by Mickey Myers, reprinted with permission from American Art Review
Inviting a group of artists to paint en plein air at the same locations in Vermont as landscape artists of the previous century has its plot twists. The initial invitation, issued by Bryan Memorial Gallery over a year prior, opened the door to a network of nuance and imagination. The resulting exhibit, Then and Now, evokes as many points of view as there are participating artists in the project. What the paintings tell us about the iconic Vermont landscape, the influence of the masters and the independence of the twenty-first century is a legend in the making.
To initiate the dialogue, paintings by twelve well-known historical artists — Charles Curtis Allen, Martha Wood Belcher, Robert Noel Blair, Alden Bryan, Francis Colburn, Jay Hall Connaway, Thomas Curtin, Emile Gruppe, Charles Louis Heyde, Aldro Hibbard, Fred Hines and Charles Movalli — were selected. Most were picked for the identifiable and preserved locations they painted. A few were chosen for their representation of recognizable Vermont themes, such as maple trees and barns with silos. In all, thirty-one paintings of Vermont locations in the twentieth century were chosen.
Subsequently, thirty-three contemporary artists were invited to paint at the same locations as their predecessors, in which they engaged over the course of a year. Places such as Stowe Village, views of Mount Mansfield and the Peacham Church — all iconic Vermont locations — were visited and re-visited by artists in every season over the past year. A chart of locations, posted privately on line, allowed the artists to self-select the locations they wished to paint. Some artists chose to visit a particular location together, while others chose the same location, but painted at different times. One artist made a family vacation out of the project with his children painting alongside him, while another artist flew a drone over the scene, which had grown unreachable.
Regardless of the weather or season, the Vermont landscape, dotted with painters at their easels, has been a familiar sight to local residents for over a century. This exhibit, curated by gallery manager Tom Waters, brings together works by respected and influential twentieth-century deceased artists alongside contemporary treatments of the same scenes, underscoring aesthetically the passage of time, the lineage of style, and the diversity of vision.
T. M. Nicholas, Stapleton Kearns and Garin Baker painted at Tinker Farm in Bakersfield. A half century earlier Fred Hines had painted its farm buildings from a snow-covered road, elevated behind the fields. Nicholas added a rugged intimacy to the scene by positioning his composition right up to the fence along the side of the road. Kearns painted the same view from a slightly higher vantage point, obliterating the fence, but cloaking the scene with a fragile, settled quality. Baker tackled the view, midway between the road and the fence, emphasizing the growth of the farm. Their paintings, side by side, underscore the imprint of time from Hines’ distant view, as the farm buildings have both settled into and taken over more land.
The influence of these earlier painters is readily apparent in the work of many contemporary artists. Thomas Curtin (1899– 1977) sets a twentieth-century tone with his Autumn Maple, isolating a majestic orange and sun-kissed tree in the middle of the picture against an almost hidden moun- tain. Half a century later, Peter Yesis paints a trio of maples in various stages of growth, and extends the scene to include the cows in the field.
Ken DeWaard is drawn toward Emile Gruppe’s (1896-1978) Covered Bridge without ever having known him. The concept of the covered bridge in every season has acquired iconic status in Vermont, as evidenced by several works from a covered bridge in a snowstorm, to a covered walking bridge, inviting a stroll in warmer weather. By installing the works in groups, according to location, insight abounds into how diverse artists approach the same subject. Their choices and their contrasts underscore how the landscape has endured or changed over time.
While project guidelines allowed for a generous interpretation of the sites, some artists such as Christopher Magadini set up a view of Haystack Mountain in what could have been the footprint of Jay Hall Connaway (1893-1970.) Other artists such as Yesis found it necessary to approach Winooski Falls just up river from where Alden Bryan (1913-2001) painted it, a par- ticular location which is no longer accessible. The change of location predicated a change of tone as well. Thus with Bryan, one is impacted by the majesty of the scene from afar, whereas with Yesis one is drawn into more serene and intimate detail.
In Aldro Hibbard’s (1886-1972) West River in Autumn the colorful fall foliage dominates the canvas, while South Londonderry is barely visible except for a few buildings and the white church spire below the mountains and against the abundance of orange-hued trees. John Traynor, on the other hand, has framed a more immediate view of the same area in winter. At first, the viewer wonders if the matching geography is referenced; the abundance of foliage is missing, and the vantage point has shifted to the southwest. Ultimately it is Traynor’s proximity to both mature and voluntary trees, bare in winter, which strip the scene of its autumnal grandeur and hint at the raw reality of winter.
Mt. Mansfield, the state’s highest peak at 4,395 feet elevation above sea level, looms large in the exhibit. Viewed from the east and from the west, it occupies the foreground and the background of several paintings. Garin Baker and Caleb Stone keep the mountain at bay as much as possible. Baker utilizes the mountain as a snow- capped backdrop with the picture plane dominated by recent additions — street signs, utility lines, a paved road and silos.
So too, Caleb Stone places a figure in red, walking a dog, ironically dominating the scene against the mountain, despite their diminutive size. Charles Curtis Allen (1886-1950) and Charles Louis Heyde embrace it front and center. Allen’s Mt. Mansfield conveys a classic scene of the crispness of recent snowfall.
In Cindy House’s recent visit to Otter Creek Valley she observed the same tranquility that attracted Martha Wood Belcher (1844-1930), who infused her broad depiction of the valley with a nineteenth-century sense of serenity, not missing a detail of the terrain, animals, people, mountains and sky. House’s pastel Mist Over Otter Creek simplifies the terrain while catching more subtle variations in color and form as to hold onto the scene’s harmony and sense of the past.
Though wooden and even metal sap buckets are now the rarity, Mary Martin’s team of horses and human workers evoke the industry of Aldro Hibbard’s Maple Syrup Cart. Hibbard’s oxen pull a sled carrying the wooden bucket, while Martin’s horses pull a wagon, accompanied by two bundled-up workers. Both suggest the diligence of productivity.
As many as four artists visited the same sites, resulting in a kaleidoscope of viewpoints that surround each location. Among the youngest of the twentieth-century artists, Robert Blair (1912-2002) was known for the exuberance of his watercolors, as seen in his Fairfax Falls. In Mark Boedges’ work the falls rush by; in Kevin Fahey’s painting the rocks frame the flow; and William Hoyt surveys a wider scene.
In this ambitious gathering of artists, locations, and 120 paintings, many of the participants expressed a similar sentiment as James Coe, who commented about selecting the same site as Cindy House, and then comparing notes once back in the studio. He talked about the thrill of finding new places to paint and sharing the discoveries with fellow artists. Others confessed about the adjustment required by the project, in some cases deciding a more interesting view was now in the opposite direction.
Curator Tom Waters referenced his discussions with the artists over the past year and theirs with each other as to how the landscape has changed or stayed the same. He notes that while there were contrasts of viewpoint and style, there was a keen awareness of the impact of the older generation of artists on their work. “The artists themselves have been having exactly the discussions we hope to spark in the visiting public,” Waters noted. The collection as a whole reflects a celebration of what we value today, and one cannot help but wonder what influence that will have on the future. Stepping back into a rich palette of natural beauty, Then and Now offers a whole new generation of observations against a back- drop of rich, painterly legacy.
Then and Now is on view through September 2, 2019, at the Bryan Memorial Gallery, 180 Main Street, Jeffersonville, Vermont, 05464, 802-644-5100.
View the Full Gallery of paintings on the Bryan Memorial Website here: Then & Now Image Gallery