M.F.A. alumnus ‘paints’ pictures with sound

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Three moments at various points in Vaughn Garland’s life impacted him so greatly that together they formed the inspiration for his latest project: “Right Here Once: The Soundways of Route 5,” a collection of thought-provoking sound bites from Virginia’s historic Route 5.

The first moment happened when he was young. Garland watched as his grandmother was priced out of her small farm. Like most people in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, she had worked all of her life on the farm, but by the mid 1990s could no longer afford the rising price of seed and the dropping price of harvest.

“The lifestyle of a family farm collapsed and many of us turned our heads from the traditions of farming and that identity,” said Garland, who received an M.F.A. from the VCU School of the Arts and a Ph.D. from the university’s Media, Art & Text program.

Garland’s second inspiring moment came while he was a student at VCU. At the time, VCU housed the fifth largest collection of art-related slide images in the country, constructed from student, faculty and patron contributors. As manager of the 40-year-old slide collection and arts library, he saw how massive a collection can get if it has enough reach and contributors.

The third moment was as a Ph.D. student in 2013, watching other artists embrace the Internet to document and investigate a community. He liked the idea that anyone could build an online collection archiving his or her life.

The convergence of these three moments resulted in “Right Here Once,” which captures the sounds of the 54-mile stretch of Route 5 between Richmond and Williamsburg.

Garland chose Route 5, not only for its enriched history and secrets that extend as far back as the founding of our nation, but as a natural boundary for him, “a way to frame the work,” he said.

Garland sees sound as an important way to interpret the world and he hopes the listener will build a location in his imagination when listening to the recorded archive of a place and time.

“I want to connect with the people and places through the moments in the recordings and have new moments arise out of that listening experience,” he said.

Moments have always been important to Garland, who started off as a painter.

“My paintings are large oil-based works that deal with ‘episodes,’” he said, “moments when information visually appears and then recedes in the work. I do not see this new work as all that different from my painting … while in my studio with headphones on, I have to reorient myself to the fact that I am sitting in front of computer, rather than standing in front of an easel.”

He always had an interest in musicology, but did not discover “sound art” until the 2002 Whitney Biennial art exhibition.

“The blacked-out room of entirely sound amazed and touched me,” he said. “I stayed in that room for several hours.” After taking a course three years ago with Stephen Vitiello, associate professor in the Department of Kinetic Imaging, Garland realized how much he loved working with sound; at that point he stopped painting so he could put everything into his sound work.

A vibrant sound or a desolate recording can prompt one to paint a picture in his head of a recording’s place of origin. A pig’s oink can signify a farm, the sound of kids splashing in water can signify a pool and the sound of crickets and frogs can signify a dark wooded area. Garland hopes to not only document but also promote the curiosity within sound.

“The act of documenting life is a major factor to how I see this collection,” he said. “‘Right Here Once’ refers to a marker or a memory of a moment in time. ‘The Soundways of Route 5’ relates to the deep history of others going out into the world to document the people and music by conducting field recordings.”

Since starting June 1, Garland has collected more than 25 recordings on his Zoom H4N digital recorder. He adds recordings weekly, and is reaching out to others to contribute via a mobile app that will be functional later this year. It’s part of the collaborative experience he wants to emulate from the old slide library he once managed. The project does not have an end date, and he plans to add to the recordings as time passes.

“I have realized that some moments may appear and others may need a little searching for,” Garland said. “I hope my project will showcase the beauty of the landscape and the people.”

Vaughn Whitney Garland Ph.D., M.F.A., in a field off of Route 5. Photograph by Robert Walz.
Vaughn Whitney Garland Ph.D., M.F.A., in a field off of Route 5. Photograph by Robert Walz.


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