(HOST) Commmentator Jay Craven reflects on the recent passing of Vermont artist Gayleen Aiken.
(CRAVEN) When I think of Gayleen Aiken, I see her beaming smile and hear her non-stop recitation of the magical elements that populated her world – the old country houses, music boxes, nickelodeons and granite sheds of central Vermont.
Gayleen only attended school through the eighth grade, but that did not prevent her from developing an original artistic vision. Aiken called the Barre tenement where she lived “art camp.” She carried a painted cardboard cat in her pocketbook. When she met a live cat, she’d pull it out to play. In dozens of hand-colored comics, Gayleen animated her imaginary Rainbilli cousins to play silly tricks on each other. The closest she came to profanity was to exclaim “Holy granite plants! Holy nickelodeons! Holy green light clocks!”
At least half of Gayleen’s impressive cache of toy instruments were broken. But she’d play them at the drop of a hat. When I helped make a movie about her in the early 80s, Gayleen set the stage with her fully-dressed cardboard cousins and improvised free-form music on a marimba. Weeks later, she tried her hand at a pipe organ, which she’d never played before despite having painted hundreds of them. Her favorite composition? “Sunset Over the Quarries”, performed as she admired vivid fall and winter quarry landscapes she’d rendered over the years.
Gayleen’s artistic universe was rooted dead center in 1940s Barre. Her work captivates kids with its inventiveness and whimsicality. Adults are drawn to its surefooted technique and dreamy images. In one of my favorites, Gaween Rainbilli sits, framed by red velvet curtains, at a huge organ keyboard. On an imaginary stage a nineteenth century Vermont town house sits, drenched in moonlight.
I can’t think of Gayleen without remembering the late pioneering Northeast Kingdom artist and activist Don Sunseri, who nurtured her and provided art supplies for 20 years. Don’s GRACE project supported dozens of untrained artists, motivated simply by their natural impulses to create. Thanks to the continuing GRACE staff, work by Gayleen, Roland Rochette, Larry Bisonette, Dot Kibbe, Curtis Tatro and others can still be seen.
GRACE enjoys a prominent place in the world of so-called “outsider art”. “Outsiders” have long inspired more trained artists who look to their unschooled technique for inspiration. French painter Jean Dubuffet trekked down Parisian dark alleys at odd hours to find and collect paintings by people living in the margins. Picasso and Marcel Duchamp also collected outsider works and sought to “unlearn” modernist techniques to become more instinctive.
Gayleen’s work provides a lasting window into a Vermont time and place that is fading from public view. The Hardwick-based GRACE project continues to sustain, curate and exhibit this kind of work – to ensure that original visions like Gayleen Aiken’s develop and endure.
Filmmaker Jay Craven teaches at Marlboro College and directs Kingdom County Productions. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.