Can art change a community?

Jim Lowe
THE LOWE DOWN

Rutland artist Bill Ramage has dedicated his retirement to bringing timely visual art to his community — not to pretty it up, but to make it think.

“Visual art is more than commerce, it’s a conversation,” Bill said. “It’s a wordless dialogue about a community’s sense of self, its strengths, its flaws, its aspirations, and its well-being.”

Most recently — and most visibly — Bill spearheaded the campaign to bring contemporary Syrian art to the region, and he has just now installed his own very visible tribute to world’s best-known — and perhaps most extravagant — installation artists.

A Castleton University professor emeritus of art, Bill was the moving force — with the power of school President David Wolk behind him — in creating, not one, but three CU art galleries in Rutland. For several years now, Bill has been curating cutting-edge shows — art that questions — at Castleton Downtown, a small gallery in the Center Street alley. Bill’s own intricately beautiful panoramic “The Rutland ‘Ideal City’ Drawing,” is on long-term display at Castleton II, a gallery outside the university offices on Merchants Row.

But this year, Bill and Castleton galleries took a big step into the limelight. Mayor Christopher Louras suggested an exhibit of Syrian art as an introduction and welcome to the refugees he had invited to Rutland. Bill coordinated the complex and difficult mechanics with Khaled Youssef, a Syrian physician and artist living in Paris.

On Sept. 1, “The Syrian Experience as Art” opened, digital art by 12 contemporary Syrian artists, split between Castleton Downtown Annex, at the corner of Center Street and Merchants Row in Rutland, and the Christine Price Gallery on the Castleton University campus.

“These concurrent exhibits are not like anything seen before in Rutland or Castleton, because all 12 of the artists are contemporary Syrian people, and all of the art is digital,” Victoria Crain wrote in her Rutland Herald review.

“The Syrian contributors, two women and 10 men, show a great breadth of content, style and visual impulse. Group shows are difficult to characterize, and this one is particularly puzzling because we have both diverse art and content to consider, along with a culture that is not like ours,” she added.

Of course, the process was fraught with problems. The art needed to be digital as there was no way to transport physical works of art out of Syria. And Youssef was prevented from attending the Sept. 18 reception because of a visa rule change. Not to be beaten, he Skyped from Europe to the celebration, talking to the attendees not only as a group, but individually. (The Castleton exhibit remains up until Nov. 7, in Rutland to Jan. 14.)

“In this context, art can visually represent what could be called the human spirit that defines what it means to be a human being and part of a community,” Bill said, “whether it is a town, a state, a nation, or the community of all humanity.”

Without wasting time, Bill was off to his next project, “A Tribute to the Brilliance of Christo and Jean-Claude.” Christo Vladimirov Javacheff (born 1935) and wife Jeanne-Claude (1935-2009) created environmental art unlike any other.

Christo and Jean-Claude creations included wrapping the Berlin Reichstag and the Pont Neuf in Paris, the 24-mile-long artwork “Running Fence” in California’s Sonoma and Marin counties, and “The Gates” in New York City’s Central Park. To his critics, Christo replied, “I am an artist, and I have to have courage. … Do you know that I don’t have any artworks that exist?”

“In 1507, Michelangelo’s ‘David’ visually made the case for the Renaissance ethos that to be human is to be magnificent,” Bill said. “Christo and Jeanne-Claude are making a much-needed case that the potential of the tenacity and ingenuity of the human spirit today can be just as magnificent. The purposes of their installations — which are usually up for only a couple of weeks — are to create an experiential awe in our time, as did the ‘David’ in the 16th century.”

Bill has chosen to pay tribute to a Christo and Jean-Claude work that, on June 27, 1962, lasted only eight hours. They closed the Rue Visconti in Paris with “The Iron Curtain” of stacked oil barrels. It is said to have been a response to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and Algerian War protests at the time in Paris.

Bill has created his own wall of painted oil barrels in the alley next to the former Sal’s on West Street. Like the works of Christo and Jean-Claude, it may not be up long.

“Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world flock to (Christo and Jean-Claude’s) installations, and they are rewarded with the awe of imaging and imagining the forceful motivations of the human spirit,” Bill said. “Without consciously putting it in words, people are as enthusiastic as they are delighted to be part of that.”

Does Bill Ramage think that art can change a community? You’d better believe it.

Jim Lowe is arts editor of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald, and can be reached at jim.lowe@rutlandherald.com or jin.lowe@timesargus.com.