Remote Possibility | Art connections drive hope in gritty St. Johnsbury

Written by Kim Asch on . Posted in Way of (Vermont) Life

Photographed by Ken Burris

A study in contrasts: St. Johnsbury is not an affluent area, but a foundation for the arts was laid with Gilded Age wealth from the Fairbanks family, whose legacy includes the St. Johnsbury Athanaeum, currently under the direction of Bob Joly.

st j athanaeum

PHOTOS ABOVE: A study in contrasts. St. Johnsbury is not an affluent area, but a foundation for the arts was laid with Gilded Age wealth from the Fairbanks family, whose legacy includes the St. Johnsbury Athanaeum, currently under the direction of Bob Joly (second photo).

By most any measure, St. Johnsbury is an unlikely cultural hub. This town of just 6,200 residents in the remote Northeast Kingdom is about 75 miles from the state’s largest city, Burlington, and almost 50 miles from affluent Stowe. St. Johnsbury is not a wealthy place either — the town’s median household income is almost $20,000 less than the state average — and it is dogged by the same woes that trouble small towns across America: the fraying of downtown, the illegal drugs, the outflow of good manufacturing jobs.

And yet, with a slow-building influx of writers, musicians, painters, filmmakers and community-builders, followed by a spurt of activity in the last few years, the town has pivoted toward the arts as a vital piece of its future. The scenario has played out in varying degrees in other former mill-and-rail towns along the Connecticut River system — White River Junction, Bellows Falls, Brattleboro — and it is playing out here.

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In St. Johnsbury, the foundation was laid in the Gilded Age, when the industrialist Fairbanks family amassed a fortune and used its wealth to build cultural institutions. Both the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium and the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, on Main Street, are quintessential specimens of Victo-
rian architecture and house impressive collections from the era. The St. Johnsbury Academy, also founded by the Fairbanks family, is a well-regarded independent high school, serving both locals and boarding students on its attractive grounds on the hill.

Today, these institutions are intertwined with a relative newcomer, Catamount Arts, a community-and-arts energizer founded in the mid-’70s by filmmaker Jay Craven. In 2008, Catamount Arts completed an ambitious reinvention project — a $1.7 million makeover of the 1912 Masonic Lodge building on Eastern Avenue, which became its new home — and that same year, Jody Fried signed on to head the organization.

A native of the Northeast Kingdom, Fried had enjoyed a lucrative career in health care administration that took him all over the United States, but he returned to his hometown of East Burke and ran several businesses, including the country store, before realizing that his passion was in community leadership. His mother had been a guidance counselor at the St. Johnsbury public school, both of his parents were civic-minded, and he was determined to raise his four children with the same kind of experience he remembered from childhood — but with more access to arts and culture. “We’ve spent five years reinventing Catamount Arts, and we really have it on an incredible path,” Fried says. “I wouldn’t want my kids growing up anywhere else.”

Neko Case, a star in indie rock circles, settled in the area and has become a champion of its artistic aspirations.

Neko Case, a star in indie rock circles, settled in the area and has become a champion of its artistic aspirations.

During this same span, St. Johnsbury gained the type of famous-name newcomer that truly builds momentum. Neko Case, a star in indie rock circles — Rolling Stone magazine has described her as “one of America’s best and most ambitious songwriters” — had ties to northern Vermont from her youth and decided to move back. She set down roots in St. Johnsbury, and also purchased the previous Catamount building, where she uses the theater as a rehearsal space while renting the front portion to Dylan Café and gallery. Beyond that, Case has become an active champion of the town and its artistic aspirations, playing fundraising concerts for Catamount at the St. Johnsbury Academy in 2010, Lyndon State College in 2011, and the Flynn Center in Burlington in 2014. Case, speaking of her new home to an audience in New York, said: “I felt like I fit in . . . and realized St. Johnsbury is the right place for me.”

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The arts vibe, however, does not exist in a bubble. Catamount hosts “Courageous Conversations,” a discussion series focused on poverty, opiate addiction and other social ills. Libby Hillhouse, a Danville resident who straddles the line between these two worlds — a volunteer for Catamount Arts, a board member at St. Johnsbury’s Community Restorative Justice Center — says, “I firmly believe that a town needs to embrace every bit of itself, and I think that’s the road St. Johnsbury is on.”

Town manager John Hall, 65, remembers when Fairbanks Scales was the biggest employer in town, and the fathers of many of his childhood friends had high-paying jobs there. Fairbanks still maintains a presence in St. Johnsbury, but not its headquarters, and employs just a fraction of the 900 locals it once did. Nowadays, with the exception of a few other industrial companies like Weidmann Electrical Technology, “a lot of our economy revolves around education and health care,” Hall says.

St. Johnsbury has become a center for social service agencies, attracting residents who need access to welfare, free needle exchange and methadone programs, or probation and parole offices. To some degree, St. Johnsbury suffers from “municipal overburden,” says Hall, explaining that the town is one of only a handful in the state that has such a concentration of services. “There’s a sense that we are bearing more of the burden than towns around us.”

Police Chief Clement Houde, a member of the force since 1992 and chief since 2011, says St. Johnsbury sometimes suffers from an image problem because of its population of low-income, high-need community members, some of whom like to loiter on downtown corners. But he says, “The arts set a good balance in this community. They are a big part of the upward trend we are on right now.” Hall says: “The arts help to attract some of the leadership we need in this area — they are a draw, like skiing.” 

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The number of artists who now live in town or nearby is impressive, and they range across styles and disciplines. Poet Galway Kinnell has performed readings at the Athenaeum many times, as has fiction writer Howard Norman and food writer Ed Behr. Several novels by Irasburg resident Howard Frank Mosher have been filmed in the area by Craven. Charles Lindbergh’s daughter Reeve Lindbergh, an author and literary figure, lives just outside of town. Joe Gittleman, bass player in the ska band Mighty Mighty Bosstones, serves on the Catamount board and teaches in Lyndon State’s music industry program.

Jodi Fried, executive director of Catamount Arts.

Jodi Fried, executive director of Catamount Arts.

Other teachers include fine printmakers Bill and Kim Darling, who also operate Gatto Nero Press studio on Eastern Avenue. The studio expanded in May when two entrepreneurs — Matthew Laughton and Florian Rexhepi — started construction of an adjoining café, where customers will be able to enjoy a cup of coffee while watching the process of intaglio printmaking unfold. Other creative enterprises nearby include framing and photography services, an arts-and-crafts shop, and a cooperative gallery run by the Northeast Kingdom Artisans Guild.

Bill Darling, who, with Kim, raised their eight children in the area, says, “It’s a very cool place because there is always something going on,” and certainly the synergy of the four main arts organizations sparks a steady flow of activities. Catamount programming includes two small theaters that screen artsy films most nights; free monthly art gallery exhibits; free bluegrass and folk concerts; and acoustic concerts in the ornate third-floor meeting room (which the Masons still use after donating the building to Catamount for $1). 

Another building, across the back parking lot — round and resembling a yurt — is dedicated to children’s programming and also hosts teen open mike nights. Catamount books national touring acts that often play at the Academy’s Fuller Hall, and sometimes holds art classes at the Athenaeum; cooperation extends
to co-productions and applying for grants. Catamount also operates a regional box office that last year sold an estimated 60,000 tickets, generating $7.8 million in economic impact and about 232 full-time jobs. Bob Joly, director of the Athenaeum, says, “We really are trying to work in concert, and it’s a nice coordination of our efforts. When you like each other, you want to help each other.”

As with most arts organizations and nonprofits, challenges are always afoot. Fairbanks family money ceased covering the bills for the museum and athenaeum long ago. Fundraising is a constant requirement. Catamount manages a heavy debt burden from the cost of renovation of its headquarters: the first $3,000 that comes in each month must go right back to the banks to pay the interest, Fried says.

It didn’t help that a major construction project to replace an outdated water system was tearing up roads, raising dust and obstructing traffic, although even this was spun into an arts project (“Water Works: The Science Under St. Johnsbury”) by new Fairbanks Museum director Adam Kane, who relocated his family to the area a year ago. Kane pulled together an ambitious series of exhibitions and workshops related to the seemingly inert topic of town water, and raised some $175,000 to do it.

“The arts and culture here really enhance the quality of life,” Kane says. “My sense of St. Johnsbury is that it’s on the cusp of an amazing renaissance.”

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This article appeared in the Autumn 2014 edition of Vermont Life magazine. It is copyrighted and may not be reprinted in print or online without the express consent of Vermont Life. 

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