Inviting a group of artists to paint en plein air at the same locations in Vermont as landscape masters 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 21st century is a legend in the making.
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 these works by 20th century masters alongside contemporary treatments of the same scenes, underscoring aesthetically the passage of time, the lineage of style, and the diversity of vision.
To initiate the dialogue, 20th-century paintings by a dozen late master painters — Charles Curtis Allen, Martha Wood Belcher, Robert Noel Blair, Alden Bryan, Francis Colburn, Jay Hall Conaway, Thomas Curtin, Emile Gruppe, Charles Louis Heyde, Aldro Hibbard, Fred Hines and Charles Movalli — were selected. Most of the 31 paintings were chosen for their identifiable and preserved locations. A few were chosen for their representation of recognizable Vermont themes, such as maple trees and barns with silos.
Subsequently, 33 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 revisited by artists in every season over the past year. A shared chart 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, conferring subsequently over the phone about its challenges and rewards. 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.
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. Recently, Nicholas got right up to the fence along the side of the road, adding rugged intimacy to the scene. Kearns painted the same view from a slightly higher vantage point, obliterating the fence, but cloaking the scene with a fragile, settled quality. Garin 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 the past masters is readily apparent in the work of many contemporary artists. Thomas Curtin’s (1899-1977) encouragement of a young Eric Tobin is evident in their paintings of the Codding Hollow Bridge.
Curtin sets a 20th century tone as well with his “Autumn Maple,” isolating a majestic, sun-kissed orange tree in the middle of the picture against an almost hidden mountain. 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, 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, each anchored by a masterwork, 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 Peter Yesis found it necessary to approach Winooski Falls just upriver from where Alden Bryan (1913-2001) painted it, a particular 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 one is drawn into Yesis’ more serene and intimate detail.
Mt. Mansfield, the state’s highest peak, looms large in the exhibit. Viewed from the east and from the west, it occupies the foreground and the background of several paintings. Charles Curtis Allen’s (1886-1950) Mansfield conveys a classic scene of the crispness of winter snowfall while Tom Adkins visits in another season, referencing an early snowfall behind a still vigorous autumn in “Frosting on the Mountain.” Garin Baker and Caleb Stone keep the mountain at bay as much as much as possible, while Charles Curtis Allen and Charles Louis Heyde embrace it front and center. Baker utilizes the mountain as a snow-capped back drop 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.
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; Martin’s horses pull a wagon, accompanied by two bundled-up workers. Both suggest the diligence of productivity. In a different season, but for a similar purpose, Barbara Lussier references the honey wagons along Pleasant Valley Road, another vehicle from a previous era, still in use today.
As many as four artists visited the same sites, resulting in a kaleidoscope of viewpoints that surround each location. Among the youngest of the 20th 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, the rocks frame the flow, and William Hoyt surveys a wider scene.
In all, 120 paintings converse with each other in this ambitious gathering of painters and locations. Many of the artists 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. How the 21st century artists chose to deal with these challenges to their judgement adds to the playfulness of the exhibit.
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 masters on their work.
“The artists themselves have been having exactly the discussions we hope to spark in the visiting public,” Waters noted. “Walking around the exhibit one is left to ponder what happens next? What is it we value about our communities and landscapes? What impact do we have on the future of that landscape? What do we miss? What do we take for granted? What do we preserve? And pointedly, what role do artists play in the communication of values, ideals and expectations surrounding these questions? Raising awareness on this level is exactly what we hope art will accomplish.”
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 backdrop of rich, painterly legacy.
Mickey Myers has been executive director of Bryan Memorial Gallery in Jeffersonville since 2006. An exhibiting artist in pastel and printmaking, Myers is originally from Los Angeles, where she studied art with Corita Kent. Under Myers’ direction, Bryan Memorial Gallery has made a study through its exhibitions and workshops of artistic legacy. Myers lives in Johnson, in a home originally built for the Vermont artist Georgia Balch (1888-1981).
This article also appears in the July/August issue of “American Art Review” — amartrev.com.