchen with the grandmother. He observed and sketched, and produced finished works of art in his studio-room on the second floor of the farmhouse. Meanwhile, the farm family observed and talked with him. It was a first for both of them.
It was a first in another way for communication between artist and non-artist when Ian McVey came and made a half-hour documentary on videotape. The film itself provides a moving experience, allowing us to see artist Hamel and the five Illsleys at their work and to hear them interact. In an imaginative use of technology, the film travels with the exhibit and can be viewed on a small TV screen in the same room with the paintings, thereby bringing the viewer into contact with the creative process that produced the pictures he is seeing. Regional dairy organizations which helped fund the documentary show the film at their meetings, and as a result some farmers have traveled quite a distance to view the pictures. One of the galleries even served milk from the Illsley farm.
In thinking about getting more people in touch with the creative process, I am reminded of the artist Christo, who in May 1983 designed what he called ''Surrounded Islands'' - 11 islands in Biscayne Bay, Florida, ringed by 6 million square feet of floating pink plastic. Involved in the project were the many officials who participated in public hearings and prototype tests during 1982, as well as 400 workers who delivered the plastic and placed 610 anchors on the day the plastic was unfurled. This event may be the ultimate in the artist interacting with his public. Yet, as some critics pointed out, the work was discouragingly void of human values.
Hamel's art has not been photographed from the air or written up in Newsweek as a happening, but it has touched the lives in his own region at a deep level.
Creating a work of art, whether it be painting a picture or mastering a piece of music, is, of course, essentially a solitary activity. The intense concentration required to put a vision into form, with all the hours of painstaking work that it involves, is nurtured by solitude. But the creative side of the public deserves nourishment, too, and artists might find that they have more to give than they have perceived. If they cared to, they could come up with many more ways to remove themselves and the public from their separate camps, and foster interaction that would benefit both of them.
Even the stroller stopping to watch an artist at his easel by the shore finds his own powers quickening, a surge of energy, and a spark that tells him that he , too, has creative urges asking to be used.
In the documentary on the farm, we see Illsley maneuvering his huge tractor around a bend, and we hear him saying, ''Gary has a talent that he has to use and work hard with. I have a talent, too: how to solve problems and figure out the best way to do things.''
As for Hamel, he simply says, ''It was the most significant experience of my life.''