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VERMONT: A Love Story - Kathleen Kolb





When I left New York City for Vermont, I wanted it all. Land and garden, animals. We got goats and sheep, and pigs, chickens, turkeys and ducks. We jumped in. Until . . . Hawks ate the ducklings, (solving the mystery of why there were no footprints in the snow), the garden had more rocks than plants. The goats leapt the expensive fence, the sheep kept butting my knees backward, leaving me in tears. The pigs were escape artists. We didn’t know the old ways. We read books, trying to learn canning and fencing and breeding, but slowly we discovered how much our neighbors already knew. One day, while in Burlington, I purchased long baguettes for dinner. Meanwhile, the pigs made a break for it and were happily meandering down the dirt road (Minister Book Road) and ignored me as I drove home. Our lovely, petite neighbor, in her 90s and dressed in finery (including white gloves) came along. She stopped her car, noticing my pigs-with-attitude. “Do you have any bread?” she asked. “GOOD bread?” With reluctance, I said I did. I handed the baguettes over, and she was immediately the Pied Piper, leading the pigs back to their pen. She dainty, they eager, following and nibbling the baguettes. I felt so humbled. And grateful.

—Margot Mayor

Painter Kathleen Kolb grew up in Cleveland, moved to New Jersey, attended art school in Rhode Island, and at 20, visited Vermont and instantly felt at home. She said, “This is what I want. I fell in love with Vermont when I was 20, and it was a true romance.”

“It was not just the landscape. It was a lifestyle. Since then, I’ve grown into Vermont and Vermont has grown into me and shaped me in profound ways. In making a life here I have had so many wonderful experiences of kindness from neighbors or acquaintances. That is part of living here.”

Like many young people at that time, she was disillusioned by urban society and hoping to create a different lifestyle in a rural subsistence economy. It was the much ballyhooed ‘Back to the Land’ movement, and it was so much harder than she thought. Kathleen got a wonderful, faraway sweet smile as the two of us remembered our unbridled optimism.

Kathleen continued, “I had enormous respect for my Vermont neighbors who were rooted in the land. Many of us had a naïve dream of self-sufficiency. Like any romance, it has grown and changed enormously over time. I’m fortunate that my affection for this place has endured.”

In her book A Farm of Her Own, Kolb (with writer Natalie Kinsey-Warnock), pays tribute to an earlier, simpler time; gathering eggs, canning, gardening, haying.

“The relationship I developed with this landscape, both geographic and human, has literally fed me on many levels.”

The paintings of Kathleen Kolb are jewels. Light glows from each building. These are paintings one can live with, love for years, never tire of. They have life and heart, and an enduring sense of a good life being lived within.

The quiet twinkle of Kathleen Kolb, her welcoming manner, is similar to the feel of her work. No loud blare, but an inviting kindness. Everyone speaks of Kolb, in terms of her talent and draftsmanship, but also her intense work ethic, her respect for others, her gentle good humor, and a give-and-take collaborative spirit.

Homeward 18x24 oil on linen

Sarah Freeman, Director of Exhibitions at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center spoke of Kathleen’s work:

“Kolb’s paintings show a different side of the Vermont landscape than we usually see. The real Vermont. Not the perfect red barn with the Holstein cows. Something different. It feels very genuine to the experience of being here in Vermont.” These aren’t traditional landscapes, not the bucolic, pastoral scenes of rolling hills. They’re working landscapes. They’re domestic. They’re agricultural. Some are of the logging and forestry industries.

A lot of her landscapes have domestic exteriors—houses with toys in the snow, barns with tools and working implements, clothes hanging on the line.

A barn is a real thing. It’s a place that houses serious work. One of the other things about her work that I find the most striking is how she captures winter light. Light on the snow. That luminous quality that she gets, that sets her apart.”

Kolb reminisced, “When I first came to Vermont, we would drive up from Providence and arrive in the evening. I remember seeing a scene, one of the few people in town who still had farming animals. It just touched me. He was moving around in the barn. At that point, I could feel the cold and the lights and the hills. I could see some sign of life and I put that into the painting. That evening light has remained an important, enduring part of my work.”

“As I look for the next subject, the next painting, I call it ‘Emotional ignition.’ What grabs me? Over the years, as I learned more, I got deeply touched by the hard work being done, the logging industry and climate change.”

Some years ago, Vermont poet Verandah Porche approached Kolb, wanting to collaborate, which led them to create an exhibition about the working landscape in our forests. They created visual and written stories about working the land, with obvious love and respect for those working in the industry. The exhibition opened at the Brattleboro Museum in the fall of 2015, (working with Sarah Freeman) and included paintings and texts Porche had created with people, “told poems” she called them. The years of work led to a book called, Shedding Light on the Working Forest. Porche spoke of the project: “Kathleen gave ‘print’ to each person, grateful to be heard. What are you proud of? She gave an ‘honoring gaze’ to their life’s work. A validation.”

Of the paintings, Kolb recalled, “One log landing in Lincoln I visited at various times of day one winter led to at least four paintings. A couple of these were large oil paintings of log trucks. One of the larger oils was part of a solo exhibition in Stowe. When I walked into the opening reception the room was full. As I looked around, I saw that the owner of the truck, logger Bruce Gilkerson, was standing in front of the painting with tears in his eyes. He and his wife had driven a very long way to be there for the opening. I was so touched that they had done this, and moved by his emotion on recognizing himself in the work, which he hadn’t seen before. In a way this was a watershed moment for me, in discerning how art can validate us. I realized that the work I was making about this community of workers gave them important recognition that was really meaningful to them, and was important in making them and their work visible to the larger community.”

“The next year, I did a smaller painting of Bruce at that same landing, with a skidder. I made a copy of the painting and sent it to him. A week later, his wife called to let me know that Bruce had just died in a logging accident. She kindly told me that he had received the image and loved it.”

David Mance, in his introduction to Shedding Light on the Working Forest, wrote, “The loggers in Kolb’s paintings and Porche’s poems may come from different towns, but they are unified by both the work they do and what the work does to them.”

This is how things often go in Vermont, where the population is small enough for us to be connected personally, one to another. Kathleen recently wrote me:

“I think about place a lot. And the people, and how my work is affected by both. You have asked what is special about being in Vermont and one gets flummoxed: What is NOT special?”


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