'Seeing' series: Hinesburg multimedia maker Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees on histories, language and dreams
Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees lives in Hinesburg. She’s 77, and has lived a life at the crossroads of identities, cultures and worldviews — she has Native, African and European ancestors.
TwoTrees works across mediums, including multi-sensory installations with sound, smell and visuals. While she calls herself a multimedia artist, she prefers the term “maker.”
“If you live in a room with two things, I'll make them into something else, and I think I've been doing that since I was about 7," she said. “I've been making art since the 1970s.”
Watch Shanta Lee Gander's full interview with Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees here:
Vermont was unexpected for Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees. She arrived in 2008, but traveled back and forth between California, New Mexico and Vermont before making the Green Mountain State her home in 2012.
“I'm a desert rat. I love the desert and the big sky,” she said. “But I kept finding myself coming back here, because I had begun to build deep, deep relationships with people here. And so it was in one of those trips here that a friend took me to a piece of forest here. And in that forest, I was told that I needed to come here, and that there was work to do. And there was work to do with that piece of land particularly.”
The land in question was a stretch of forest at Shelburne Farms. And it inspired Kaylynn’s first major art installation in Vermont, called “Of Land and Local.”
“And what it was was an exploration of the conflicting and sometimes incommensurate histories of the peoples of this place,” she said. “Abenaki history — their own history, not the history, the colonizers' history of them, but their own history — Black farmers here in Hinesburg, where I now live, and their history here, and the history of other settlers that came later. And the history of visitors, and the history of ... Black communities that were here over time, particularly in Winooski and Malletts Bay.”
This wasn’t just an exhibition bringing together land and history, but almost a way of stretching the audience to both envision and be encased in what a specific landscape sounds like given all that it has witnessed or experienced.
Think about a spot you remember from your childhood. Maybe a schoolyard or a backyard. If you had to think about all of the sounds that came together in that space, what would that sound like?
“The room had like an old stone wall that was made out of beeswaxed fabric, that had the sound of old Vermont, Green-Mountain-Boy-kind of stories,” Kaylynn said. “Further back, there were these standing trees like saplings made out of cloth. That was the sound of some of the findings of the eugenics program. And then further along, there was an old tree stump with the sound of some of the history of the Black farmers. And then, at the very back, was a Grandmother Tree sculpted out of cloth that was telling the story of the lake, of Pitawbagw, the Abenaki story of the lake.”
Kaylynn says all these were happening at the same time.
“So when you got close to the sculpture that was that sound, you could hear that really clearly,” she said. “But everything else was kind of like dissonance in the field. But there was one place in the middle of the room, that if you stood there, you can hear them all, like a chorus.”
For Kaylynn, the goal for this piece and all other work originates in wanting to invoke, provoke, and evoke.
”It has always been important to me to invoke the ancestors and all of life and the universe, into the space that I'm working or into the work that I'm making, so that I become a vessel for the work to come through,” she said. “So that invocation is the first piece of any piece. So to invoke the place from which it comes, the source of the creative impulse, which is the source of all life.”
Next, she says, it’s essential to evoke a response in the viewer.
“It's not very interesting to me to create work that can be passively consumed,” Kaylynn said. “More to try to trigger memories or trigger connections, trigger some kind of deep, deep, deep DNA memory, or to evoke an emotional response, a connection, the beginnings of a relationship, the beginnings of the memory of a relationship in the viewer or in the participants.”
And then comes the provocation.
“I do find that there is something about being outside of the parameters of things — I do see myself as a borderlands person,” she said. “I used to think that I was a crossroads person, but I actually think that I kind of cruise at the borderlands, and have for most of my life. In doing that, there is something that I'm provoking. I'm provoking a conversation. I’m provoking a thought, a surprise in the viewer — and in myself sometimes.”
Kaylynn’s latest work is called “Falling into Language.” The multimedia exhibition includes film, sound, and images.
“Well, I'm in my 70s now, so I'm thinking about leaving. What does it mean to leave? What does it mean to leave clean?” Kaylynn said. “What does it mean to be present in this time of leaving, when you are closer to the exit than the entrance?”
She says this project started with some automatic writing.
“I created this secret language that was just shape, but ... almost looked like you could read it," she said. "And just playing with it over time, and hanging it up on the walls, lots of it, lots of it everywhere. And then I started painting over it, and thinking about the ways that language connect us and separate us."
Kaylynn said something happens when you learn another language — you learn new ways of seeing things.
“I heard a story about a village in southern India, where they do a ceremony they've been doing for 4,500 years: They sing these songs that have been handed down through the men, and no linguist has been able to link those songs to any human language,” she said. "And the closest they could find was bird language. It made me start thinking about language more. Was there — or when was the time when we spoke with the animals? When was the time that we all spoke the same language? And what was that language? And what was that world, and what was the communication?”
“Falling Into Language” was on display at Burlington City Arts in the summer and fall last year. I visited during that time, and the first thing that caught me down a slightly lit hallway was the description leading to the exhibition. Within it was a fragment of a story Kaylynn borrowed from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “She Unnames Them,” which reads:
“Eve yearns to return to a primordial sea. And the misunderstandings caused by words, no longer stand between her and the rest of creation. So she unnamed all the animals from the sea otters to the bees, when she's done, she Marvels how they feel far closer than when their names had stood between myself and them as the barrier.”
As I entered the exhibit space, I saw the paintings mounted on the wall. My eyes wanted to attempt to read some of the pieces of language I came across. The space itself was immersed in sound, what Kaylynn described as the pieces being “sang alive.”
“Maybe language as we understand it now is something that's a devolution rather than an evolution,” Kaylynn said. “In Native culture, there's a lot of vocables, a lot of songs that are sounds without meaning, but they do have meaning. They do communicate, but they're not literal meaning.”
“How much time do we give ourselves to dream? How much time do we give ourselves to stop explaining and break out of the box through imagination, and dreaming so that we can dream a future that's not dystopian? And that has a presence in the here and now, so that we can live into it? "Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees
Another way of finding meaning beyond what is literal, Kaylynn says, is to dream.
“I'm really grateful for the possibilities that Vermont has created in my life, I have a life here that I never imagined, in a million years, that I would have,” she said. “We live in times that can be seen as very chaotic, and uncertain and negative. There's so much projection of a dystopian future that feels like it fills up the airspaces, and so I think that I would love to leave people with the idea to leave with the idea of dreaming.”
She added: “How much time do we give ourselves to dream? How much time do we give ourselves to stop explaining and break out of the box through imagination, and dreaming, so that we can dream a future that's not dystopian? And that has presence in the here and now, so that we can live into it? That's — that seems possible. And so I'm holding on to that possibility, with an immense sense of gratitude.”
This story is part of "Seeing…the Unseen and In-Between within Vermont's Landscape," a series dedicated to the exploration of culture, place, people, and the stories that run deep here in Vermont.