"I didn't know you were an artist," my friend said with a note of surprise in her voice. She had just seen my woodcut hanging in the Amy Tarrant gallery at the Flynn Center. I had been asked to make a print for a Burlington City Arts and Flynn Center combined benefit show which included 30 people—it is the 30th anniversary of both organizations— some professional artists, and others like me, who were included because of our name recognition.
The word "artist" is not in my resume, but the word "art" is part of my life. I don't see a contradiction between being a politician and an artist. Winston Churchill is the leader who immediately comes to mind as
an example. Known as a "Sunday painter," his watercolors were widely exhibited. It's interesting to entertain the idea that if more men and women in public life became "Sunday painters," they might become better Monday-through-Saturday policy makers. If politicians were to permit themselves to step away for a few hours each week from the rapid-fire schedule of political life to look closely at the world around them, and to express their own creativity, who knows what might happen? My imagination soars at the thought. For
one thing, they might be in a better mood and treat each other with greater civility. There might be less name calling and more legislating.
For another, by carefully looking at their surroundings, whether it is out the window on to a city street, or at a landscape while driving, or in the dining room gazing at a floral arrangement, they could see beyond their wealthy contributors, insistent lobbyists, and the confined architecture of the Congress.
They might even transfer their creativity from making art to forging legislation which does not only please one side, but is the patchwork quilt of different points of view, known as compromise.
When I say "art," I mean all the arts—poetry, fiction, non- fiction, dance, music, theatre, movies. I have always felt the need to integrate them into my life, even when I was Governor of Vermont. I can thank my
mother for having exposed me as a child to these riches. She took me to the Museum of Modern Art, and classical music pervaded our apartment, thanks to the New York classical radio station, WQXR—whose announcers also turned out to be excellent English teachers for a family who was just learning the language. (My first language was Swiss German.)
I learned to draw when my mother used to give me a pencil and a piece of white paper to keep me occupied while we were having tea in a cafe with her friends. When I became the mother of four children, I entertained them, covering them with their father's shirts, put on backwards, and settled them in front of an easel, with baby food jars of tempera paint balanced on the rim. Art was often an enjoyable way for me to satisfy my need for self expression. I took a sculpture class with Paul Achenbach at the University of Vermont, and in the 1970s made my first few woodcuts of trees, of children dancing in a circle, and of Vietnamese woman planting rice. I must have been diverted to other things, because I didn't pick up a block of wood again until Burlington City Arts asked me to.
Throughout my adult life, I always belonged to a book club. The first group was put together my Laura Cummings, once the owner of the Everyday Bookshop. She was older than all of us young mothers who were then occupied with caring for our children. We had one rule: nobody could discuss recipes or kids.
Reading has been a staple in my life. Poetry, fiction, non-fiction. It seems too obvious to state, but there is no doubt that a public person can learn a great deal from the private lives of others as portrayed in literature. For me, it was highly enjoyable to enter worlds so different from my own.
The "news" as we know it today is without a doubt, hardly ever enjoyable. It is necessary to be informed, of course, but it is not necessary to be harangued, which is often the case. Stopping for poetry, as Frost did by stopping in the woods one snowy evening, allows for thought, for respite from the daily pounding of
information in our heads.
The world of artistic creativity and hard-nosed political reality seem miles apart to most observers. I see a linkage. Political life, at its very best, is a creative process. Finding solutions to problems calls on the imagination to envision a different future. One has to put old ideas together in new combinations to solve a problem.
Art —in all its forms—provides what nothing else can—a better understanding of the human condition. It is a door through which we walk to understand the complexity of emotions, the diversity of beliefs and opinions, and finally— the richness of the world around us.
Madeleine M. Kunin, former Governor of Vermont, is the author of the forthcoming book, The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family.