Sometime around 1978 I toured the new Empire State Plaza complex in Albany, NY. The buildings themselves—clad in marble and covering nearly 100 acres—were sleek and imposing. One was even rumored to have been designed after Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple in Deir el-Bahri, Egypt. Although we could have easily dedicated all our time to discussing the architecture and layout, we spent most of our visit viewing the massive collection of art, said to be the largest collection of American modern art housed in any public site outside a museum.
As we explored the gleaming subterranean gallery and the topside plaza, I marveled at the scale and design of the architecture, the eclectic assortment of artwork, and the capacity of the human mind to imagine and create. I spent long minutes in front of Alvin Loving’s “New Morning I”—a gigantic acrylic reminiscent of Dutch artist M.C. Escher’s work—and George Ricky’s “Two Lines Oblique”—a sculpture that literally shifts with the wind. Both tickled and puzzled, my 10-year-old mind constantly returned to these pressing questions: How did they do it? How did they even think up that idea?
I was instantaneously transported back to my rudimentary childhood wonderings while recently touring one of General Electric’s Aviation plants in Rutland where Vermonters assemble next-generation compressor and fan blades for commercial and military jet engines. If you’ve flown on a commercial flight in the past year, chances are you have been catapulted through the sky by Vermont ingenuity and diligence. The lightweight high-strength blades produced in Rutland are among the most energy-efficient in the industry, which makes them extremely popular as the airline industry seeks to reduce its fuel consumption and accompanying costs.
When U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy toured the same expansive plant in 2010, he remarked, “We’re a tiny state, but we do extraordinarily big things.” I don’t disagree with the venerable senator, but we must not view Rutland’s success in the aerospace industry as a kind of exceptionalism or an innate capacity that is simply, naturally intrinsic to our region. This plant succeeds because there are programs in place to enable it to thrive, and there is a culture of excellence on the shop floor that emboldens workers to fine tune the robotics systems so that the blades they create are the industry’s finest. The astonishing robotics on display at the Rutland plant are another part of its first-rate manufacturing. Throughout the tour, I kept turning to my senate colleagues and muttering, “Incredible!”
Our human potential for ingenuity is boundless. But we shortchange our imagination and resourcefulness when we view artistic creativity and scientific invention as two distinct and disparate drives. We need to expand our conception of artistry, originality and modernism beyond the scope of the arts and the humanities. Not just because it is critical to honor the contributions of machinists, mechanics and technicians as part of a more complete narrative about our economy, but because innovation in all its forms must be celebrated in order to be nurtured.
I am incredibly proud of our creative economy here in southern Vermont. Our art, music and theatrical offerings are truly remarkable, as is our band of outstanding craftspeople. They all contribute materially and aesthetically to our unique sense of place and our distinctive quality of life. But similar creativity and drive are also evident at many of our regional employers. Whether it’s components for torque converters, high-precision machined sub-assemblies for aircraft, or high-quality parts for the optical and medical industries, we have a strong tradition of excellence and innovation among our area’s manufacturers.
Witnessing the Rutland plant, I was reminded of the motto of GS Precision in Brattleboro: “If we can measure it, we can make it.” Indeed.