For a Johnson sculptor, known for his Statehouse statue, the flood losses are piling up
|Published: 07-31-2023 4:31 PM
JOHNSON, Vt. — “You can look right through to the back of the house,” Jerry Williams said, sitting in his garage next to piles of clothing and construction debris at the top of a long driveway near the tattered banks of the Gihon River. Two weeks ago, the river flushed his home in Johnson, Vt., with 3 feet of dark, murky water, and took so much away with it.
Williams — a sculptor by trade, who’s probably best known for designing the statue of Ceres that stands atop the Vermont Statehouse dome — was still picking up the pieces last week from the flooding, wondering how exactly to put them all back together.
He has lived in this house for about a decade. He loves its privacy. But its proximity to the river has proven to be something of a double-edged sword, Williams said, having flooded multiple times before, the worst of which was this month. If the state or the feds made him a good enough offer, he said, he would consider taking a buyout.
“I might call it quits,” he said last week. “Everything is just kind of up in the air.”
Williams and his domestic partner, Jeane Wolfe, were evacuated from their home on Library Street around 3 a.m. the morning of July 11 with help from a rescue crew.
They spent the following day and night at an emergency shelter on Johnson’s Vermont State University campus. Since then, they have been sleeping at their son’s apartment in Barre and heading up to Johnson every day to clean up the house and recover as many belongings as they can.
Inside, the house stood largely gutted on Thursday. Appliances have been ripped out. Williams and Wolfe both lost their cars. And since Williams’ parents lived in the home before him, many family keepsakes and photographs also got destroyed by the water.
Rain has continued to fall in Johnson since the worst of the flooding, Williams said, getting the house wet again and making him feel like he’s made little progress.
“There’s a lot of stuff I haven’t even thought about yet,” he said, looking out over the many piles in his garage.
Williams produces most of his artwork at a studio in Barre, which was largely spared by the storm, he said. But he keeps a smaller studio in the basement of the home in Johnson, which got completely filled with floodwater, up to, then above, the ceiling.
When the water receded enough for Williams to take a look downstairs, he found his studio an almost total loss. Several pieces he was working on, including some made of clay, floated around the room like small boats. He’ll have to remake at least one.
On Thursday, the basement carried a deep, rotten smell and was pitch black, save for a floodlight. Most of the house’s electrical system was not working; Williams has had a hard time getting a hold of an electrician, as well as a plumber, he and Wolfe said.
Johnson was among the hardest-hit towns in northern Vermont from the floods. The town of 1,400 had damage to homes, farms, its post office and its only grocery store. Residents have also faced a dearth of medical and substance use disorder facilities.
Someone whom Williams said he does not know is running an online fundraiser to help fund his and Wolfe’s recovery, and it had raised more than $12,000 as of Friday.
“I don’t know how to thank those people. It’s fantastic,” he said last week. He said he also was indebted to a group of volunteers associated with the Mennonite Church who helped him and Wolfe start cleaning up their house in the days following the storm.
Williams is “a wonderful artist,” but an even better person, said David Schutz, Vermont’s state curator. Schutz was part of a committee that selected Williams’ joint entry with the Calais sculptor Chris Miller to design and create the Ceres dome statue in 2018.
The project, which replaced an older Ceres sculpture that had rotted out, was “one of the highlights of my 40-year career,” Schutz recalled on Thursday.
Williams hasn’t had time to focus on his art since the flooding hit — FEMA applications and mold cleanup have been more pressing, he said. He’s put several large projects on hold, and is storing some pieces that are in-progress, such as a model of the ancient Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia, up on shelves in the garage in the meantime.
Williams tends to draw inspiration for some of his most important work — the personal pieces, which the public doesn’t usually see — from dreams, he said. If he has a recurring dream about something, he might channel it into a block of stone.
Might the impact of a disaster, such as a major flood, lend itself to his art?
“Probably not right away,” Williams said. “It might come to me in a nightmare.”