This Montpelier sculpture garden was a testament to climate change. Then it flooded.
Montpelier was one of the hardest hit areas in the recent major flooding that devastated many communities throughout the state. Water spread across State Street, including through the Vermont Arts Council sculpture garden located just a few hundred feet from the statehouse.
The installation, "Elements of Shelter," opened in May of this year. It was designed and created in partnership with the Yestermorrow Design Build School in Waitsfield. It will be up until May of 2025.
The exhibit features five tall timber frames in the shape of houses straddling a pathway through the garden. Each house displays one of the essential elements to Chinese medicine and shelter: earth, wood, metal, water and fire.
The elements are shown through intricate, colorful stained glass windows which seamlessly turn into paintings on the wood frame.
Yet these works of art saw feet of water lap at their wooden bases as water crested the banks of the Winooski River in July.
Meg Reinhold is one of the lead artists and painted the colorful, detailed wooden houses. She’s in awe the sculptures made it through the storm unharmed.
“It’s just, yeah, it’s amazing that it was able to withstand that, honestly,” Reinhold says.
The exhibit deals with themes of climate change and the housing crisis, both intertwined with the causes and consequences of this month’s flooding.
Some parts of Vermont saw upwards of nine inches of rain onto already saturated ground. As communities work on recovery, those seeking temporary housing face an extremely tight rental market.
Thea Alvin, the artwork’s other lead artist, worked with the stained glass. She says these five natural elements are intertwined with providing enough housing for Vermonters.
“These elements are all aspects of what it takes to build a house,” Alvin says. “But here, they are all segmented. And they're useless when they're in section, but they have to be put together, they have to be assembled in some meaningful way in order to provide actual shelter.”
In June, the state decided to stop funding a pandemic-era motel housing program for low income Vermonters, evicting around 800 people. But during the June legislative veto session, lawmakers voted to extend funding for roughly 1,200 households.
And Alvin and Reinhold’s work points to this lack of housing for those across the state.
“Having these fragile structures out here in the elements is a lot like our homeless folks that are around us at all times,” Alvin says. “And these elements are all aspects of what it takes to build a house. But here, they are all segmented and they're useless when they're in section, but they have to be put together, they have to be assembled in some meaningful way, in order to provide actual shelter.”
Alvin and Reinhold aimed to convey the fragility of housing through their work, like the delicacy of glass atop a wooden structure.
Having these fragile structures out here in the elements is a lot like our homeless folks that are around us at all times.Thea Alvin, "Elements of Shelter" co-lead artist
For Alvin, it’s personal. She cares for her mother who has Alzheimer’s disease. She says “it’s terrifying” how close the housing crisis touches everyone's lives.
“If we become houseless, that's very, very real. It's very real that a health crisis makes a family have no home,” Alvin says.
And like many throughout the state saw earlier last month, a climate crisis can rip a family’s home away from them as well.
Reinhold says much of "Elements of Shelter" has to do with balance. Balance between the elements of Mother Nature, and our role in her destruction.
“I think we need to have respect for these forces, you know, and understand that our behavior does have an influence on whether things are imbalanced or whether they're not,” she says.
Vermont is no stranger to the effects of climate change, as the state has warmed by three degrees in the past century, and annual average precipitation has increased by six inches in the past 60 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Reinhold says it's important to find the balance between how these elements “help us and hurt us.” For example, take water and fire. They provide us many comforts in life, like plumbing, heating and cooking.
“They’re also things that will, you know, burn your house down and wash it away,” she says.
While the sculpture garden remained mostly unharmed, a bench designed by Johno Landsman, another artist on the project, did wash away. It was thankfully found and returned. Alvin says it's a symbol of the homeless population in Vermont.
“It allows us some rest and some comfort,” Alvin says, referring to the bench. “It's a juxtaposition of the solidity and the comfort that it offers to the fragility and the transparency of the other structures that are more vertical.”
And while the installation certainly deals with heavy themes, the artists say the creation behind the artwork was joyful.
Reinhold and Alvin met at Yestermorrow, where Alvin taught stonework classes and Reinhold worked as a cook. Reinhold took one of Alvin’s classes and they formed a bond not only as artists, but also as friends.
“She and I have a long friendship,” Alvin says. “She's painted the inside of my house, it's like walking into a forest.”
It was this relationship that inspired the two to collaborate on this installation when the Arts Council asked Yestermorrow to design a new exhibit.
Reinhold says she “really admired” the grandeur of Alvin’s work and that it encouraged her to think bigger.
“I had always worked very small as an artist and so that actually kind of got the wheels turning for me of like, 'Oh, what if I go big?'” she says.
For Alvin, going big surrounds all of her work.
“Going big has always been something that I aspire to in my work, I think, because I'm a small person, but also because I think that your physical size shouldn't characterize your voice and your capacity to reach people,” Alvin says.
But Alvin and Reinhold aren’t solely responsible for the powerful themes "Elements of Shelter" brings to light.
Desmond Peeples, the garden’s curator for the Arts Council, says the council wanted to display something different than recent years.
“When looking for a new partner for this sculpture garden, I wanted someone, an organization, that would have an unusual or unexpected take on sculpture,” Peeples says.
The Yestermorrow school fit right in with Peeples’ expectations. Anastastia Laurenzi co-curated the exhibit with Desmond and is the director of semester programs at Yestermorrow. She says the sculptures make visitors confront the reality of homelessness and climate change.
“It's become a broader conversation, like we realized that it's so much bigger than our own issues that we face in Vermont,” Laurenzi says. “But I think what's really great about this is that we are really asking poignant questions, and we're being asked to face it on a daily basis.”
And the questions this exhibit brings to life have an important audience: Vermont lawmakers. Standing tall on State Street, legislators are a constant presence.
Laurenzi says the installation’s location couldn’t be more important.
“Maybe the installation is somewhat of a mirror to the statehouse across the way and saying, 'We're asking these questions,'” she says. “'Can you ask these questions with us?'”
Alvin shares Laurenzi’s aspiration that "Elements of Shelter" highlights these topics for visitors.
“I'm really hopeful that this work inspires curiosity and exploration of new ways to approach problems,” she says.
Reinhold echoes Alvin and Laurenzi’s sentiments, and says the sculptures serve as a reminder of the floods, the strength of Vermonters and the power of Mother Earth.
“If there is breaking, if there is deterioration,” Reinhold says, referring to the houses, “I think that that's sort of an important history embedded in the work that marks this weather event. And it marks the fragility and the impossibility of building to withstand such crazy forces of nature.”
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