In a gorgeous Topic magazine online feature called, “The American Guide to the New Vermont,” photographer Shane Lavalette compares Vermont as described in a Federal Writers Project travel guide to Vermont as it is today. The 1937 Guide to the Green Mountain State claimed Vermont was “unaffected by the waves of foreign immigration. Foreign elements have made no appreciable contribution to arts and no changes in the ways of living—or of thinking—of Vermonters.”
Lavalette’s breathtaking photo essay suggests otherwise. Last year, Lavalette photographed the harvest festival at New Farms for New Americans, a Burlington organization that provides agricultural training for immigrants. His photos of farmers from Burma, Somalia, Bosnia, and Vietnam show a slow but steady increase in Vermont’s cultural diversity, a diversity eagerly embraced by Vermont Arts Council director Karen Mittelman.
“There are new groups of Americans who are enriching [the] landscape in ways that most people don’t see and recognize,” Mittelman told Seven Days staff writer Kymela Sari in a July 17 article (“Vermont Arts Council Exhibit Spotlights New American Artists”). The article highlights the VAC’s quest to broaden ideas of what constitutes a Vermont artist, and maybe even what constitutes a Vermonter.
Created in partnership with the Vermont Folklife Center, the exhibit “New American Artists: Celebrating Tradition and Culture” focuses on the work of immigrant and refugee artists who participated in VFC’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship program, which supported 300 apprenticeships with master artists over 25 years. VCF director Kathleen Haughey spoke to Vermont Business Magazine about the apprenticeship program’s founder, Gregory Sharrow. “He recognized that by practicing and sharing their cultural expressions, new Americans could sustain their cultures and enrich the creative fabric of Vermont.”
One of Vermont’s most famous immigrant families fled their war-torn country for a Vermont farm only a year or two after the Green Mountain Guide was published. As new Americans (some applied for citizenship, some were naturalized by serving in America’s military, and the youngest was born here), the von Trapps introduced elements of their Austrian culture that endure and enrich Vermont’s cultural heritage even today. In addition to the singing and the schnitzel, they opened the country’s first cross country ski center in Stowe and created the Stowe Land Trust with a 1500-acre donation from their own farm.
Of course, Vermont’s musical heritage neither begins nor ends with the von Trapps. Long before Maria, the hills were alive with French-language songs brought here by Quebecois migrant workers, and anyone within listening range of the Catamount Pipe Band’s recent Dog Mountain appearance is well aware of Irish and Scottish contributions to Vermont culture. New Americans brought us Cajun fiddle tunes, Irish reels, and Scottish pipes, all part of a rich musical inheritance Vermont works hard to preserve.
Ten years ago, when Somalian refugee Said Bulle met Tanzanian refugee George Mnyonge on the soccer field at Burlington High School, each boy sang a song in his native language to the other. So begins the well-chronicled story of Burlington-based Afropop group A2VT, which stands for Africa to Vermont. The group sings in eight languages, including Maay Maay, Swahili, Kirundi, and English. They perform their infectious blend of pop, hip-hop, and African dance grooves at festivals and schools all around New England.
In addition to songs about unity, love, hardship, and Africa, one of A2VT’s popular singles is an upbeat civic pride anthem called, “Winooski, My Town.” The song’s video, funded by the Vermont Community Foundation, showcases Winooski eateries, businesses, parks, and schools, but mostly it celebrates the people. Firemen clap to the music, children jump up and down, a diverse crowd dances in Rotary Park. “I love this place,” Bulle told Public Radio International’s Rupa Shenoy. “Vermont chose me.” Adds bandmate and Congolese refugee Cadoux Fanoy, “We are part of this community. We belong here.”
Maybe it’s time to rewrite that Green Mountain Guide.
New American Artists: Celebrating Tradition and Culture is on exhibit at the Spotlight Gallery in Montpelier through August. A2VT will play a free show Sunday, July 29th, as part of the Levitt AMP St. Johnsbury Music Series at Dog Mountain.