The summer breeze, scented with the sweet fragrance of white blooms dangling from the Black Locust trees, anticipated a long-awaited visit by a very special guest to the Clemmons Family Farm located in Charlotte, Vermont.
Nearly two years ago, Lydia Clemmons, who serves as the farm’s executive director, was following with great interest the news of the impending opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington D.C. (NMAAHC) that is devoted exclusively to chronicling the lives, history and culture of African-Americans. Since the museum’s opening in September of 2016, it has attracted more than four million visitors from across the globe.
Clemmons saw a connection to the museum and to the future of her 95-year-old parents’ vision of their family farm as a thriving community-based venue for visual and performing arts to celebrate African-American heritage and the African diaspora in Vermont. Her parents, Dr. Jackson Clemmons and Mrs. Lydia Clemmons, purchased the 148-acre property in 1962. For decades it was a haven for a constant flow of friends and visitors from near and far: the neighborhood, other Vermont communities, Japan, China, Australia, Sweden, Italy, England, and numerous African countries.
Lydia, who is named after her mother and is the eldest daughter of the family, grew up on the farm with her four siblings. Most of her adult and professional life, however, has been spent working and living in Africa, immersed in the many rich and varied cultures of the continent. She was intrigued by the beauty of the NMAAHC’s physical structure with its grand bronze corona and by the representational aspects of the architecture and the overall emphasis on presenting "the whole story" of African-American history. This history includes not only the stories of oppression, racism, discrimination and the struggle against these forces, but also the stories of joy, love, great achievements, and triumph.
“I sought to learn more about the design of the building and those who designed it. I was thrilled to discover that one of the lead architects is an African-American woman named Zena Howard,” recalls Lydia.
Fueled by her discovery, Lydia made a cold call in July of 2016 to architects Phil Freelon and Zena Howard of Perkins+Will Global, an international architecture and design firm where Howard works as principal and managing director of its North Carolina practice overseeing client relations and business operations.
“Phil and Zena were in the midst of preparing for the grand opening of the NMAAHC when I called. In spite of this, they were extremely gracious with their time: I believe they found the story of our parents and the farm very compelling- compelling enough for them to listen and to also engage in some early thinking about the farm and its future.”
The three kept up their dialogue about the potential of the farm as an African-American cultural heritage landmark of national importance over the ensuing two years. Then, an incredible opportunity to collaborate manifested: the Clemmons Family Farm was one of 23 recipients of the highly competitive 2017 National Creative Placemaking Fund grant from ArtPlace America.
The $350,000 grant award offered the Clemmons Family Farm the ability to begin the massive undertaking of preserving one of the historic barns on the property, affectionately known by the family as the “Big Barn,” and to transform it into a future venue for African-American and African diaspora visual and performing arts.
“About half of the ArtPlace America grant is dedicated to the work on the Big Barn,” explains Lydia. “With funds available we quickly let Phil and Zena know that the time was right for a visit to help us think through the preliminary ideas for the redesign of the Big Barn’s interior. They are a very busy, internationally-acclaimed firm and so it was not possible for both of them to visit the farm. Zena graciously accepted the invitation and we are very blessed that she did!”
The most compelling reason for Howard to take time away from her busy schedule and come to Vermont was an opportunity to help preserve the African-American legacy and cultural heritage of the Clemmons Family Farm, which she recognizes is a part of America’s living history that needs to be embraced, valued and strongly supported.
“I’m really so honored to be a part of the re-envisioning the use of this barn. A large part of the work that I do is to come into areas trying to find some vestige of African-American presence that once was and is no longer there. And here, in the heart of Vermont, here in Charlotte, there’s this treasure of an African-American family owning one of the largest farms in the state, 148 acres for six decades,” said Howard.
She understands that this unique and historic African-American owned farm is a true rarity given the grim fact that many African-American owned farms have disappeared from the American landscape.
In a nation with one billion acres of farmland, over the span of Jackson and Lydia Clemmons’ lifetimes African-Americans have lost 93% of their land: African-American farmland assets have shrunk from a combined total of 41 million acres nation-wide in the 1920s, when the couple were infants, to just 3.5 million acres today. Less than half of one percent (0.4%) of all farms in the United States are African American-owned farms. In Vermont, only 740 acres of the approximately 1.2 million acres of farmland in the state are African-American-owned according to the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture. Only about 19 of more than 7,000 farms in the state are owned by African Americans. The significance of the Clemmons Family Farm as a cultural heritage asset and African-American land asset for Vermont and the nation is detailed in this link: http://bit.ly/CFFCulturalheritageasset.
As a designer of beautiful spaces around the country that honor African-American heritage, Howard graciously and generously shared her expertise during three inspiring days June 1-3, working with the Clemmons family, 40 Vermont artists and architects, Charlotte residents, and a consortium of Vermont-based partners as part of the A Sense of Place project, funded by ArtPlace America.
On day one, Howard teamed with Eliot Lothrop, Principal of Building Heritage, LLC, an expert in the preservation of historic Vermont barns, and Christal Brown, an award-winning Vermont dancer and choreographer whose expertise includes designing performing arts spaces. Howard conducted a detailed site survey of the Big Barn that was built in 1830, as Lothrop pointed out the stabilizing work that had been done so far including installing a partially new foundation, rigging up the massive wooden water cistern from rotting floorboards, and reinforcing the roof structure with partial funding from ArtPlace America and the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development's Division of Historic Preservation.
That evening, nearly 100 invited guests attended a “meet and greet” reception hosted by the Clemmons Family Farm in honor of Howard. Chef Candace Taylor of Conscious Kitchen, one of the A Sense of Place project partners, prepared a delicious menu of ancestral cuisines including platters piled high with corn & okra fritters, yam balls, stewed salt fish and cocou bites (Cocou is a Bajan dish made of cornmeal and okra), and pitchers of ginger brew and sweet Vermont herbal tea.
Day two was a "Making History, Creating Place" design charette to plan the use of the interior spaces of the “Big Barn” as future venues for African-American/African diaspora visual and performing arts. The charette (pronounced “shar-et”, an intensive planning or design effort usually focused on addressing a specific architectural project within an allotted time), began with a series of morning presentations by a multidisciplinary team of experts.
The presentation by Sara Westlake, Director of Communication and Leila Tamari, Senior Program Manager for ArtPlace America focused on the need for supporting creative placemaking for community development. They shared that ArtPlace America’s $10 million in funding this year supported 279 nationally, competitive projects located in 187 communities across 46 states including the grant for the Clemmons Family Farm.
Their presentation was followed by Caitlin Corkins of the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development’s Division of Historic Preservation whose talk provided an overview of the vision and goals behind preserving Vermont’s historic barns, and highlighted a number of beautiful barns around the state that have benefited from the agency’s historic barn preservation grants, including the Big Barn on the Clemmons Family Farm, which the division awarded $15,000 toward the preservation of the historic water cistern. Corkins explained the criteria for selecting recipients of the highly competitive grants, which are awarded annually.
As a performing artist and the Clemmons Family Farm’s Director of Visual and Performing Arts, Christal Brown’s presentation introduced the concepts of innovation and scale, and its relationship to the artistic and creative process. She asked the audience to contemplate how the Big Barn’s existing or potential configuration and structure might inspire and or inhibit the creation or exchange of ideas.
Howard’s presentation highlighted projects that create places for African-American history and culture. When conceptualizing the redesign of the Big Barn, she emphasized to the audience that cultural spaces should be designed with the intent to strengthen connections between people; collect, share and preserve culture; build community awareness; foster memorable experiences; embrace cultural identity; create transformative experiences, and to celebrate memories.
After the presentations, Lothrop led the participants through a detailed site visit of the Big Barn to point out the many unique historic features in the building, including a square silo, hand-hewn beams, a cupola, Vermont fieldstone walls, and an immense water cistern.
The remainder of the afternoon was dedicated to small group work, where artists were assigned to one of four design groups, based on their art genres: two visual arts groups (needlework, photography, painting, environmental art, woodworking, jewelry and metalwork) and two performing arts groups (dance, theater, music, spoken word, gymnastics, vaudeville and aerial performing arts). Each artist group was assigned an architect adviser from the Vermont chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA-Vermont). A number of experts of specific professional disciplines rotated through each group to listen to the ideas and to provide inputs and suggestions.
As lead facilitator of the afternoon sessions, Brown charged the participants with developing “Big Sky” ideas for the creative redesign of the Big Barn’s interior with the goal to create unique spaces for African-American and African diaspora visual and performing arts programs while also revitalizing the two-story structure for agricultural uses.
The groups were reminded that the redesign needed to retain the careful preservation of the barn’s historic structural beauty. The multicultural, intergenerational, multiracial, and interdisciplinary groups sat on blankets under the shade of trees or on folding chairs under a canopy on the farm’s expansive lawns, inside the peaceful spaces of the Barn House, or on cozy couches in the yurt of artist and Clemmons Family Farm neighbor Sallie Mack, located just a few yards up Greenbush Road.
After a few hours of sharing and imagining, the creative placemaking design groups of artists and architects generated amazing possibilities! The groups came back together at the end of the day to share their collective genius with Howard and the Clemmons family. Some groups envisioned the massive water cistern rotating with projected digital images; art projects to show the reverence and beauty of the farm; African-American storytelling circles; a skylight revealing the evening stars; flexibility of seating to include pillows; shafts of light from the cupola as a stage spotlight; artist studio spaces; a recording studio in the square silo; the implementation of restorative and healing arts; and preserving the Big Barn’s gorgeous, exposed fieldstone walls as a stunning entryway.
Day three concluded with something very close to Howard’s heart, which is mentoring young girls. As a young girl, Howard spent much of her childhood growing up in an all-white community in upstate New York with no role models in her chosen profession. Especially passionate about mentoring young girls of African descent, Howard loves to share her knowledge about architecture and the need for more African-American women to enter the field of architecture.
“There are 110,000 licensed architects in the U.S, and only 20,000 from that number are females. As for African-Americans, there are only 2,000. However, there are only 400 female African- American architects. So, today I’m informing you all that architecture is a wonderful profession and we need more African-American women.”
Howard shared these statistics with some very lucky girls of color from neighboring Vermont towns who were invited to the Clemmons Family farm to spend an afternoon with Howard. The girls listened intently about the history of architecture in the Barn House Storytelling Room, then took a short walk across the property to tour the Big Barn.
Afterward, Howard and the girls returned to the Barn House and, using architectural floor plans of the two levels of the Big Barn designed by architect John Jordon of Jordan Design PLLC, took part in a mini-charette to share their own creative placemaking ideas. The girls spent an inspiring afternoon with someone who not only shared their heritage, but who lived through similar experiences, and grew up to become a famous and accomplished professional, and a real-life role model for them.
The exciting three-day “Making History, Creating Place” events at the Clemmons Family Farm have paved the way for the continuation of the important preservation and creative placemaking work at the Big Barn on Greenbush Road. The work to stabilize the building should be completed before this Fall.
“I know that Zena and her colleague Phil are very interested in following our progress and doing what they can to continue to support our work,” said Lydia. “We are thrilled with their support and equally thrilled with the new relationships we have initiated with the AIA-Vermont Chapter and the team of Vermont architects who provided a full day of pro bono technical advice to us during the charette. Even with this amazing goodwill and support, it’s clear that more funds will be needed to implement some of the new ideas for the redesign of the Big Barn’s interior spaces.”
To address the fundraising challenges, the Clemmons Family Farm has partnered with the Burlington City Arts Foundation as its fiscal agent through which supporters can make tax-deductible gifts to the Big Barn project at http://bit.ly/BigBarnGift.