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Thursday, February 11, 2021

Katie Runde to Paint Alexander Twilight Portrait for the Statehouse

Posted By on Thu, Feb 11, 2021 at 4:10 PM

  • Courtesy of the Old Stone House Museum
  • Alexander Twilight
Middlebury artist Katie Runde has been commissioned to paint a portrait of Alexander Twilight to hang in the Vermont Statehouse, which will make him the first person of color featured in a portrait there.

Twilight, believed to be both the first African American college graduate and first African American legislator in the U.S., was a Brownington-based educator and minister who lived from 1795 to 1857. He was elected as a Vermont State Representative in 1836. Last year, state lawmakers established September 23, 2020, as Alexander Twilight Day.

The portrait was commissioned jointly by the Friends of the Vermont State House and the office of the Vermont State Curator and is being funded by the National Life Group of Vermont.

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Friday, October 2, 2020

Rokeby Museum Hires New Director

Posted By on Fri, Oct 2, 2020 at 8:56 AM

  • Courtesy of Lindsay Houpt-Varner
The Rokeby Museum, a historic farm and Underground Railroad stop in Ferrisburgh, recently hired Lindsay Houpt-Varner as its first full-time director. The Rokeby, which was the home of an abolitionist Quaker family called the Robinsons from 1793 to 1961, is dedicated both to preserving the story of the Underground Railroad and exploring modern-day issues of race and social justice.

Houpt-Varner, who is 34 and has a PhD in early modern British history, comes to Vermont from Carlisle, Penn., after four years at the Cumberland County Historical Society. She studied Quakerism and had worked to preserve another site along the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania. The Rokeby job, she said, “combined all of the interests that I had been gathering up over the past decades.”

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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Survey of Young Vermonters Highlights Ignorance of the Holocaust

Posted By on Wed, Sep 16, 2020 at 6:04 PM

Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp - PHOTO COURTESY OF DREAMSTIME ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Photo courtesy of Dreamstime ©️ Seven Days
  • Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp
A significant number of Vermont adults under the age of 40 lack even a rudimentary knowledge of the Holocaust, according to the results of a newly released survey of members of the millennial and Gen Z generations in Vermont.

“The U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey,” found that a disturbing percentage of Vermonters couldn’t name a single concentration camp or ghetto, had no idea how many Jews were murdered by the Nazis during World War II, and believe that the Jews were responsible for their own genocide.

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Saturday, September 12, 2020

Burlington to Memorialize a Site of Black Vermonters’ 19th-Century Enslavement

Posted By on Sat, Sep 12, 2020 at 11:27 AM

Stopping Stones plaques to be installed in Burlington - PHOTO COURTESY OF STOPPING STONES PROJECT
  • Photo courtesy of Stopping Stones Project
  • Stopping Stones plaques to be installed in Burlington
Vermonters often take pride in the fact that theirs was the first state to enter the Union slave-free — at least on paper.

But as the Rev. Arnold Thomas, pastor of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Jericho, pointed out, “We were not truly a slave-free state. And so we need to debunk that historical narrative and show what was truly happening at the time.”

In fact, Thomas explained, there was great tolerance on the part of mainly wealthy and prominent Vermonters to allow slavery to continue within their own families, even after its prohibition in the Vermont constitution. Those prominent families included the daughter of Ethan Allen, Lucy Caroline Allen Hitchcock, who enslaved mother and son Lavinia and Francis Parker, from 1835 until 1841.

So on Sunday, September 13, Thomas, himself a Black Vermonter, will join with members of Burlington's Ohavi Zedek Synagogue and other civic leaders and activists to permanently embed two memorial plaques in the sidewalk outside of Skirack. That historic building in downtown Burlington is the Parkers’ last known residence while enslaved.

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Monday, August 10, 2020

Vermont Humanities Announces Virtual Fall Conference on Democracy

Posted By on Mon, Aug 10, 2020 at 5:06 PM

From 'This Is What Democracy Looks Like: A Graphic Guide to Governance' by the Center for Cartoon Studies - DRAWINGS BY DAN NOTT AND KEVIN CZAP
  • Drawings by Dan Nott and Kevin Czap
  • From 'This Is What Democracy Looks Like: A Graphic Guide to Governance' by the Center for Cartoon Studies

This year’s Vermont Humanities fall conference — an annual series of public lectures normally held at the University of Vermont each November — will take place, you guessed it, online. The program, titled "Democracy 20/20," will consist of 15 free virtual talks and workshops, streamed weekly between August 19 and November 13 on the theme of civic engagement.

Beginning in October, the lineup may also include small in-person events as public health guidance allows.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Vermont Law School to Remove Mural Considered Offensive

Posted By on Tue, Jul 14, 2020 at 12:30 PM

A panel on the VLS mural - SAM KERSON
  • Sam Kerson
  • A panel on the VLS mural
Vermont Law School announced that it will paint over a campus mural that depicts enslaved people and Vermont’s role in the Underground Railroad, after students objected to its inaccurate portrayal of Black people.

The mural has been in the Chase Community Center on the school's Royalton campus since 1993, and conversations about its perceived racism have taken place since at least 2013, according to a statement from VLS students Jameson Davis and April Urbanowski.

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Saturday, July 4, 2020

Filmmaker Alex Escaja Recognized as LGBTQ Youth Influencer

Posted By on Sat, Jul 4, 2020 at 11:02 AM

  • Courtesy photo
  • Alex Escaja

On a Monday night in early June, Alex Escaja was waiting his turn to speak in support of defunding the police during a Burlington City Council Zoom meeting when he got an email from GLAAD, a national organization that advocates for LGBTQ equality through the media. He had been selected as one of GLAAD’s “20 Under 20 Rising Stars,” a cohort that included gun control activist Emma Gonzalez and TLC reality show protagonist and trans spokesperson Jazz Jennings.

Seeing his name among so many queer youth icons was overwhelming: “I looked up to many of those people, so it was pretty disorienting and also incredibly exciting,” he said.

Escaja grew up in a trilingual household in South Burlington. He speaks Spanish with his mother,
Tina Escaja, an artist and feminist scholar who  teaches Spanish and directs the Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies program at the University of Vermont; his father, scientist and entrepreneur Uwe Heiss, communicates with him in German. (When the whole family is together, said Escaja, Spanish prevails.)

At 20, Escaja already has an impressive résumé as an activist and filmmaker. From his first major accolade — at age 11, he won third place in NASA's Optimus Prime Spinoff Film Contest — to his leadership roles in Outright Vermont and LGBTQ student groups at UVM, Escaja has been finding ways to merge his artistic talents with his passion for advocacy.

Seven Days spoke with Escaja about how he got his start in filmmaking, queer representation in the media, and what Pride should look like in 2020.

SEVEN DAYS: I feel like everyone is sick of this question, but here goes: How has your quarantine experience been?

ALEX ESCAJA: It was pretty tough at the beginning. I was part of a study-abroad program in New York City — “abroad” being the city — in January, through the University of Vermont. I had an internship that was wonderful, and then, two months in, the pandemic hit. So I was stuck in the city and quarantined alone in a dorm room for about two months. Mentally, that was not very comfortable, and the city was kind of a scary place to be. It’s definitely a relief to be back in Vermont and to be close to nature and family and friends.

SD: Yikes. That sounds rough. How has the pandemic affected your plans?

AE: My original plan was to stay in the city over the summer, after my program ended. I was considering transferring schools — I’d been accepted into the NYU Tisch program for cinematic arts and I was really excited about that. But the pandemic certainly changed the course of things. NYU was going to be online, which I didn't find worth it, and going into film means, you know, working on films with other people. We obviously can’t do that, which kind of defeated the purpose. So I decided to come back to Vermont and stay at UVM, and I’m on the path to graduate a year early, in May 2021.

SD: How did you find your way into filmmaking?

AE: I went to Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School and they had a broadcasting club where students got to produce a news segment. That introduced me to the resources to start making media. Then, when I was 14, I watched a film that inspired me to become a filmmaker, called My Prairie Home, which really changed the way I perceived myself and influenced my process of self-discovery. I have a passion for advocacy and a love of the technicalities of filmmaking, and combining the two brings me joy. That’s what I want to dedicate my life to; watching that movie solidified that.

SD: What’s My Prairie Home about?

AE: It’s a low-budget, independent Canadian film about a nonbinary artist, Rae Spoon. I watched it on a plane, and it was the first time I ever saw a genderqueer experience on screen that was authentic and beautiful. I actually watched it twice on that flight, and I walked off the plane transformed.

SD: That feels very symbolic — you’re on a plane, the most liminal of spaces, and you see this movie, and then you disembark a different version of yourself.

AE: That’s very true. It didn’t give me all the answers; I didn’t walk off the plane knowing who I was, exactly, and in a lot of ways I’m still discovering myself. But at that age, I was starting to question my gender and my sexuality, and the film gave evidence that it was possible for me to live in a space that was different from what was assigned to me. And what was really powerful for me is that the film is about an artist who’s happy. They’re just a normal human being, with normal human experiences, and that felt radical for me.

SD: Totally. In so many movies about queer and nonbinary people, the focal point is their struggle to accept themselves or to gain the acceptance of others, to come into their personhood, in a sense. It’s rare to see those characters have conflicts that aren’t somehow connected to their sexuality or gender identity.

AE: There’s a lack of complexity in representations of queer people. I haven’t really seen a film, besides My Prairie Home, that depicts nonbinary experience in the same way. The representation of LGBTQ-plus people is often for audiences who aren’t LGBTQ. So the stories are distorted — if there’s a queer person onscreen, they’re often caricatures, or they exist to advance the plot of straight or cisgender characters.

Recently, there have been more sympathetic coming-out films, but, again, the focus is usually on the drama of coming out, and how that person is affecting the straight or cisgendered people around them: Their families are tortured, or they’re bullied and they have to overcome it. And while that is a realistic experience, it de-complexifies a person; it paints this picture of being queer as very difficult and painful.

SD: Looking Back at Me, your 2017 documentary, is about an 18-year-old nonbinary Vermonter, Sade. There’s a joyful, youthful exuberance to it, and you can sense this deep comfort and trust between the two of you, even though the viewer only sees Sade on screen. How did you two end up making that film?

AE: Sade and I both went to South Burlington High School, and I really wanted to make a film that talked about queer and nonbinary experience in a way that was educational for a wider audience and relatable for people who are actually queer and nonbinary. Sade had a YouTube channel, so I knew they were comfortable speaking to the public about queerness. So I reached out to them, and we got coffee, and immediately we became very good friends.

The film felt like a collaboration in a lot of ways. We were both young and figuring ourselves out — I, in particular, was figuring myself out — and I looked up to Sade.

I really appreciate my younger self for making that film. I was 17 years old, and I feel like part of the reason that film feels special to me is that you can tell that a 17- year-old is behind the camera and talking about their own community. That really makes a difference in filmmaking — if an outsider comes in, the gaze of the camera feels different, kind of voyeuristic.

It’s so important for people to tell their own stories. We need to have more LGBTQ people behind the screen, creating the stories and producing the films. That applies to any other marginalized group — the stories will be more powerful and, in many ways, they’ll inherently be better, because people will be talking about the real thing, their real experiences.

SD: Did you have queer role models growing up?

AE: I’m really grateful for Outright Vermont, which serves LGBTQ youth ages 22 and under. I attribute a lot of the self-confidence I’ve developed over the years to them. I have a very supportive and loving family, too, but in terms of finding community and representation, Outright is run by queer-identified individuals. They were the first queer adults I’d ever met in my life, and they taught me that it’s possible to have a thriving, happy future as a queer person. If it hadn’t been for that experience, I don’t think I would have been able to go back into the greater world with the same amount of security and comfort.

SD: Over the past few years, Pride has become an increasingly mainstream cultural event, and that acceptance is so good on so many levels. But there’s also been a lot of whitewashing of LGBTQ history, and among the many refrains of protestors in the past few weeks is “Black Trans Lives Matter.” It was a black trans woman, Marsha P. Johnson, who started the protests that grew into the LGBTQ movement. From your perspective, what would an authentic Pride “celebration” look like?

AE: Pride originated as a riot, led by black transgender women and people of color. It’s really amazing that we’ve reached a point where we can celebrate openly, but there’s also something that feels wrong about that — because in a lot of ways, we haven’t achieved liberation.

Racism and xenophobia are prevalent within the LGBTQ community, and if you observe a lot of Pride celebrations in large cities, it’s often the cisgender white gay men who are doing most of the celebrating. I think it’s great that we’re revisiting the roots and starting to critique some of the issues in our community. We need to focus on how we can be anti-racist in the LGBTQ community. I don’t feel like we can celebrate, in the way that we have been, until we’ve secured liberation for everyone.

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Friday, May 15, 2020

Middlebury College Students Create Website for 3,000-Year-Old Assyrian Panels

Posted By on Fri, May 15, 2020 at 1:23 PM

  • Middlebury College digital methodologies class
  • Detail of the NW x NE website home page
On May 4, the 10 Middlebury College students in Sarah Laursen’s course on digital methodologies for art historians held their final class of the semester on Zoom. That wasn’t unusual, because Middlebury, like other colleges around the state and country, had sent their students home to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

However, the guests Laursen invited to the Zoom call were notable: Sarah Graff, an associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; and Sean Burrus, the Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral curatorial fellow at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

While Seven Days listened in, Laursen’s students presented to the two art historians their semester-long project: a website examining one of Middlebury College’s first art acquisitions, which is a carved stone panel nearly 3,000 years old. The detailed relief, depicting a muscular, winged man with an impressive beard, is one of hundreds that once adorned the interior walls of the Northwest Palace, built by the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (who reigned from 883 to 859 BC), in Nimrud (near present-day Mosul, Iraq).

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Saturday, February 2, 2019

Legends & Lore Marker Program Comes to Vermont

Posted By on Sat, Feb 2, 2019 at 7:00 AM

A Legends & Lore marker in New York state - COURTESY OF THE VERMONT FOLKLIFE CENTER
  • Courtesy of the Vermont Folklife Center
  • A Legends & Lore marker in New York state
The Vermont Folklife Center has partnered with the Syracuse-based William G. Pomeroy Foundation to bring the latter's Legends & Lore Marker Program to Vermont. The VFC is the sixth cultural center to join the program, along with organizations in Alabama, Connecticut, New York, North Carolina and Oregon.

According to the Pomeroy Foundation website, the program is "designed to promote cultural tourism and commemorate legends and folklore as part of cultural heritage." It does so by placing markers at sites of local cultural, if not precisely historic, significance. Like, as in the example pictured above, the site of the Ichabod Crane Schoolhouse in Kinderhook, N.Y., where Jesse Merwin taught. Merwin was the real-life inspiration for the protagonist Ichabod Crane in Washington Irving's classic "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

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Friday, June 22, 2018

Historic Vermont Silhouette Travels to Washington, D.C.

Posted By on Fri, Jun 22, 2018 at 12:07 PM

Silhouettes of Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant, circa 1805–15 - COURTESY OF THE HENRY SHELDON MUSEUM OF VERMONT HISTORY
  • Courtesy of the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History
  • Silhouettes of Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant, circa 1805–15

Vermont’s pioneering fight to legalize civil unions in 2000 cemented the state’s place amidst the landscape of American queer and civil rights history. Within just the past several years, the Green Mountain State has emerged as home to another gay cultural landmark: a handmade silhouette considered to be the earliest image of a same-sex couple.

The small, intimate portrait of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, which dates to the early 1800s, is now on view in “Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now” at the Smithsonian Institute's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

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