Vermont history comes alive in national art galleries

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(Host) After more than six years of extensive renovations, two Washington D.C. attractions have reopened: the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum.

VPR’s Washington correspondent Chad Pergram visited both, to see how Vermont is represented in these national institutions

(Pergram) Vermont is displayed prominently at the American Art Museum. Of course, so are the Main, New Hampshire, Arizona, Mississippi,,, Well All of the 50 states. That’s because one of the most impressive pieces is a gigantic map of the U. S.. But this isn’t any old map. Strips of electric, neon tubes trace each state’s borders. And clumped together inside each state is an assemblage of television sets. It’s called The Electronic Superhighway by the late South Korean video artist, Nam June Paik.

(Harvey) What you have is his video diary of each of the fifty states.

(Pergram) Elanor Harvey is Chief Curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

(Harvey) And you have over 400 television sets. Each state is hooked up to a DVD player showing a loop of content that records in some way Paik’s impressions of each state as he traveled across the U.S..

(Pergram) For instance, the video screens in Oklahoma naturally show the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!

( Oklahoma! music)

(Pergram) Head north to Kansas and you guessed it

(Dorothy Gale) Auntie Em! Auntie Em!

(Pergram) While Paik uses theatrical icons to represent Oklahoma and Kansas, Vermont’s another story. The State’s avant-garde images streak by so fast the TV pixels surely suffer some form of telekinetic ADD’

(Pergram) And I guess since we’ve been standing here, Vermont has come online.
(Harvey) Vermont is online. The TV sets are sideways. And actually you’re doing a little bit better than Virginia, where most of them are upside down. Paik did that on purpose. What he wanted to do was again to force you to literally re-orient yourself while you were also thinking in terms of the different states.
(Pergram) I have to be honest with you. I look at Vermont here and I don’t know what I’m seeing. When I look at New York I see the Empire State Building. I know what I’m seeing there. When I look at Georgia and I see the 1996 Olympics. I know what I’m seeing there. I look at Vermont and I have no clue what I’m seeing.
(Harvey) Vermont moves very rapidly. But what you have is footage that he took while he was traveling across the state. But what it gives to the state is a sense of restless dynamism.

(Pergram) Down the corridor, at the National Portrait Gallery (Vermont’s represented in more traditional media. Our guide here is Senior Historian Sid Hart.

(HART) Americans who are interested in their history and that may not be a large proportion these days want to read about those individuals who were most significant, whose actions had the biggest impact on our history. And they come here to see those people who were born in Vermont.

(Pergram) As you stroll by, you’ll find an early type of photograph of a Vermont Native more closely associated with Utah: Brigham Young, one of the early leaders of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Young was a native of Whitingham.

There’s a special there’s a special gallery reserved exclusively for presidents. Two Vermonters are represented here.

Chester Alan Arthur of Fairfield and Calvin Coolidge of Plymouth Notch. Both were Vice Presidents who entered the White House after their predecessors died in office. Respectively James Garfield and Warren Harding. Hart says Coolidge was known as Silent Cal’ because of his talent for brevity.

(Hart) He was at this social gathering and this woman all bubbly and everything came up to him and said that she had had a bet that she could make Coolidge say more than two words. And he looked at her with that kind of gaze that you can see in the portrait and said You lose.

(Pergram) However, in the President’s collection, perhaps the most intriguing work doesn’t depict a Vermont Chief Executive, but was painted by Vermont resident. Norman Rockville lived in Arlington and the town inspired much of his work. Hart says Richard Nixon sat for Rockwell shortly after the 1968 election.

(Hart) This is by far the most unusual official portrait that we have of a president. And that’s mainly because of its informality. And he’s got his hand supporting his chin. And he’s go this smile. Very un-Nixonian like.

(Pergram) Hart reads from Rockville’s notes about the portrait.

(Hart) President Nixon is the hardest man I ever had to paint because he’s almost good looking. He’s got a mean eye. And then he’s go those big chestnuts in his jowls. The cheeks are cut down a little. His nose is a little slimmer. I gave him more hair.

(Pergram) Upstairs, you’ll discover an exhibit named Champions.’ It highlights some of the country’s best-known sports figures. Nestled between portraits tennis great Arthur Ashe and strikeout king Nolan Ryan is Bellows Falls native and Hall of fame Red Sox catcher, Carlton Fisk.

Sid hart says artist Susan Miller-Haven depicted Fisk almost like a gladiator, clad in catcher’s garb, smudges of eye black dragged across his high cheek bones.

(Hart) He’s got the pads the knee pads, shin pad on his feet. He’s got his chest protector.

(Pergram) The artist Susan Haven Miller said Fisk Embodied Fiercely and darkly the American ethic of hard work, honesty and pride – qualities Vermont visitors would appreciate here.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Chad Pergram in Washington.

(Radio play-by-play announcer) There it goes – a long drive. If it stays fair Home Run! A lot of body English for Carlton Fisk. Watch him. How many steps did he take? One he waits to see it. Get over. Get over

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