Burlington Vermont’s South End is the place to be if you are an artist or if you want to immerse yourself in art because art is everywhere — indoors, outdoors, on the streets, on building exteriors, in repurposed dairy facilities, reclaimed warehouses, and yes, in dozens of galleries. You could spend days there and still not see everything. But you could break up your art consumption with samplings of local craft beer in the many tasting rooms and even stop in at a wine bar where your wine and cheese pairing is presented by a James Beard Award winner (see side box for places mentioned).
It is in this thriving arts community that I visited Mary Lacy in her warehouse studio. Lacy is a muralist, and her work can be seen a few blocks down from her studio on two monumental silos adjacent to a building that now houses a design/marketing enterprise. Another work is downtown on the brick facade of a four-story building that is also a wood-fired pizza restaurant across from Burlington’s City Hall Park.
Lacy’s outdoor murals are also in nine other states, the result of a cross country yearlong project that is documented on her website in a six-part video series. Lacy is a proponent of public art. She told me, “public art is social art. The process itself of being in a public space in a community changes that community. People engage with me as I work and they engage with each other.”
Her large-scale works take about three weeks to complete, and as expected, they invite people to watch as she works high up in her bucket truck. Most people gaze for a while and might ask questions, she told me, but every so often, “a guy will stop and offer up suggestions like ‘Why don’t you do it this way,’ or ‘How about that color over there.’” She’s focused on her work and doesn’t let these comments annoy her.I ask Lacy about the genesis of her style — the geometry, the straight lines, the mosaic-like rendering. Before answering, she takes a momentary pause and then caught in a memory, she responded. She tells me a person dear to her was ill and she made a thousand origami paper cranes. Lacy was 12 years old and had read Eleanor Coerr’s book, “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.” She added that her love of math melded with this interest in origami.
Lacy discovered herself as an artist in her sophomore year in high school, when a serious spinal cord injury sidelined her from the usual things high schoolers do. She found herself in art, and with the help of her art teacher, refined her talent and vision.
At university, she studied history and politics, but her need to connect with her true self prevailed and she returned to art. Her first mural was an outsized portrait on a friend’s New York City apartment wall.
Lacy told me that she completed a lot of portraits after that initial one in the apartment. When asked who her inspiration was, she’s quick to note Chuck Close, adding that being in a wheelchair did not stop him from producing an enormous body of work.
I asked her if her injury in high school still factors in her sensibilities and her approach. She told me that while her traumatic injury is not visible, the psychological remains a challenge; but, she added, “I fixed myself through my art.”I note that traveling cross country in a bucket truck, sleeping in her bucket truck and doing three-week stints in communities she has never visited before is setting yourself up for some big challenges. She responded with a smile, declaring, “I’m a risk taker, for sure, but I’m not reckless.” Most importantly, she is determined and perseveres. I sense also that she likes adventure, and new people and new places are a way of connecting herself to this larger community.
I asked Lacy how she funded that cross country outdoor art project because she had already mentioned that she did the nine outdoor works for free. She approached the Benjamin Moore paint company with a proposal that took her weeks to put together as she secured approvals from various communities across the United States, getting the permitting process in place and setting up “paint parties” in the local communities for participatory activities with residents. Benjamin Moore loved the idea and provided funding for her materials and the general scope of the project, including the videography. Lacy even got creative control over the video component.
When asked whose works she is inspired by, Lacy is quick to note New Orleans artist Brandan Odums, also known as BMike, who is best known for his floor-to-ceiling portraits of black culture in the city and Civil Rights leaders, on view in the city’s warehouse spaces. Another artist she admires is Theaster Gates, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Department of Visual Arts whose focus has been the interconnectedness of urban planning, art spaces, religious spaces and neighborhood revitalization. I asked her if she sees any of that in Vermont. “We have a vibrant and energized arts community here, but our public spaces do not reflect the richness of the diversity that exists here in Burlington,” she said.
I ask Lacy what is next for her. She told me that her work is always evolving. “I need personal experimentation,” she said, adding: “I also need to look inward, to see and feel my driving forces.”
Lacy is 28 – an artist to watch.