On Tuesday, June 5, the Vermont Arts Council will present its Walter Cerf Medal for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts to Arnie Malina, the retiring artistic director of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, and to visual artist Altoon Sultan. Named for a late philanthropist, the Cerf award is bestowed on individuals who “have made a sustained contribution to the arts and had an impact on Vermont’s cultural life,” according to the VAC. So you’d think the chosen individuals would be pretty much household names, right?
Well, Malina, now 67, has been a cultural mover and shaker in Burlington for some 15 years. Over that time, he has brought a huge variety of performances to the Flynn — from popular Broadway musicals to experimental theater, from modern dance to exotic international acts — and has stood on stage to introduce most of them. Along with former executive director Andrea Rogers, Malina presided over a significant expansion of the Flynn, as well — growth that gave us the FlynnSpace, Hoehl and Chase Studios, and the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery and their respective additional programming. If you don’t know him by name, you know Arnie Malina by sight, and by his work, which has enriched the lives of thousands of Vermonters.
But who the heck is Altoon Sultan?
An artist who came to Vermont in 1989 and has lived in Groton full time since 1994, the Brooklyn-born Sultan says she was “quite stunned” — and, of course, pleased — to receive the totally unexpected phone call from VAC director Alex Aldrich announcing her award. “Career-wise, things are really quiet right now,” she says, “so I’m amazed people even know who I am.”
She’s modest. In fact, observant gallery-goers do know of Sultan’s pristine paintings — a body of work that includes sun-drenched, near photorealistic images of rural life in oil. More accurately, these paintings, largely from the 1990s, might be called rural still lifes, featuring hay bales, tools and structures. Sultan’s canvases are generally unpeopled, though she’s been known to allow a cow or two. Her visual meditations are somewhat rhapsodic — Sultan says she loves the Northeast Kingdom and hill farms — but not romanticized. She hasn’t shied away from the less picturesque aspects of agriculture: a mound of silage, for example, its plastic cover held down by tires.
Over the ensuing decade, Sultan distilled her interests to close-up views of the farm: Her rich egg-tempera paintings of I a tangle of white hose or a pile of rusted milking stanchions are pure studies in form and composition. By the time of her exhibit at Stowe’s Helen Day Art Center in 2009, Sultan had dispensed with recognizability altogether; her subject matter hewed to details completely removed from context, and thus meaning. And so, in a painting titled simply “Black V,” we are left to observe a shape made by what look like black tubes attached to the side of a blue — what? Building? And is that the end of a drainpipe jutting into the picture plane at lower left? It doesn’t matter.
Sultan, who turns 64 this year, has moved to complete abstraction in recent work, and in a surprising medium: textiles. Her hooked-wool “drawings,” as she calls them, find the artist playing with shape and color — elemental geometric forms, lines, swoops and curls in laboriously hand-dyed wool on oatmeal-colored linen 15 inches square. Other pieces that resemble small rug samples range in size from 9 inches square to 10 by 13 inches, fully and neatly hooked with wool in a variety of patterns and hues. A recent article on the art-centric website Hyperallergic examines Sultan’s landscape-to-abstraction continuum. “I think of my textile work as an homage to 20th-century minimalist abstraction, into the 21st,” she tells the reporter. “Russian constructivism is very important to me in its search for essential form.” And hooking, she discovered when she made a few larger rugs for her home, freed her from the constraints and concerns of painting.
In the past, Sultan was represented at Marlborough Gallery, then Tibor de Nagy, but she says she has “no more ties to New York City” because she and her last gallerist “did not see eye to eye on my new work.” That said, Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects in New York did present her textile work in March, notes Hyperallergic. For the most part, though, Sultan says, “I’m just cooling it right now, just showing online.” Living on savings, she adds, “I can do the work I want and not worry about [sales].”
Happily “chugging away here on my hill” in tiny Groton, Sultan also blogs about art making — her own and others’ — and gardening. The blog is called, in fact, Studio and Garden. It’s a way to follow her even when she seldom exhibits.
And so Altoon Sultan is a less obvious — but utterly deserving — recipient of the Cerf Medal, for her exquisite accomplishments in visual art. When she accepts her award in Montpelier next week, that unusual name — it’s Syrian — will edge a little closer to “household” status. “I’m touched,” Sultan says, “that my adopted home has chosen to honor me.”
Arnie Malina and Altoon Sultan will receive the Walter Cerf Medal for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts on Tuesday, June 5, at 4 p.m. during the Vermont Arts Council’s annual meeting at the Statehouse in Montpelier. altoonsultan.com, altoonsultan.blogspot.com, vermontartscouncil.org