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After the floods, Vermont artists and arts groups salvage materials, work

Matt Neckers
Matt Neckers
Johnson, one of the towns hit hard by recent flooding, is home to the Vermont Studio Center, an international artist residency. Sarah Audsley, the center's writing program manager, and others clean up after the floods.

Flooding ravaged Weston's 87-year-old theater, knocking out electricity and water and cracking the foundation. An international artist residency in Johnson saw studios and print archives damaged.

Vermont Edition talked with artists and arts advocates across the state who are responding to the flooding. They've adjusted upcoming performances, salvaged materials and work, and have started to recover.

Arts are an important part of Vermont, being the third-largest contributor to the state's economy. And during the summer — at the height of performance schedules, events and summer tourism — it's important that the show goes on.

But for plenty of Vermont artists, that's proving hard to do when studios, theaters and personal property is flooded, and in some areas, flooded worse than the last time they rebuilt during Irene.

Susan Evans McClure is the executive director of Vermont Arts Council, a group that provides arts funding and advocacy in the group. Now, they're providing flood relief resources, too.

The Arts Council works to connect people through art, and McClure said the flooding is another opportunity for communities to connect.

Many arts organizations and artists have participated in ways to support each other and the communities hit with flooding, from taking in displaced performances to hosting food and supplies drives. The human connection to art is something McClure said is important to the rebuilding process.

"We need the skills that artists have to help us all heal from what we've gone through," McClure said. "Art can really help us process these experiences together. And I think we really need that more now than ever before. It just feels like this is a time where our communities can feel divided. But what we need to heal from this is opportunities to come together."

These opportunities to heal through art, together, isn't new. That human connection to art has already been helping carry artists through a different crisis: COVID-19.

"The performing arts — live performance — was notoriously the first to close during the pandemic and the last to reopen," said Susanna Gellert, the executive artistic director of the Weston Theater Company. "2023 was really our year to return to full interaction with our total audience. We had programmed a season that was going to bring us back to pre-pandemic levels of interaction."

Weston Theater Company was at the height of their summer programming when flooding started. Where Irene took about a week to rebuild from, Gellert said remediation is still happening today at the theater. Gellert said this is the first time in the building's history that water affected the audience space. The theater most likely won't be usable by the end of summer.

Hope Sullivan, executive director of Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, echoed these sentiments. The Vermont Studio Center just restarted residencies in 2022. Now, they are dealing with unprecedented flooding that completely destroyed some studios, and impacted other parts of the program like lodging.

Artists had to learn a lot about how to preserve community, safely, during COVID. Those skills are proving important for flood response this summer. Sullivan said there are initiatives running in the background from COVID that will be important in flood recovery.

"We already have been in the process of really taking a hard look at all of our facilities, especially our lodging, but also our studio facilities, and finding ways to make them safer for our entire community," Sullivan said.

For artist Jeremy Ayers, owner of Jeremy Ayers Potteryin Waterbury, this flooding luckily didn't impact his business as extremely as Irene did. But he's still hesitant. This is the second time his work has been impacted by extreme weather, weather that is becoming more frequent.

Ayers said he is starting to question if this is the right place for him and his art.

"It feels like it could happen again here this month, or next year," Ayers said. "It wasn't even a tropical storm, it was just a rainstorm. So I think that I'm questioning where I'm setting myself up. And I think that definitely younger artists would need to do that as well."

Ayers said income loss is an important part of flooding; even if studios weren't damaged, many artists are dealing with personal property damages that may impact their work.

McClure agreed; while Vermont has seemed like a climate refuge, these weather events are starting to challenge that idea.

"Folks are going to have to take climate change into mind when they're making decisions about their livelihood, their art making, in ways that, you know, weren't top of mind a few years ago," McClure said.

McClure also said many organizations are thinking about rebuilding differently this time, with climate resilience in mind.

McClure said the rebuilding process will be a lot of work, but will be approached wholistically and collaboratively. Just like art is.

Editor's note: Producer Eric Ford's wife works for the Vermont Studio Center.

Broadcast at noon Tuesday, July 25, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
As Director of Content Partnership, Eric works with individuals and organizations to make connections leading to more Vermont stories. As Producer of the Made Here series, Eric partners with filmmakers from New England and Quebec to broadcast and stream local films. Find more info here: