When a cluster of first-year students dropped by the art studio and gallery of Sarah Wesson last week, the local oil painter showed works she had created in Italy, Maine, New York City, and Vermont.
She discussed her painting technique and her feelings about abstract art, and then she paraphrased Henri Matisse. When buying a piece of art, Wesson said, it should feel like a comfortable chair.
At that moment Matisse’s metaphor of the comfortable chair was fitting on another level. The students were on an Orientation trip that was all about getting comfortable: comfortable with their peers, with the Champlain Valley region, and with each other as members of the Middlebury Class of 2017.
The Studio Art Tour group was one of 68 MiddView Trips that set out from Middlebury on Friday, Sept. 6. The trips, which were a required component of Orientation, were split into three categories: Vermont exploration, wilderness experience, and community engagement, and each trip was led by members of the sophomore, junior, or senior class.
Organizing the logistics for off-site excursions for some 629 first-year students was the responsibility of the Dean of Students Office with Amanda Reinhardt in the pivotal role of trips coordinator.
The shape of Orientation trips at Middlebury has been through many changes over the past decade, Reinhardt said, but in 2013 a combined commitment by students (in the form of financial support from the Student Government Association) and the Administration (in terms of staffing and all other resources) created the new, comprehensive MiddView Trips program.
“This year the trips were built right into the Orientation schedule. The members of the incoming class selected their top four choices, and we did our best to accommodate their requests. Almost without exception, every first-year student participated in a MiddView Trip,” Reinhardt said.
There were, for example, wilderness trips such as hiking portions of the Long Trail, rock climbing in Bolton, sailing on Lake Dunmore, and canoeing on Tupper Lake. There were community engagement experiences at the John Graham Emergency Shelter for Addison County’s homeless and at Zeno Mountain Farm in Lincoln, a program that supports lifelong friendships for people with and without disabilities. And there were Vermont exploration trips designed to investigate local ecology, storytelling and folklore, rhythm and dance, and food systems in the Green Mountain State.
After spending an hour with Sarah Wesson in the Battell Block, the Studio Art Tour set out for Bristol to meet Anne Cady, who has her studio and gallery in a former grist mill located behind a row of storefronts on Main Street.
Inside Cady’s spacious studio the students sat on stools and boxes in a semicircle around the artist and introduced themselves. They hailed from U.S. cities like Tucson and Buffalo and Los Angeles, and from China and Colombia and the United Kingdom, and all of the students, regardless of their hometowns, shared a deep interest in art.
Cady discussed her own background as an art teacher and gallery owner, and explained that she didn’t explore her full potential as a painter until the 1990s. “Now if I don’t paint every day, I lose my momentum. And I love to paint every day. But if you are doing this as your work, your income, then you have to realize that the business side of it will take a lot of energy too, so you have to balance that out.”
Surrounded by her recent paintings of hilly Vermont landscapes, the 1973 Middlebury graduate said, “For me it’s all about color and composition. Having clarity and a clean line help me go a little more wild with the color. I concentrate on form and color to tell a story in each of my paintings.”
Following a detour for ice cream at Lu Lu’s in Bristol, the next stop on the Studio Art Tour was Daniel and Dennis Sparling’s studio located a quarter-mile down a long dirt driveway in New Haven. Dennis, the father, is primarily a metal sculptor. He said “having practical artistic skills allows you to do the passion work,” and he showed the first-year students some examples of both: the things he does for money and the pieces he creates for the love of art.
Daniel, the son, inherited many of his father’s talents but has branched off into designing and building specialty masks, castings, and prosthetics for independent filmmakers. Most recently Daniel has been shooting aerial cinematography with his business partner — lavish sweeping shots for television commercials, films, and private enterprises. The partners have built a number of remote-controlled aircraft (“Okay, you can call them drones,” Daniel said) that will fly with a 10-pound video camera, which is also remote controlled from the ground.
“It’s tough to make a living as an artist. You have to swallow your pride a lot of times and take jobs you never thought you would have to take. But it also helps to be handy, to be able to do a lot of different things. The way I see it,” Daniel said, “Art is 60 percent tenacity and drive, and 40 percent talent.”
On Sunday the Studio Art Tour continued with leader-led activities and reflection, and concluded with a visit to the Edgewater Gallery in Middlebury and a debriefing session.
“Bonding” is a term often used in reference to Orientation trips, regardless of whether it’s a strenuous hike in the Adirondacks or a visit to the organic farms of Addison County. Derek Doucet, Middlebury’s director of outdoor programs and club sports, put it a little differently when he said, “Intimate small-group experiences provide opportunities for students to make genuine connections across typical social boundaries.”
“They also offer to first years a welcome chance to catch their breath before delving into the semester, and they provide space for intentional reflection about what it means to be in this time of transition to college.”