Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on August 28, 2008 with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at the Bryan Memorial Gallery, Jeffersonville, VT at either this phone number or Web address:
The Art of Vermont
By Mickey Myers
"It was a tie." David Schutz, Curator of the State of Vermont recounts the vote in the Vermont Senate in 1837 to purchase the state's first piece of art (a large oil portrait of George Washington by George Gassner, after Gilbert Stuart,) with an irony that foreshadows many political debates. (right: Alden Bryan, Cambridge, c. 1955, oil on canvas, 27 x 36 inches, State Art Collection, Capitol Complex, Montpelier)
Lt. Governor David Camp broke the tie to purchase the painting, and as Schutz proudly asserts, "the State of Vermont has been collecting art ever since."
While the Vermont State Art Collection may inventory its share of the expected portraits, honoring governors and military heroes, collected gradually over the years, the building of a Vermont State Art collection has become a goal with a strategy, beyond the obvious, since the founding of the Vermont Arts Council in 1964, and continuing to this day.
"The State's Art Collection has developed to the point that it is worth getting the word out it exists," Schutz explains, as the motivation for undertaking a statewide tour of the collection, requiring the selection of artwork from among 1,000 pieces, on view in over 200 state buildings (including the Vermont State Colleges.) To curate the exhibition and manage the tour, Schutz hired artist and curator Paul Gruhler, who had worked on a state-wide Vermont exhibition previously,* and scheduled the tour to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Vermont State House and the 20th anniversary of the Art in State Buildings Program.
Beginning in spring, 2008, over the next two years, residents of and visitors to the Green Mountain State will have the opportunity to see examples from the Vermont State Art Collection, in an exhibition entitled Art of Vermont: The State Collection, which will travel to at least five institutional venues across Vermont, starting at the Bryan Memorial Gallery, in Jeffersonville, Vermont.
The checklist of the traveling exhibition will change in part, from venue to venue, reflecting the particular aesthetic, or historical, or regional focus of the sponsoring institutions. What will remain constant about the exhibition is that paintings and sculptures, rarely seen outside of a governmental or bureaucratic or state office context, will breathe in locations, designed for the exhibition of artwork, in local communities, to be seen by the people who, after all, own them -- the people of Vermont. (left: James F. Gilman, view of Montpelier, 1889, oil on canvas, 16 1/4 x 24 inches, State House Collection, Capitol Complex, Montpelier)
"Because of the broad scope of the collection, it has been possible to fit the needs and meet the missions of different venues, all over the state," notes Curator Gruhler, who personally visited over forty state buildings to survey the collection and make his curatorial choices. The tour begins with an exhibition of over thirty landscapes, at Bryan Memorial Gallery, an institution that features landscape painting throughout the year.
If the exhibition has a nationally recognized star, it is Julian Scott (1846 - 1901,) whose remarkable military career was overshadowed by his career as an artist of the Civil War. Joining the 3rd Vermont Volunteer Infantry (The Green Mountain Boys) at age 15, as a fifer, he wrote "painter," as his occupation on his enlistment papers, and then embarked on reporting his military experience to his family, through sketches on his letters. After being awarded a Medal of Honor with the citation, "Crossed the creek under a terrific fire of musketry, several times to assist in bringing off the wounded," he received a medical discharge from the Army, and went to study art at the National Academy of Design in New York City.
Intrinsic to his instruction was an intimacy with the subject he was painting, and so it was not surprising that this retired soldier, at age 18, set out to paint scenes of combat, Civil War scenes for which he would become nationally famous.
Scott is represented in this exhibition by The Mounted Sentry, a small painting conveying the loneliness and exhaustion of war, as a single soldier sits atop his horse in a grassy autumn field. Is he a confederate soldier, surveying a sunset or a union soldier, surveying a sunrise? Scholars are not in agreement on the particular metaphor intended by Scott, but regardless, the work itself carries the power of loyalty and the virtue of readiness, through an image that speaks to the nobility of the individual it depicts, regardless of allegiance. (right: Julian Scott, The Mounted Sentry, 1884, oil on canvas, 12 x 18 inches, State House Collection, Capitol Complex, Montpelier)
Among the most historic works in the exhibit is James F. Gilman's View of Montpelier (1889,) the capital of Vermont. Peaking through treetops, the spires, twin steeples, brick dome and grand residences give evidence of an idyllic era, with no hint that the river which dominates the foreground of the picture would flood, repeatedly over the next 118 years, and almost destroy the picturesque town. Tiny renderings of women strolling under their umbrella, with a gentleman, atop a horse-drawn cart, provide both scale and cadence to the depiction. The political bustle of the governmental environs is well hidden behind an abundance of elm trees (also subsequently destroyed,) winding granite stone walls and profuse spring foliage.
If there is a Vermont landscape aesthetic, its theme can be drawn in the relationship between Gilman's formal rendering of Montpelier, and Alden Bryan's Cambridge, painted in 1955, over sixty years later, of a town to the northwest of the state's capital. Again, the mountains provide a backdrop that crowns the pictorial, towering and reigning over the land. Though Gilman's Montpelier is as urban as Vermont got in the 19th century, and Bryan's Cambridge is a definitively rural rendering in the 20th century, in both paintings, the terrain angles and slants toward the river bank, and the river leans to the right and disappears closer to the town. Bryan's buildings dot the middle of the picture like necessities rather than centerpieces, stating the obvious, with rural certainty, that the land comes first. While the buildings are acknowledged accurately by Bryan, they are kept in their place, as is everything in Vermont in relation to the land. (left: Thelma Appel, Champlain Valley, 1977, oil on canvas, 33 x 84 inches, Vermont Arts Council Purchase: Capitol Complex, Montpelier)
Once again, almost sixty years later, Eric Aho gives evidence that the Vermont aesthetic upholds the power of nature, even while acknowledging the activity on the land. In his 2007 painting Night Mowing, Aho's thinly sketched, almost linear evidence of farming activity on a summer night, seems to hold off the thunder in a darkening sky, as though the light of the evening's chores prevents the sky from falling.
One can be convinced that while the people in Gilman's Montpelier, might recognize Bryan's Cambridge and Aho's farmland as their own, the emotional content of both pictures would probably surprise or even embarrass them. What has developed in the 118 years between these paintings is the complexity of expression, which has taken over in the telling of a scenic story: prescribed in Gilman's work, reverent in Bryan's, and palpable in Aho's.
If Aho's work totters between abstraction and representation, in balancing his visceral response to the land, he is not alone, as evidenced by many of the more contemporary works of landscape in the state's collection. Viiu Niiler addresses the tangible, physical relationship of Vermonters to their land, in her Harmony of the Spring Mountain Range, (1982) weaving hand-dyed New Zealand Oriental carpet wool on a cotton warp to make her affectionate statement of peace with the elements. Lawrence C. Goldsmith's High Elevation (1985) in watercolor celebrates the celestial dimension of a mountaintop, while Eugene Fern, best known as a children's book illustrator, provides a fairy tale rendering to a farmland scene in Rolling Hills of Vermont (c. 1980). (right: Robert K. Carsten, Comtu Falls on the Black River, 1998, pastel on wood panel, 40 x 70 inches, Art in State Buildings, State Office Building, Springfield, Vermont)
Claire Van Vliet views her local mountain, Burke (1987) as a compassionate friend, in a diptych one can almost reach out and touch, so tactile is its rendering in paper pulp. Elizabeth Nelson's Summer Night, West Glover, Vermont (2003) is awash in the mystique and magic of the night sky, with its falling stars. Robert K. Carsten's precision in pastel on wood, in his Comtu Falls on the Black River, 1998, imposes tranquility on a scene of town, waterworks and river, through the fragile branches of a budding tree.
As seductive as it might be to observe the majesty of the terrain, a significant share of the painters in this exhibition give evidence of an active involvement that comes to bear on their perspective of the scenes they report, such as Thomas Curtin, who stands behind the scene in his Horse Team and Sugar Shack, with the activity of sugaring, dominating the view of the mountain. Annemie Curlin provides a bird's eye view of the more urban city of Rutland in a 2007 triptych (Rutland City, Center Street and Court Street, Rutland City, Railroad Yard, and Rutland City, State Street.) Jean Chupack paints the landscape as seen through her studio windows, including the studio windows themselves in Studio Interior, June Afternoon, 1987, ultimately reminding us that all of these paintings involve the point of view of the painters who painted them.
If one work unifies the entire checklist of the exhibition, it is Thelma Appel's huge, wide, horizontal painting of Champlain Valley, (1977) with its cobalt, turquoise, and teal waters, winding their way through the yellows, greens, and chartreuses of vegetation. It is a rendering that embraces and beckons and seduces the viewer to step into the maze that is the Vermont landscape, just as the painter has clearly embraced it herself.
State Curator David Schutz, unabashedly acknowledges that the people of Vermont have an affection for their state that is intuitive. Whether native born or "flatlanders," Schutz describes a population that is not only moved by the unusual beauty of the state - celebrated throughout its art collection -- but also that demonstrates a special regard for each other, with a kind of tolerance to which many communities aspire. Both Schutz and Gruhler consider the art in the state's collection as a reflection of that complexity -- not only "good looking," but also giving evidence of the deep reality of living in the Vermont community. (left: Thomas Curtin, Horse Team and Sugar Shack, oil on board, 16 x 20 inches, State Art Collection, Ca;itol Complex, Montpelier)
The state's coat of arms, originally designed as an engraving in 1821, was rendered in 1895 as an idyllic landscape, Coat of Arms, painted by W. C. Stacey for the Secretary of State's office. The state motto, "Freedom and Unity," lies on a field of a red ribbon, in golden block letters, at the base of the state's landscape crest. That motto asserts the rich irony of Vermont values -- a pairing of personal freedom with an integral sense of community responsibility. It is an attitude which manifests itself in the state's art collection -- in its existence, which continues to grow and develop as a collection -- and in the current initiative, which has undertaken the tour of the collection, throughout the state of Vermont.
The State of Vermont owes its art collection to many individuals, committees such as The Friends of the Vermont Statehouse, officials, and programs such as the Art in the State Buildings, which has for twenty years commissioned artwork for state buildings. Alex Aldrich, Executive Director of the Vermont Arts Council, which financed the tour with the support of the NEA American Masterpieces Program, and the Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services, acknowledges that the presence of public art in the state's buildings provides "an opportunity to step outside our daily lives even if just for a moment."
Governor Jim Douglas refers to the large portrait of George Washington, the first piece of art collected by the state, which was rescued from the State House fire of 1857 -- the State House itself perished -- as indicative of "the value Vermonters have always placed on their public art. We still use these works to interpret our past and keep us mindful of the principles that have always defined the character of the people who make Vermont so special."
*Vermont Collections: the 25th Anniversary exhibition of Helen Day Art Center in Stowe, VT in 2006.
About the author
Mickey Myers is Executive Director, Bryan Memorial Gallery, Jeffersonville, VT 05464.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 28, 2008, with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on July 17, 2008. A different version of the article was published in the June 2008 issue of American Art Review.
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