Late Artist’s Works Carry Personal History

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(Host) Artist, Gayleen Aiken, who died last week at seventy-one, combined universal themes with personal history. Aiken’s paintings reached a wide audience throughout North America and even into Europe, exposing them to a unique vision of Vermont.

VPR’s Steve Zind has this remembrance.

(Aiken) “Hello, I am Gayleen Aiken. I have composed songs like the rest of our family, done art like the rest of our family, and write books.”

(Zind) An encounter with Gayleen Aiken was an unforgettable experience. Shy and anxious about the world outside her small Barre apartment, Gayleen didn’t hesitate to welcome visitors into the realm of her imagination – full of music, children and idyllic rural landscapes.

From that world, Gayleen created an impressive body of self-taught art. Using paints, crayons and ballpoint pens, she drew scenes with titles like “Pretty Moonlight Over Church” and “Music Around Our Big Old House One Afternoon.” They depicted the hills and quarries of rural Vermont, populated by happy, colorfully dressed people and grand old Vermont farmhouses and barns. The buildings seemed to sway to the music Gayleen played on the many toy instruments scattered around her apartment.

As an only child who grew up with emotional difficulties and left school after eighth grade, Gayleen led an isolated life. Her father died when she was a teenager and the family lost much of what it had.

(Aiken) “We might move back to one of our big country houses. I miss the wallpaper and the chandeliers – the better things that we used to have – and want to move back.”

(Zind) To Gayleen, the past was present and its loss and isolation could always be transformed through art. In an interview several years ago, the late Don Sunseri talked about how Gayleen used her work to reshape her personal history.

(Sunseri) “I sometimes talk about Gayleen as someone who shows us the power of imagination. She’ll make a drawing that starts out in her mind with a painful situation from her past and she’ll change it into a comic situation. She’ll make it the way it should have been.”

(Zind) Sunseri discovered Gayleen in 1980 through a program he founded in Hardwick called GRACE, which helps the elderly and disabled express themselves through art. Gayleen became a star of GRACE. Her work caught the attention of critics and curators. Lyle Rexer writes for the New York Times and other publications. Rexer says Gayleen’s childlike paintings contain surprisingly complex ideas.

(Rexer) “She’s like your grandmother. Until you look in granny’s purse and find a voodoo doll.”

(Zind) Rexer says Gayleen’s use of imagery and color, and her mastery of perspective show she was an accomplished artist. But unlike the folk artists she was compared with, Gayleen was doing something more than setting down a historical record.

(Rexer) “She clearly had a powerful imagination that was working on the material of that world around her. She was attempting to do something other than simply just give us a record of her surroundings. She was not a folk painter.”

(Zind) In 1986, Gayleen was the subject of a one-woman show at Lincoln Center. Her work is in the folk art collections of a number of museums and was featured the book, “Moonlight and Music: The Enchanted World of Gayleen Aiken.” One constant in Gayleen’s painting is a huge extended family of two dozen cousins named the Raimbillis. Gayleen created them as life- sized figures when she was nine-years-old.

(Aiken) “The children are all Raimbilli children in my paintings, in the Raimbilli hill farm.”

(Zind) The Ramibilli’s were the big family Gayleen never had. But they also represented something more universal. The happy Raimbillis, in their sturdy farmhouses filled with music, with the soft moonlight falling on the rooftops – these images aren’t just Gayleen’s idealized Vermont. They represent a Vermont we all carry in our imaginations.

(Aiken) “There’s no dirty [things] or crimes. There’s no murders or anything. They’re all a happy family.”

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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