When some friends from the Vermont Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation and the University of Vermont came to my winter term class to see our group project on Emerald Ash Borer, one of the things that impressed them the most was the diversity of experience in the classroom. We take it for granted at a liberal arts school, but to them it was quite novel to have Studio Art and Religion majors in the same classroom with Biology and Environmental Studies.
I’ve also discovered another delightful fact about teaching here at Middlebury-the sometimes painful truth that all of the students are more intelligent and creative than I could ever hope to be. It’s a great feeling to have your simple little course on trees extended into other work across campus, in liberal art ways you would have never thought.
So in that spirit, I want you all to watch Arbor Day, the movie. Created by the incredibly talented Joanie Thompson for Sight and Sound I in the Department of Film and Media Culture, it made my whole day. As I’m sure happens often at Middlebury, the teacher becomes the student.
The video below is password protected on Vimeo, so here it is on the blog. Hopefully she won’t mind if it’s posted here!
Towards the end of the term the observant on the north end of campus would have noticed a sod box on the south end of Battell Beach, about 7′ high and 5 ‘ wide. Constructed by Cha Tori and Hannah King for Professor Sanford Mirling’s The Artist Collective class, the sod hut joins a long tradition of end of the term student projects sprinkled about the landscape. Being the end of term, it sadly didn’t stay up very long, a victim of timing and student vandalism. I’ve posted their narrative below, as well as a brief slideshow.
“This work began in Sanford Mirling’s sculpture class, The Artist Collective and as a response to the prompt: make an environment for something. Working together, Hannah and I initially chose to make a room in which you felt happier when you left it. As the project progressed, we decided to achieve this by contrasting the natural with the synthetic. Dealing with the feelings of happiness and sad-ness, we purposely left the room free of objects so that it would lend itself to impressions but not specific memories. We wanted the outside of the sculptureto appear seamless with the work’s environment, as though it were growing out of Battell Beach. As a material, sod is very strange because it is a naturally grow-ing product but typically used in highly manicured settings. While the sod allows the box to blend with and grow out of the grass surrounding it, as a material that can be manipulated into a box, it underscores the more nuanced relationship between our conception of the real and artificial.”
A blog post, and a recent visit to my alma mater, UVM, has me thinking again about public art, and contexts. My question is this: Can a spectacular painting be ruined by the wrong frame?
Probably. I wonder how many paintings I’ve seen appraised on Antiques Roadshow, where the appraiser raves about the painting, then looks down their nose saying, of course, the frame needs to go. So why would this be any different for sculpture, or for outdoor art?
The blog post is Lovely Filth, by Douglas Perkins, on the Middlebury Art Museum blog. He writes of Solid State Change, a challenging piece by Deborah Fischer located outside of the Hillcrest Environmental Center. Others have written (and commented, don’t skip those) on the scultpure on his blog, so I won’t rehash. I won’t even give my opinions on the piece itself, as I’ve amply proved in the past I’m no art critic. I do, however, wonder if part of the perceived problems with the art comes from poor context.
The winter meeting of the Green Works, the Vermont Nursery and Landscape Association, brought me to the University of Vermont for what may have been the first time in at least 20 years. The campus looked great-I had a little bus man’s holiday walking the grounds, mentally comparing campuses. I walked toward my first dorm, Buckham, one of the ‘shoeboxes’, when I saw part of ‘Lamentations’ through the cold mist of the day.
“Lamentations Group 1989” is by Judith Brown, 1931-1992, and was donated to UVM in 1993. Only 2 of the original 5 ladies are still outside, the other three are awaiting restoration (and funding). (side note: thanks to CAPP, Middlebury will never have to face this, we owe our trustees a big debt in setting up the art fund). What I like best about the piece, though, is the context.
Situated behind the Fleming Museum, the statues appear to be walking through the grove of Honey Locust trees planted by Dan Kiley, the famous Vermont landscape architect, and matches a grove planted at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception down the hill by the waterfront. The honeylocust are grown in close quarters, and their dappled shade and contorted branches give a perfect setting for the spectral wraiths as they seemingly float through the bleak grove. The context of the landscape matches and enhances the art, like a good installation in a gallery, but more dynamic, changing with the light, seasons, years.
My favorite CAPP piece at Middlebury is Hieroglyphics for the Ear, 1997, by Kate Owen. This piece is located in the woods along the path on the way to Nichols House, home to the faculty heads of Atwater commons. The base of the piece lies in shade plants, such as vinca and lungwort, and help transition the work from the woods to the gravel path. The metal and stone blend with the site, but stand out enough to be noticed, and the engraved text almost echoes in the woods. I doubt the piece would resonate as well outside of this ‘frame’, like if it were in the center of an expansive lawn.
Another piece with a good context is Frisbee Dog, by Patrick Villiers Farrow, 1989. This work is on the edge of the main quad, underneath a large elm tree behind Munroe Hall. Here the context plays to the sculpture, matching the students out often playing frisbee in the quad. If it were placed in a more subdued setting, in amongst other works, the dynamism would be lost, the dog looking misplaced.
A piece that originally suffered context issues is the Garden of the Seasons, Michael Singer, 2003-2004. Observers watching this area of campus have probably seen the landscape surrounding transformed several times over the years. Sometimes it is difficult picking a frame for a painting.
The sculpture/garden lies a third of the way down a rain garden ditch that treats storm water from most of the library quad, and is situated under another elm tree, one of our better specimens. The swale was planted in wildflowers and grasses, specifically to treat the drainage and prevent storm water from entering the greater Middlebury area. This swale, however, was surrounded by mown lawn, and backed by the large southern facade of the main library. In short, something was ‘off’, and an acre of wildflowers were planted around the swale, to help contextualize the sculpture and the swale together.
Wildflower plantings, though, have a limited lifespan, and can quickly look ‘weedy’, a problem compounded by the location in the center of the quad. The facade of the library was working against the planting as well-the weeds and wildflowers all in one horizontal plane, matching the lines of the windows above on the library.
The ditch is ecologically very important, and needs to remain planted for storm water treatment, and needs to stay strongly diverse for important wildlife and bird habitat in a section of campus lacking such accessible space. We planted the ditch to the east of the sculpture in large swaths of native shrubs, such as Winterberry, Dogwood, Witchhazel, and Redbud. A couple of these varieties are matched in the Garden of the Seasons, tying the piece into the greater landscape. The mistake I made was in planting smallish shrubs. When mature, the swale will be transformed into a mixed height shrub border, breaking the strongly horizontal lines of the library. Now, however, all the shrubs are barely poking through the wildflowers and weeds of the ditch, so some imagination is still required to achieve the effect. Patience, grasshopper.
When mature, though, the Garden of the Seasons will find it’s proper context, and be perfectly ‘framed’ in the landscape.
I love Hillcrest as as building. Originally student housing modeled after a Victorian Farmhouse, the building has been transformed several times, and has now been fully restored and serves as the Environmental Center for the college. The inside retains its farmhouse charm, but unlike most I’ve been in, including parts of ours, is light, airy, and spacious. The modern touches inside and out, such as solar panels, play and blend with the old remaining Victorian touches.
Solid State Change (called tirerrhea by the students) lies alongside the building on the south side, against a stainless steel wall that I believe acts as a heat sink for the building. To further illuminate the context of the sculpture, to the south is the giant deck of Proctor hall, all gray stone, to the west is parking lot, Hillcrest Road, and more parking lot, and to the east is three in ground propane tanks, lids above ground, a sidewalk, and Hepburn Road.
It’s a challenging site, almost industrial in feel, and I think works against the piece. The intent of the tires was to mimic the natural geology of the Champlain Vally, and while we can debate about the look of the tires versus actual dolomite, the setting is not helping. Does the stainless steel wall accentuate the recycled tires, rather then making one think of bedrock? Do the black tires help draw your eye towards the myriad of roads and parking lots? Is the space large enough for the sculpture?
I pass by a barn on the way to Middlebury daily. Recently restored, the foundation sits upon a panton stone ledge, organically growing from the site.
I’m pretty particular about using stone in the landscape, either in walls, walks, or ledges. Maybe I’m over sensitive, but I think stone should be local, echoing the greater area the site sits in. The ‘stone’ of Solid State Change is out of context, sitting in an improbable location, not part of the building, not part of the landscape. The work sits in mown lawn, a suburban look, not like a ledge sitting in a hay field, surrounded by tall grasses as the farmer is unwilling to risk sharp cutter knives near piles of rock.
I understand the intent of Solid State Change, and the need to have it placed near the Environmental Center, but the frame is fighting the painting.
Public Safety called our department this last fall semester. They were concerned about potential vandalism to one of the trees near Johnson. For once, I was one step ahead of them (hard to do, they do a great job on campus). I’d already stopped one day and introduced myself to Lydia Jun.
Lydia was a student in Sanford Mirling’s Sculpture I class, and was designing a piece using one of the Princeton Elms along Chateau Road. I love it when students use the landscape in their classwork.Lydia had used long steel rods bent into a U shape on one end, and draped the rod up into the branches of the tree. The other end of the rod was gracefully connected through wood to a person seated on a wooden stump. As the wind moved the branches of the trees, the motion would carry to the occupant of the stump.
I wanted to share her work on the blog, and asked her to send me pictures when she was done, and a brief description. As always on my blog, click on the picture to download the larger shot. Guest blogging begin, and thanks Lydia!
I’m currently in Sculpture I with Sanford Mirling. My project was supposed to be a wooden prosthetic. The following is the statement for our sculptures.
Is there every enough time? Four performances take on the typical time constraints of a Middlebury student and attempt to resolve them through whimsical, and at times absurd, extensions of the body.
But I found this idea of cyborg somewhat silly considering our bodies make us perfectly capable of doing tasks while there are people out there in the world who are missing limbs. So I played with this idea of Restless Leg Syndrome which the restless leg is treated as a disease. It’s somewhat disturbing how far people go to attempt to control their environment. My piece demands this sensation of restless limbs from the shuddering branches to the person. Also, the large movements of the trees which transfers to tiny movements of the limbs is a backlash to the demand for big results with the least effort in society. “Imperfection” is beauty. Subtleness screams.
The Class of ’97 Trail, part of the Trail around Middlebury, winds through young woods. Forests age, and this section is in its toddler years, skinny Sugar maple and oak showing potential, but with an invaisive understory of buckthorn and barberry clawing at your legs, asking to be held.
Among this youthful energy lies a poem, playing off the ancient renga form, called Autumn Wood. A renga in the strictest sense is a linked 100 stanza poem, with a meter grandparent to the haiku. It’s an ancient collaboration form of the poem-the first renga recorded was a shared experience between a buddhist nun and Ōtomo no Yakamochi, one of the 36 Poetry Immortals, in the 8th (!) century. Our Middlebury renga shares only the collaboration part, but is an installation through the woods along the TAM trail.
Walking through the woods one confronts poetry hanging from the trees in white lacquered paper. The poems, at least the ones I had the brief time to read, share the common theme of the environment they hang in, but don’t strictly make up a single cohesive unit like a true renga. Interspersed among the poems are photographs, some even of the item they hang upon.
Along the path lies art, almost hidden in the forest, peering out. Buds, berries, bark, and branches are woven together, or even just artfully lying on the ground, with rock and soil used to ground them. Some of these are subtle, and may only been seen on the walk back, while others jump out on the trail.
My favorite piece is naturally by my wonderful wife, a crocheted net hanging on some buckthorn. Should I worry about the direction her art is taking?: last years scarf is called Marley’s Ghost, a felted knit chain, and now a net…
My favorite poem is a timely piece written by John Elder-
Warm September woods-
all these lovesick mosquitoes
from Irene’s pocket.
To visit, go park up at Kirk Alumni Center (the golf course) and carefully walk across Route 30 to the big sign on the start of the TAM trail. The installation is scheduled to be up through the random date of October 27th, a thursday, so this is your weekend to go experience it. Hopefully the organic art will remain to meld with the forest floor.
Everybody has been talking about it, and I know I’m late to the party in posting a picture of the mural on the back of Wright Theater. What I wanted to post, though, was not the best picture of the mural out there, but a picture of the mural in the context of the greater surrounding landscape. I only wish and dream that someday a landscape I put in would have even a fraction of the power this piece has to transform a space. Thanks to Sabra, Kate, and everybody else who made the project happen.
While I’ve already proven my failure as an Art Critic, I still enjoy the end of the term, when outside art projects start appearing overnight, and I feel like I should share them with you. Very rarely do we in the department ever find anything out about the works-we don’t even know the class or professor. Many have to do with trees, so sometimes I worry. Like last year, when I took a close look at a yellowwood tree on the south side of Coffrin, and found tiny bits of yarn left on many, many twigs. The yarn must have been nylon, for while it appeared old and weathered, it was still quite strong, and not starting to rot and fall off. All of this had to be removed, before the yarn started choking the branches and killing them. The term isn’t over, but here our some that have appeared.
This was a fun one, on a Japanese Maple tree outside of Johnson. I was over by Battell, and it drew my eye from that far away. Those are little bits of paper scotch taped to the branches, right around when the Magnolias were blooming. It was gone by the next day, with only a couple of errant tape pieces left to remove.
This piece caught my eye. I meant to forward this picture to Matt Biette, asking him for a reward on dishware retrieval. Notice the bottle at the top of the hill, like the plates are cascading down around the spectacular Red Oak tree.
My favorite, though, goes to one I actually know more about, thanks to Carrie Macfarlane of Armstrong Library fame (thanks Carrie!). Jue Yang, ‘11.5, made this spectacular sculpture for the Spring Symposium, based on her work in the “Art on the Land” Winter term class with Eric Nelson. You, dear reader, must see this in person to appreciate it-the size and layout preclude great photography, at least by me (any volunteers? I’ll post them) Walk on the Bicentennial Hall side of Freeman International Center, past the patio, and down around the back. The beginning (?) of the sculpture starts low, almost like a fallen tangle of branches, and builds as it wends through brush and trees. All the wood was local to the immediate area, so the piece grows almost organically like the landscape around it, working in a tree, and playing off the topography. Meet me at our Arbor Day celebration on Friday the 7th and I’ll point you in the right direction. (click on the picture to download a larger-one is now my desktop background on my laptop)
Around the end of the term, our department starts seeing all sorts of outdoor art appear out of nowhere. It generally seems to involve trees, with varying degrees of consternation on our part. (yeah, I worry too much) Truthfully, most of the art is very respectful of the trees, and the environment, and disappears as quickly as it is born.
Once in a while, though, a particular piece jumps out. I don’t know the artist, the class, or the professor, but hats off to this piece. Next to one of our favorite trees, a massive Black Willow disintegrating before our very eyes, this piece (don’t even know the name) has captured, I think, the spirit of the surrondings perfectly. I’m no critic, and the only art classes I’ve had are in landscape design, but I know what I like. And, to whoever made this piece, well, I’ll quote my grandfather when I’d graduated high school. “You done good”.