If you have been in the Fine Arts Center lately, you’ve likely been greeted by a life-sized photo of six Castleton professors, laughing and enjoying each other’s company.
Inspired by the book “Iron John: A Book About Men,” by Robert Bly, this group of men started meeting once a month in 1991 to discuss the male experience, something that interested and applied to all of them. Twenty-five years later, they continue the tradition, growing together as colleagues and friends.
“Bill and I were sitting over at the (Birdseye) diner and were talking about ‘gee wouldn’t it be great to have a men’s group? Let’s each invite two or three people who make us feel alive.’ And so we did,” retired philosophy professor Robert Johnson said of the group’s beginnings.
“We were kind of young then and now we’re kind of old,” joked Bill Ramage, one of the group’s members and the artist behind the Men’s Group show currently on display in the Christine Price Gallery. “What you experience at 48 is different than 73. Can you even imagine all of us younger?” Ramage chuckled.
The show is a combination of two of Ramage’s self-portrait pieces from 1978 and 1981 and a new, large work which is a composite of many images of the six men: Luther Brown, Bob Johnson, Jonathan Scott, Bob Gershon, John Gillen and Ramage.
“This show is about how we are as a group of six with one connection being that we’ve all been teaching at Castleton,” Ramage said.
The large piece also involves perception and how we process the world around us, a concept Ramage has worked with extensively during his career.
“It feels pretty weird walking into the FAC and being greeted by me,” said Gershon of the exhibit.
Johnson is portrayed sitting at a piano.
“I don’t even play piano! Bill just said sit here at the piano!” Johnson laughed.
Just looking at the pictures of the group, Ramage couldn’t help but smile thinking of the good memories.
“They’d kill me for telling you this, but every February we go to the mountain and sit in a hot tub,” he said laughing. “When we get out it’s so cold we think we’re going to die!”
The group usually meets at a restaurant or one of their homes on a monthly basis, but sometimes they go elsewhere depending on the situation.
“Once we met in a Teepee in Middletown Springs. We were just looking for interesting things to do,” Johnson said. “Once we hired this guy to teach us how to drum and he brought a whole bunch of drums. He made us sit in a circle and beat on drums. Robert Bly had his idea that men should learn how to drum together so we said ‘I guess we’re men. Let’s do it!’”
On one occasion, when Ramage was in the hospital, the group met in a room in the hospital.
“This connection is different than just being friends. I don’t know exactly why it’s different, but it’s something about who we are as a group,” Ramage reflected, noting that they have helped each other through many hard times.
“I think we’ve become a little bit of a family… we don’t see each other all that often outside of the group, especially now that so many have retired and no longer haunt the halls of Leavenworth and the Fine Arts Center, but we’re there to support each other when a need arises,” Gershon said.
“One of the major issues is trying to figure out why we’re meeting and we never did figure it out, but we continue to meet,” Johnson said. ‘’It became a place to eat chips and talk, but we wanted to figure out what are men and what do they have in common besides biology.”
Gershon noted that sometimes it’s just fun to spend time with this group of guys, existential philosophy aside.
“It’s just fun to be in a group of really smart people where the conversation might range from what’s going on in art galleries in New York City to quantum mechanics to Eastern philosophy. And, of course, school politics,” he said. “And everyone in the group likes to laugh.”
All combined, they have over 200 total years of service to the college. Gillen, the longest serving Castleton employee, and possibly even in the entire Vermont State College system, has worked at Castleton for 45 years.
“We represent that past era,” Ramage said.
The men have memories of Castleton that are just historical facts to current students.
On a Wednesday morning, Ramage and Johnson sat in the fine arts center box office catching up and joking around before Johnson saw the art for the first time. Their witty banter exemplified the humor and friendship the group seems to represent.
“I’ll just sit here with my friends,” Ramage said with a chuckle.
“But you don’t have any friends,” Johnson joked.
“I thought you were my friend!” Ramage replied
“Well, if you ever need blood–,” Johnson paused and then continued, “I’d be glad to drive you to the hospital.”