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Artists Take Over Former Phish HQ 

Eyewitness

In her 1929 book A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf flayed a common bias by suggesting that a woman could be a man’s creative equal, given her own money and the space in which to do so. Also implied in that equal-opportunity scenario, of course, is uninterrupted time. Though Woolf was specifically referring to writing fiction, her book title became a catchphrase for the personal liberties that any artist, regardless of gender or medium, requires to produce good work.

Nearly 80 years later, gender inequality isn’t the issue it once was, but that money-room-time thing is still the artist’s Holy Grail. And, to mix the religious metaphor, its two-word mantra is studio space.

Virginia Woolf, meet Trey Anastasio.

Huh?

Yep, musicians need creative space as much as writers and visual artists do. In fact, to avoid pissing off the neighbors, they need sound-proofed, or isolated, space. Anastasio chose the latter option when he built a rehearsal and recording studio in the woods about a decade ago for his band, Phish. But after the beloved Vermont jam-rockers broke up, the capacious, rustic building, dubbed simply “the Barn,” was used sporadically until this past year. Rather than sell the property, the former front- man did something altruistic: He turned it into an artists’ retreat.

Specifically, Anastasio teamed up with Burlington City Arts to offer a residency program he dubbed the Seven Below Arts Initiative. According to the BCA website, its purpose is “to foster artistic development and support arts education in the state of Vermont.” Known for his support of local arts education, Anastasio previously collaborated with BCA on one of its annual Print Projects.

BCA Director Doreen Kraft turned to Burlington sculptor Lars Fisk to design and manage the residency program. “Trey just came up with this notion that he’d like to see visual artists use the Barn,” says Fisk. “I had done a few of these [residencies] myself in other places, and I wanted to do something like them here.” It was another logical pairing, as Fisk had been a designer at half-a-dozen Phish shows. He had also been trying to create a residency program at a Pine Street studio enclave. “I’m not sure if Trey imagined me being involved,” Fisk says. “But when Doreen suggested to him that I might be the first artist, Trey thought, ‘Great!’ I’d be the first participant and the guinea pig; I could jump-start the program.”

Though Anastasio’s initial concept was that a single artist would live and work at the Barn for an entire year, Fisk immediately proposed expanding the project. “Why not push it into a smallish community?” he says. “I felt the potency in this program could lie in the fact that a group could support and learn from one another.”

The result: The Barn was renovated to include three bedrooms and three semi-private work spaces, along with a shared kitchen and bathroom. Three artists at a time can come for two-month stints — April-May, June-July or August-September. (Winter is out, as the dirt road is too steep to contend with.) Along with the space and time comes a $2000 stipend.

This year, Seven Below’s first, the April-May session was a bit of a trial run, allowing the organizers to work out the kinks. Along with Fisk, two local artists — Scott Lenhardt and Elliott Katz — were handpicked to “really flesh out the place,” he says. A seven-person committee, including artists and “people from the Phish world,” selected the artists for the following sessions. Anastasio’s sister, Kristy Manning, manages Seven Below.

In the session that just ended, four artists rather than three were on hand. That’s because multimedia artist Carlos Ferguson lives and works out of an Airstream — the silver trailer, retrofitted to accommodate his film-based, “visual-experience” art, was parked for the last two months down the winding driveway from the Barn. That is, when he wasn’t on location in the Burlington area showing his vintage home movies.

Fisk envisions expanding the residencies even further: “I proposed building cabins on the property,” he says of the forested 65 acres. Or the program could host another day resident who didn’t need a bedroom — a local artist, or an itinerant, self-sufficient one like Ferguson.

The residencies have few requirements other than “a history of rigorous work”: Artists can be at any stage in their careers, come from anywhere, and work in virtually any genre the Barn can hold. As at any such colony or retreat, the artists who apply for a Seven Below residency “want to be pulled from their everyday life,” explains Fisk. “They might have a full-time job; people in a dense city can benefit from being drawn into the quietude of this place. It’s for people who otherwise may not have the space or time.”

A plum perk of managing the Barn is studio space of his own — Fisk is working on some models for larger works. Though a painter can work effectively here, he notes, the Barn is not currently well suited to large-scale sculpture. His responsibilities also keep his “residency” from becoming a self-indulgence. “It’s been really interesting to be a participant as the same time I’m an administrator,” Fisk says. “I can’t really embrace the sort of ‘remote detachment’ because I’m responsible for all these other things. I’m not sure I want to do that indefinitely.”

But Fisk is planning to stay on for a while, and he isn’t complaining; he clearly appreciates the camaraderie with other artists and the opportunity to develop the endeavor, virtually from the ground up. “It occurs to me, this is sort of an extension of what I’d been doing with Phish,” he reflects. “It’s an orchestration of individual projects. It’s not entirely surprising,” Fisk adds, “that since the recording studio was more and more dormant, Trey would re-energize this place with a visual-arts slant.”

Virginia Woolf aside, another book title instantly springs to mind at the Barn: A Room with a View. The 1908 E.M. Forster novel — and its 1985 film adaptation — took place in scenic Florence, Italy, but the forest-and-mountain vista that greets visitors here has its own rugged splendor. In fact, it’s a wonder Seven Below residents can tear themselves from the windows long enough to get anything done.

The exact location of the Barn is well guarded — a reporter is sworn to secrecy — perhaps to prevent an encampment of disconsolate, starry-eyed Phishheads. Suffice it to say that the impressive, angular structure, reconstructed from an actual barn, hugs a wooded hillside in Chittenden County less than 30 minutes’ drive to downtown Burlington. The silence, and sense of isolation, belie its proximity to civilization. The place is, in every sense of the word, a retreat. With the advantages of electricity and running water.

The side door of the Barn opens onto a sort of mudroom next to the bathroom. Walk into the kitchen beyond, and the space immediately opens up — both above and below. The ceiling of the main room is two stories high; on the floor, only partial walls enclose the studio spaces, and they have no doors. This makes the space feel simultaneously cavernous and intimate; at one end, vast glass doors are thrown open in good weather, framing a view of Mt. Mansfield and letting in a flood of soft white light. Small bedrooms are tucked on this level and on a loft-like second floor. Visitors free of acrophobia can also make their way across a narrow, suspended catwalk to a one-person elevator, which creaks slowly up to a cupola-cum-lookout-post above.

In addition to Fisk and Ferguson, the artists in the August-September residency are Josh Reiman, a former Vermonter now living in Ithaca, New York, and Anna Schackte, from Brooklyn by way of South Carolina. Reiman’s work, mostly produced outdoors, is a photo-documentary he’s calling “Anthro-Apology.” Or at least, that will be the result. Leading a visitor down a path and into a clearing in the woods, Reiman explains that his idea “stems from looking at artifacts from history and figuring what the history is all about from them.” For this project, he’s creating “a culture that never existed,” he says. This involved creating seven representative characters, then making their costumes, jewelry, artwork . . . and offerings for a “tomb” inside a 30-foot-high pyramid. The last “artifact” Reiman is building himself from hay bales. And, of course, he’s taking pictures along the way.

“I wouldn’t be able to do this without this opportunity,” Reiman says of Seven Below. “I’m amazed that someone gave up their property for this.”

Anna Schackte’s work is, on the surface, more traditional: She paints landscapes on canvas in oil and oil-based enamel. “But they’re not strictly naturalistic,” she understates. “They’re constructed landscapes” based on geographical locations, current events and her own vivid imagination. One of the several paintings she’s working on at the Barn looks like a geometric abstraction from a distance. But the neatly arranged rectangles, explains Schackte, are “islands” that represent “future leisure locations.” She adds, “I decided I wanted my own manmade picture of islands, but on a grid. They’re not dissimilar from islands in Dubai.”

All of Schackte’s paintings are works in progress at the moment, so it’s hard to envision where they’ll end up. “Right now I’m liking the idea of shapes remaining spare — they connote buildings without getting into fussiness,” she says.

For Schackte, there’s a small irony in leaving the concrete pastures of New York for bucolic Vermont and then painting . . . buildings. You can only take this artist out of the city for so long. “But it’s a real treat for me to get out of New York in August,” Schackte concedes, echoing Fisk’s earlier supposition. “It is so quiet and secluded.” She also likes the option of interaction: “I’ll get the boys in here for a feedback session,” Schackte says. “It’s nice to have a dialogue once in a while.”

Ferguson, for his part, has enjoyed Vermont and Burlington so much that he’s thinking about staying. Originally from Iowa, the itinerant artist has lived “all over.” Last Wednesday, he hosted a session of “Art:21” at the Firehouse Gallery, and on several occasions he’s shown his “found” and edited movies from the 1940s to ’60s on a screen outside his mobile projection booth, the Airstream.

Fisk is thrilled that Ferguson might stick around. “That Carlos feels so welcome in the community he would consider moving here, that’s just made this whole thing so worthwhile,” he says. “It’s just the most perfect outcome for me.”

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Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

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Pamela Polston is the cofounder, coeditor and associate publisher of Seven Days.

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