imPRESSive Art

Artist, advocate, teacher, leader

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

carol-macdonaldArtist and printmaker Carol MacDonald of Colchester has a long history of dedication to the Vermont art world.

When Carol MacDonald entered high school in Bedford, New York, she arrived with an abundance of enthusiasm for music (school band, chorus) and art. After telling her mother, a middle-school teacher, that the guidance counselor said she couldn’t do all three in high school, her mother went to bat for her.

“I was a year ahead in math,” says MacDonald, and my mother told the counselor, ‘You know, she’s incredibly artistic and really doesn’t need to take math or science every year.’” She got her permission.

MacDonald has made a life from following her muse. And much like her mother did for her, she has become an advocate for art and artists.

After two years at the Maryland Institute of Art, she dropped out “to be in an emotionally abusive relationship. But I got out of that,” she adds. She returned to Bedford.

Her father, an art director for Reader’s Digest, wanted her to go to Katie Gibbs Secretarial School, but to MacDonald, that was the kiss of death. She accepted an invitation from the parents of her good friend Cam, Charlotte and Duncan Stephens, publishers of the Lamoille County Weekly in Johnson, to come be their art director. “They said, ‘We’ll pay you $50 a week and you can come stay in our barn.’ I bought a yellow VW Bug convertible and moved to Vermont in 1974.”

By ’76, she had developed an interest in print-making and took a class at Johnson State, followed by an intensive summer program at the Lake Placid School of Art, where she spent 10 weeks learning etching, silkscreen, lithography, and collagraphy.

When she returned to Vermont, she moved in with her boyfriend, Howard Romero, whom she married. The union would last only three years. An engineer, Romero built her an etching press, which she continues to use.

MacDonald was working with Slalom Skiwear in Newport, first doing freelance catalog illustrations, and eventually as an employee designing skiwear, what she calls “a crazy little blip in my life.” She and her boss, a textile engineer from Switzerland, would travel to Europe to explore European fashion and manufacturers, then travel to Las Vegas for ski shows.

Her first solo art show was held at the Wood Art Gallery in Montpelier in 1980, which coincided with her introduction to the first conference of the Vermont Women’s Caucus for Art.

“I remember going to my first meeting,” says MacDonald. “It was in Stowe, and I was really amazed when I realized there were other women actually making art and talking about it and thinking about it.” She moved to Burlington and joined a group of artists she had met through that network.

By 1981, she was dating Michael Swaidner, who had printed her first freelance design letterhead when he worked for Pioneer Printers in Stowe. They had remained friends, and after her separation from Romero, began to see each other. They married in 1982.

MacDonald became immersed in the Women’s Caucus for Art in Vermont and began attending national conferences, eventually serving on the national board for 10 years. “One of the things we started doing with the Caucus was an open studio tour in Burlington,” she says.

When the Women’s Caucus decided the event was too big to continue under its auspices — it had grown to include male and female artists from around the state — MacDonald pulled a group together to form a nonprofit they called Art’s Alive. “In the beginning [1986] we did a long weekend group show in tents on Perkins Pier, then the art would be displayed in windows of stores on Church Street for a month. John Crabbe at Vermont Tent Co. donated tents to us,” she says. In 1988, the show moved to Green Mountain Power’s South Burlington headquarters, then Contois Auditorium, and eventually Union Station.

Art’s Alive lives on under the aegis of the South End Area Business Association (SEABA). Mark Waskow is an art collector and independent curator and founder of Waskowmium, a rotating online show of the 12,000 pieces in his collection. He put together a retrospective exhibition of MacDonald’s work several years ago as part of the SEABA education program.

“I have a lot of Carol’s work in my collection,” Waskow says. “She’s an important figure in the Vermont art community — one of the forces of nature behind the Vermont Women’s Caucus, and that morphed into Art’s Alive, which, in a very interesting, ironic turn, is now all managed by SEABA.”

After their marriage, MacDonald and Swaidner had settled in Stowe, commuting to the Burlington area, where MacDonald had a studio at the Chace Mill and Swaidner was working at the Offset House. Their first daughter, Courtney, was born in 1985.

“When I got pregnant, I said I wanted to be closer to Burlington.” They bought a condo on Marble Island Road in Colchester.

Their second daughter, Erin, came along in 1988, not long after they bought the land for their current home on Macrae Road in Colchester. “It had a very funky house,” MacDonald says, “a one-bedroom camp that had been added onto badly two or three times. I had two babies and moved my studio from the Chace Mill to the basement — the most depressing day of my life.”

In 1999, she renovated the three-car garage into her art studio; in 2001, the fire department came on Memorial Day by invitation to burn down the house; and on Labor Day the family moved into their new home.

MacDonald’s work has followed a path of subjects that reflected her life. “My work has always been metaphorical self-portraits,” she says, “especially in the beginning. I was really working with images of things that were in my life.”

For example, their house-hunting journey launched a series of laundry-focused works, inspired from her discovery that many neighborhoods prohibited hanging laundry outside. “I was thinking in some sense of the politics of the clothesline,” she says. “Here was this incredible tool used forever, and they were being outlawed. And people would come to tell me their clothesline stories.”

Her work evolved to doing portraits of herself through the clothes she was wearing, to toys juxtaposed with Oriental carpets when her daughter Courtney was young, to images of the beach “as a place where people let their private selves become public.” In 1988, she began teaching at Community College of Vermont, eventually launching its print-making program.

In 1990, Steven Rockefeller, a former dean and teacher of religion at Middlebury College, pulled together the conference Spirit in Nature, attended by the Dalai Lama. Rockefeller, for whom MacDonald had worked as a nanny in high school and college, hired her to make a series of banners illustrating different religions to hang in the Mead Chapel, which she has also done for Bates College in Maine, the Unitarian Church in Burlington, and the Respite House in Colchester. This experience led to working with the kimono “as a garment to be more spiritual.”

Getting in touch with some old sexual abuse that happened when she was quite youn­­g created a major shift in her art process and goals, resulting in a 1993 show featuring cocoons and wrappings. She invited other survivors of abuse to join her in an interactive process.

In ’99, the bird emerged as a subject, “thinking about the bird as a being that bridges body and spirit, heaven and earth. But after 9/11, one of the gifts of that was that people worked together in new ways, so all of a sudden my birds started picking up the string together, building nests together.” At the start of the Iraq War, birds appeared in a series called “A Call to Alms.”

More recently, a return to knitting inspired a decision to use knitted objects to print. A month-long residency at Vermont Studio Center allowed her time to explore the yarns that worked and how to draw the stitches.

Meanwhile, MacDonald’s involvement in the art community remains unflagging. She runs an annual summer camp for kids at her studio, and conducts print workshops three to four days a month from September through June. She currently serves as the president of Frog Hollow Craft Association’s nonprofit board.

Until 2008 when he left for California, Rob Hunter was gallery manager of Frog Hollow’s Middlebury gallery. When he returned in 2010, two of the galleries had closed and the operation was moved to Burlington.

“Carol was one of the artisan members who stepped in when they heard I had come back,” Hunter says. “She said, ‘We should hire Rob on as gallery director,’ because at that point it was in pretty dire straits. And she has stayed on the board since the implosion of Frog Hollow and through the entire rebuilding process, because of her dedication to the craftspeople of Vermont. We are in one of the most financially stable positions I ever remember Frog Hollow being in. And that says a lot about who she is.”

Who she is has always encompassed much more than an interest in art. She sang in the choir at the Unitarian Church for over 20 years, and about 12 years ago took up the cello. “When I was a kid, I played French horn and recorder and guitar, and at the point in high school when I made the decision between music and art, I decided that, with music, I would be doing somebody else’s work.”

Now she’s come full circle. •