|The autumnal equinox symmetrically divides light and dark. The end of summer bounty, the long harvest nearly over, Vermonters shift their focus from outdoors to indoors. As the day’s light slowly diminishes, the evening’s darkness deepens until the heralded winter solstice lifts the veil, and each day thereafter increases slowly with light.|
Winter in Vermont is a season of contrasts: the frozen, snow-covered earth and the heat of a roaring fire, the monochromatic landscape and colorful illuminated interiors. A match is struck, a candle is lit. Time slows down. Preserved drowsily in the mind, summer memories slip quietly into the past. Austere winter works its subtle mysteries and waits, until spring unfolds to breathe new life and new work.
The contrast between what is old and what is new may not always be readily perceptible. In art, as in skill, tradition has a way of bridging the past and the present. Old-world skills passed down generation to generation, master to apprentice, teacher to student, thrive today. Skill, acquired through careful study, focus, and practice, informs the artist and frees the individual to work in concert toward a contemporary and personal vision.
THE ART OF DISCOVERY
A gentle walk or patient drive along almost any rural road in Vermont is bound to inspire the thoughtful sojourner. The subtle charm of an old Vermont homestead appeals to the modern eye by reason of its quiet serenity, simplicity, and the harmonious composition of house, barn, and outbuildings set agreeably in the agrarian landscape.
Many of Vermont’s old domestic, civic, or vernacular buildings were plain, substantial, and exhibited fine proportions. Ornamentation was reserved for the front door or windows. Successful old Vermont architecture is the result of good proportions, the relationship of elements, and the way in which simple and traditional forms were combined in a skillful yet individual manner. Early Vermonters had firm taste and designed and constructed their buildings with resourcefulness, originality, and tradition. Tradition was what they knew, as it was an essential part of the mind of European immigrants who settled in New England.
Old houses in Vermont were built in a way that is unusual today. In many cases the owner was also designer, builder, and craftsman. In the 18th century, Vermont had few if any architects, and Vermonters were necessarily versatile. Farmers, for example, logged the forests during the long winters. As with agriculture, building and carpentry came naturally to them, often out of necessity when shelter was needed for a growing family and farm. They combined reliable building design with skilled craftsmanship. The materials they used were solely native, often from the land they cleared and on which they lived and worked. These craftsmen maintained a strong respect for tradition but did not hesitate to depart from the familiar building designs of their fathers or neighbors. Individualism was moderated with tradition. The builder’s training, handed down to him from generation to generation, was guided by good common sense, lessons learned from living in a remote and often harsh environment.
The builder’s art extended beyond the homestead to civic architecture. Collectively, townspeople built meetinghouses and places of worship in order to accommodate large numbers of families under one roof.
The men who made Vermont’s old buildings cared about what they built and how their work was viewed by their neighbors. However, by the mid-19th century, Vermont—as in many parts of the world—began to witness the decline of the art of building. Advances in industry and mechanization replaced many traditional skills and materials that previously had been wrought by hand by an individual from materials forged of the land. Much of the character and charm we admire in traditionally built buildings was lost in 20th-century architecture. Today, very few individuals possess the skill and ingenuity to build as early Vermonters did, and the concept is now seen as a time-consuming, costly, and old-fashioned craft.
Old buildings in Vermont continue to disappear. Some, due to neglect, have collapsed into ruin. Some have been bought, renovated, and expanded to accommodate a contemporary system of proportions that parallels a new, inflated economy. Other fine examples, saved by concerned souls, have been restored.
Many fine examples of old Vermont buildings still stand and are a testament to past traditions and practices. These structures are monuments of Vermont character, possessing the art, skill, and lives of the steadfast people who created them. With intention, or simply by chance encounter, to seek or discover these buildings is to realize that they are an important part of a rich heritage to be preserved.
THE ART OF PRESERVATION
Some families die out. Their houses, often neglected, tend to follow. Some manage to survive the test of time or change.
In the days of English progeny, when the eldest son inherited the family property and the sisters and younger brothers had to move on to forge their own futures, Benjamin Burtch left Stonington, Connecticut, in 1765 to start a life in the new frontier, Vermont. His son, William Burtch, eventually acquired over 500 acres of land in Hartford, on which he built this house in 1786. It remains one of the finest houses from the Federal period in Vermont and, remarkably, has undergone very few changes or alterations. It has withstood generations of use and over two centuries of development surrounding it.
The property was acquired by the Udall family in 1805 and was passed down, generation to generation, until it was later inherited by Theron Boyd, who acquired title to it from his grandmother. In the late 1960s, Boyd became a legendary folk hero by resisting the large-scale real-estate development that threatened a way of life for independent-minded Vermonters like himself. He never married and therefore left no heirs. Fortunately, the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation (VDHP) now owns and operates the property and is in the process of restoring it, with plans to eventually open it up to visitors as a historic site.
The house, known locally as the Theron Boyd House, is significant because it remains virtually unchanged despite centuries of changing lifestyles. A rare and intact survivor, it retains its original architectural integrity, has had very little intervention (neither electricity nor modern plumbing was ever introduced), and clearly illustrates how early Vermonters lived. The house features a massive centrally located chimney for fireplaces and stoves, Connecticut River Valley–style doors, 12-over-12 light sashes, early wallpapers, and vestiges of original interior paints. The VDHP was able to purchase furniture from Boyd’s estate auction, and some of it, such as the Windsor-style chairs made in nearby Woodstock, will be reinstated to provide an accurate sense of the scale and style prevalent in the 19th century.
THE ART OF TRADITIONAL TEXTILES
To look at the exquisitely planned and tended perennial gardens outside Kate Smith’s white clapboard farmhouse is to know that one is entering the world of a gifted soul. Smith is passionate about gardening, her home, and textiles. She weaves historic and traditional designs from hand-dyed natural materials for collections such as those of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Colonial Williamsburg, Winterthur, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She also works directly with individual clients to produce unique fabrics for the home, such as blankets, duvet covers, pillowcases, curtains, and table linens.
Using 200-year-old hand looms, Smith custom-dyes and weaves fabrics for each client’s unique needs and specifications. Natural dyes are used whenever possible to duplicate the rich, subtle shades that make historic fabrics so remarkable. In a world of mass production and outsourcing, Smith is a rare example of an individual who weaves natural-fiber textiles by hand from start to finish.
A throw made from alpaca wool (below left) is one of the many finished products Smith offers and is available in three designs and in wool and mohair, alpaca, or merino. A commissioned throw (below center) was made from fabric woven from three colors of wool. A Venetian carpet (below right) is another finished product Smith offers and is available in a multitude of designs and colors to suit the client.
Clients interested in custom-made yardage (below left) should call to arrange a visit to Smith’s studio or discuss specific requests or samples. Smith also works with seamstress and upholsterer Ellie Blachly, who shares her studio. As a team, Smith and Blachly work with clients to produce special items for the home, such as chair cushions and pillows (below center). Smith dyed and wove the yardage, and Blachly designed and upholstered the chair cushions in addition to making several matching tablecloths.
THE ART OF A WEAVER
In traditional forms of craft, meaning comes from the form—a hand-carved spoon is a utensil to eat with. In the work of Elizabeth Billings, a marriage of art and traditional skill finds form in contemporary weaving that is equally at home in the art and craft worlds. Billings is a versatile weaver and is confident in creating studio work, public art installations, or commissions that provide a function. It is not unlikely for her to be exhibiting artwork, for example, at the Museum of Antwerp in Belgium, creating a permanent large-scale installation for the Burlington International Airport in Vermont, while at the same time weaving a rug for a private residence. All are created with the same artistic vision.
As a young child growing up in Woodstock, Billings often practiced handwork with her grandmother. Later, she learned to weave on an old-style loom from a traditional weaver on the Greek island of Kalymnos on the Mediterranean Sea. But the foundation of her knowledge and development of skill came from intense study at the Marshfield School of Weaving in the hills of Vermont with Norman Kennedy, the celebrated living national treasure. Further studies and practice in the ancient method of ikat in Morioka, Japan, provided a counterpoint to the barn-loom weaving learned on Kalymnos and from Kennedy. Studying with traditional weavers from three very different cultures on three continents, Billings learned to weave well.
She attained skill and facility through study and practice. Skill enables an artist to sift through technical issues quickly and move on to develop more personal work. As a graduate student at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Billings was able to draw upon her skill with confidence and apply it to a new way of thinking about weaving and art. This pivotal experience fortified her personal creative process.
Billings’s broad experience, training, and education led her back to Vermont, where she lives with her husband and three children. She works in a sunny studio on the hill behind their house. Inspired by the pastures, hills, and forests around her, she began to collect natural materials from the land and started to weave them. Putting ikat threads aside, she instead wove with pine needles and created work that reflected a familiar sensibility but was evolutionary in developing a new visual vocabulary.
The freedom with which Billings weaves is deeply rooted in a respect for and thorough understanding of old-world weaving that is in concert with a personal contemporary vision. In much of her recent studio work (right), reeds, sticks, grasses, stems, and roots have become her supplies. These natural materials have a sound connection with nature. The frugality of the materials is a reflection of resourcefulness—an homage to working directly with elements gathered from the land on which she lives.
SPLINT ASH BASKETS
In Waterbury and Stowe, in the mid-19th century, the Sweetser family were highly respected splint ash basket makers. Sold throughout the region, their baskets were prized for their form and well-made construction. The Sweetsers passed on this traditional folk art within their family, generation to generation. They usually incorporated their trademark star on the bottom of their products. The star (top left) is structurally important, compellingly beautiful, and believed to have originated from an earlier time in baskets made by the Abnaki.
Irene Ames studied under a fourth-generation basket maker and Sweetser descendent, Newton Washburn—the last of the Sweetsers to make baskets—and Ames carries on this traditional art form today.
Ames believes that “a good basket must be light yet strong, able to contain a burden, yet not be a burden.” Her baskets, made solely of splints that she pounds and cuts from locally harvested brown or black ash trees, demonstrate that through a coordinated matrix of flexible elements, strength and beauty become whole.
Tucked away in the green hills of central Vermont in a gem-like valley is East Barnard, a tiny village held secure by the surrounding countryside that seems to close up protectively around it. Within this vale, Faith Fellows makes hats in her studio, next to an old schoolhouse that she has renovated and made her home.
A devotion to detail is apparent in all of Fellows’s work. Whether plain or intricate, her work, stitches, and designs contain a level of artistry and care that is enlivening.
Informed and inspired by Native American beadwork and symbolism, Fellows uses her skill to interpret floral motifs from the garden and woods that surround her. The subtle hues of a Vermont hillside in early spring to the vibrancy of July meadow flowers all echo in her lyrical work.
On a cold winter day, wearing a Fellows hat for warmth and protection is “a treating of the commonplace with the feeling of the sublime” [Jean-François Millet].
The art of farmstead cheesemaking is thriving in Vermont, and Cobb Hill Cheese stands with the best. Using rich raw milk from a small herd of grass-fed Jersey cows, Cobb Hill produces two kinds of cheese: Ascutney Mountain, a sweet, nutty, Appenzeller-style cheese and winner of the American Cheese Society’s 2005 blue ribbon for cow’s milk farmstead cheese; and Four Corners Caerphilly, a naturally rinded cheddar. These are two exquisite aged cheeses from a well-tended farm. Available at the farm and at many co-ops and natural-food stores in Vermont.
NATURAL DRY HARD CIDER
Traditional skill, organic apples, and a dedication to craft are the hallmarks of Flag Hill Farm, where Sebastian Lousada and Sabra Ewing live high in the hills of Vershire. Twenty years ago, they began carefully restoring an old homestead orchard and planted new young trees. The orchard now includes 80 old and new varieties of apples, all tended organically. From their tart handpicked apples, they produce an excellent farmhouse-style still hard cider and a méthode champenoise sparkling cider. The spirited essence of apples is captured in each bottle. Available only in Vermont at fine food and wine stores and restaurants.
Raised on his grandfather’s farm in Randolph, Erlé LaBounty has a deep love of Vermont and the people who carve their lives within these hills. LaBounty’s truffles also attest to a deep love of chocolate and a great gastronome. His delicate and beautiful handcrafted chocolate truffles are simple, pure, and fantastically indulgent. Available in Randolph at the Blue Moon Boutique, Randolph Cooperative Market, and Three Bean Café and in Woodstock at Pane e Salute and seasonally at the Woodstock Farmers’ Market.
—Glenn Suokko, 2005