|If gathering is collecting, then making is creating. Be it humble or grand, in setting forth the object of any goal, the joyfulness of the pursuit lives on in the pleasure of the results.|
VERMONT FOLK ART AT THE SHELBURNE MUSEUM
Folk art is commonly thought of as objects that have been created by untrained or self-taught provincial craftsmen, craftswomen, or children—artistic expression that is primitive or naive. Sharing some common boundaries, folk art holds unique expressions of joyful sensibilities given to utilitarian objects—everyday things—as well as to traditional forms of art such as paintings and works on paper. It is the unique qualities imparted by their creators and handcrafted by them that have enduring appeal for us today. Through form, color, pattern, materials, and expression, this elusive art has formed and defined a unique sense of place among peoples all over the world. Vermont, like many rural communities, has strong vernacular traditions that contribute to a certain sense of place through its rustic artistic expressions.
Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888–1960), a pioneer collector of folk art and Americana, acquired an enormous variety of 17th- to 20th-century objects from New England, such as weathervanes, furniture, quilts, rugs, glass, decoys, trade signs, paintings, and sculptures. From New York and the Brick House, her country house in Shelburne, Vermont, she roamed the New England countryside and its villages in search of folk art and Americana. She first installed her idiosyncratic collections in her houses and then embarked on a plan to create a museum to exhibit her beloved objects in a varied and accessible educational setting.
In 1947 Mrs. Webb purchased eight acres of land in Shelburne as a site for Shelburne Museum, an unconventional art and outdoor history museum that formally opened to the public in 1952. She continued to collect. Her love of domestic and civic architecture had led her to acquire several early New England buildings that were no longer of use or interest to their owners or that were destined for demolition. She relocated historic Vermont buildings to the site, such as a double-lane covered bridge from Cambridge; houses from Cavendish and Burlington; the Stagecoach Inn from Charlotte; a jail from Castleton; a blacksmith shop, a railroad station, and a general store from Shelburne; a lighthouse from Colchester; and the entire steamboat Ticonderoga—a National Historic Landmark. She also directed the construction of many specific buildings, paths, and gardens to create for the visitor a sense of life in a historic New England village. At a time when the interest in folk art was fairly new, Mrs. Webb planned for the historic and new buildings to house her vast collections and for education, demonstration, inspiration, and enjoyment.
To Mrs. Webb and her circle of advisors and folk art dealers, such as Edith Halpert, who owned the Downtown Gallery of Contemporary Art in New York City, folk art offered exciting new possibilities for forming collections. Relatively new to most audiences, the folk art displayed in Halpert’s gallery took on new and unexpected meaning while influencing not only collectors such as Mrs. Webb but contemporary artists as well. Folk art, many believed, had strong links with modern art and served to inspire 20th-century artists such as Elie Nadelman and Willam Zorach, whose work Mrs. Webb also acquired.Electra Havemeyer Webb’s highly personal taste and interest in folk art and Americana influenced other collectors, such as Henry and Helen Flynt, who created Historic Deerfield; Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, whose collections now reside at Colonial Williamsburg; Martha and Maxim Karolik, who gifted their collections to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; seminal collector and New York City interior designer Katherine Prentice Murphy, who designed important public spaces in the Colonial Revival style; and Henry Francis du Pont, who created Winterthur Museum. The passion for collecting folk art and objects of American heritage came at an important time, as these objects were slowly disappearing and eroding from the American consciousness.
An important asset to Vermont, Shelburne Museum is a highly unusual and singular museum of American art and design that exhibits many original folk art objects from Vermont and its bordering states. The acquisition of these individually expressive art forms has not only saved them from obscurity but has also provided public access to a wide expanse of rural cultural artifacts for the education and enjoyment of all.
ELECTRA HAVEMEYER WEBB AND THE BRICK HOUSE
Anticipation is a commonly felt sensation in approaching the Brick House, the Colonial Revival country house of folk art collector and founder of Shelburne Museum Electra Havemeyer Webb. Located several miles from the museum, the house is reached by passing slowly through extensive pastures, woodlands, and long allées of majestic chestnut, locust, and maple trees. It is situated on a vast western-facing hill that possesses a stunning view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. The long, gentle approach prepares the visitor to expect the unexpected in entering the famous collector’s house.
An abandoned modest farmhouse in need of much repair on the far end of the property on the Webb estate, the Brick House, as it was known, and 1,000 acres were given as a wedding gift by Dr. and Mrs. W. Seward Webb in 1913 to their son J. Watson Webb and his bride Electra. In a blend of British and American styles, the house was soon expanded to 40 rooms, becoming an example of a great country house. The house was used by the Webbs as a retreat from their active lives in New York City, for entertaining their extensive family and friends, and where they could enjoy outdoor recreation, hunting, and equestrian sports and experience the clean air and beauty of Vermont. The design of the surrounding landscape was conceived by Frederick Law Olmsted, and landscape designer Ellen Biddle Shipman created the house’s terraces and gardens.
The house is a rare and significant example of a home of an important American collector who went on to create one of the nation’s most unconventional museums of art and design. Mrs. Webb’s passionate mind for collecting and exhibiting is clearly articulated in the highly inventive and creative composition of her private home. Often interpreted as a house where she experimented with interior design and as a setting where she could display her early folk art acquisitions, the Brick House features decidedly original combinations of outstanding decorative arts, historic wallpapers, period paneling, and textiles, reflecting the collector’s unique taste and interests.
In 2000, the formerly private Brick House became a part of Shelburne Museum, and a year later it was designated an official project of Save America’s Treasures, a national organization dedicated to identifying and rescuing the enduring symbols of American tradition that define us as a nation. The house and its contents have since undergone several years of restoration and conservation, and the property has been reinterpreted based on research and many original photographs to reflect the Webbs’ occupancy during the 1930s and 40s—the decades during which Mrs. Webb was tirelessly collecting and designing plans for Shelburne Museum.
The Brick House is open to the public for tours in July and August and for painting workshops and educational symposiums on subjects such as collecting or the Colonial Revival period during the summer and fall. Special programs are intimate by design and offer no more than a dozen participants the opportunity to attend daytime lectures and discussions, led by guest speakers from institutions such as the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and to spend nights in the guest rooms in the house. Dinner on the steamship Ticonderoga at Shelburne Museum is added to the list of unique experiences.
Unlike many history museums where visitors are carefully kept at a distance behind roped barriers, the Brick House is a living museum, and visitors are allowed to explore the house and its inspiring collections. Mrs. Webb’s individualism and influence is profoundly conveyed upon visiting this extraordinary house in one of Vermont’s most glorious settings.
THE MEETING HOUSE AND ITS VISUAL LANGUAGE
A building infrequently articulates its function clearly, and architecture is rarely a perfect marriage of purpose and design. The old Meeting House in Rockingham is a rare design achievement—it visually describes exactly what it was intended for and how it was used. Outside and inside, symbolism lives on in the simplicity and directness of its austere design.
Located atop an airy hill, the Meeting House’s painted white exterior glows with reflected light. The exterior doors connote stability and protection through formal columns and pediments and invite visitors to enter. Inside the auditorium, ample seating is organized for hundreds of families and citizens in box “pig-pen” pews. In contrast to many European churches built at the time, this Vermont public interior appears bare. A sober Puritan building with elegant Georgian details, the Rockingham Meeting House is Vermont’s finest example of a plain house of worship and is one of the oldest and best-preserved civic buildings in the state. Completed in 1801 under the direction of a prominent Rockingham citizen, General Fuller, the building’s timber-post frame is constructed of great hewn beams and the woodwork is made of native white pine. No fewer than 47 twenty-over-twenty windows flood the large open interior room with light. Plain white interior plasterwork provides subtle contrast to the original coat of grayish-blue milk paint over the paneling and molding. The unpainted woodwork contains the spirit and imprint of many Rockingham citizens whose hands have rested for centuries on the mellowed and now blackened railings, and whose footsteps are evident on the well-worn stairs leading to the gallery, and in the names and dates carved by restless youths onto the backs of the seating. The box pews are topped with spindle balustrades exhibiting the tiniest bit of ornament.
The burial ground behind the Meeting House dates from 1776 and contains some of the finest examples of gravestone art in Vermont. Early Vermonters, like many Puritans, turned to art when confronting the mystery of death and committed their loved ones to the earth by carving symbolic imagery on their gravestones. Through symbolism, the religious faithful hoped to secure the voyage of the soul to eternity. On these gravestones, a vernacular art was born that illustrates a unique form of popular religious art that is particular to America and the Puritan mind. Facing death with directness, symbols of the departed’s soul carried on angel’s wings to the heavens are found on these unusual stones. Some figures are characterized with a strong sense of line and geometry, and some are depicted with highly styled coifs that perhaps better resemble the charming qualities of the departed. Uncomplicated and powerful, the imagery was also meant to warn and prepare the living for death, as many of the epitaphs suggest:
“Reader Behold as u pafs Byas u are Living so once was Ias I am now so u muft bePrepare For Death u follow me”
“Adieu vain world with all your Stuff,For we enjoyed you long enough,And now my Jefus bids me come,I thus obay him and go home.”
Often thought of as America’s earliest example of folk art, gravestone carving was at its glory in this country between 1650 and 1815, but soon thereafter the trade and the business of gravestone iconography and carving changed dramatically as a result of mechanization. Unique and highly individualized motifs that were earlier carved by hand by self-taught stone carvers were replaced with neoclassical imagery such as the urn and willow, which were replicated by templates and machines.
The Rockingham Meeting House now appears much as it did upon its construction in 1801. The building was shared by Congregationalists, Baptists, Episcopalians, and Universalists for religious services until 1839. Town meetings were held in it until 1869. At the end of the 19th century, the building was left vacant for decades and began to fall into ruin from neglect and theft. After a devastating fire destroyed many of the town’s buildings, Rockingham residents, realizing the architectural importance of the unharmed meeting house, embarked upon one of the earliest historic preservation projects in Vermont, which was completed in 1907. Now a National Historic Landmark, the Meeting House is owned and operated by the town of Rockingham.
NOVA KIM AND LES HOOK : COLLECTING WILD
After five minutes in the woods with Nova Kim and Les Hook, one realizes that Vermont is full of food—wild, native food—and it is everywhere in astounding quantities. Kim and Hook are wildcrafters: they forage the land to gather fresh ingredients to feed themselves and their customers and to supply six restaurants in Vermont. They collect daily and are on the road during most months of the year to locations all over the state in search of the finest wild edibles. Depending on the season and what plants are ready for selection, they head—baskets in hand—to their favorite spots among the meadows or woodlands.
To join Kim and Hook on a walk in the woods is a fascinating experience because they are able to explain the edible, historical, or medicinal qualities of virtually every plant they see. It is an epiphany to consider just how plentiful wild food is in one small area and, considering the vast landscape of Vermont, at the extraordinary wealth of wild food in every woodland, meadow, valley, and county. The critical condition is, of course, knowledge. A good knowledge of plants and mushrooms—if they are indeed edible—and when to gather them is essential to their gastronomic appreciation. Native plants, like farmed vegetables, have their times when they are ready for picking and at their best.
Historically, native peoples understood the land and maintained a connection to it and to plant life that we do not share today. Some of these traditions were passed on to early settlers, and some wild plants were cultivated for garden production. But wildcrafting today is a virtually forgotten folk art. Kim and Hook wish to pass on their knowledge by teaching others. In 2005 they were asked to participate in an exhibition at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and in 2006 were selected as part of the delegation to represent the United States at Terra Madre, a world meeting of slow-food communities held in Turin, Italy. These impressive venues provide opportunities to impart knowledge and enthusiasm for collecting wild foods. In addition, Kim and Hook offer local opportunities, such as a wild-food collection walk in Norwich followed up by a cooking demonstration and meal at the King Arthur Flour kitchen.
Treading lightly on the earth, one can develop a passion for wild foods; collecting requires a dedication to making a connection to the earth to build a relationship with it and stronger respect for it.
EDWARD KOREN : DRAWING SOCIETY
Humor is a shared experience as a result of a shared cultural context—such as the American middle class, where most people tend to live alike. It is here that humor is most universally understood and causes widespread chuckles throughout the entire neighborhood.
The cartoonist assumes the role of an old-world jester, who historically aimed his attention at the follies and downfalls of the king and his court, but today aims his wit at society. Through his cartoons, Edward Koren strikes at the underpinnings of society, culture, and politics. As readers, we are struck by Koren’s extraordinary wit through his cartoons in publications such as The New Yorker, Newsweek, or The New York Times. His cartoons are an amalgamation of the written word (writing) and art (drawing). Koren’s cartoons are often humorous, but at the same time they are keen observations of particularly American social and cultural constructs. His words, combined with drawings, cut to the core of our unchecked collective or individual foolishness and cause us to consider—and laugh at—ourselves.
Koren, born and educated in New York City, has lived and worked for many years from his house in a small village in central Vermont. But it was at preparatory school that Koren’s strong literary beginnings were formed: he received a very traditional classical education that stressed the study of Latin, history, and writing. Growing up, he possessed a predilection for drawing, and as a student at Columbia University he published his earliest cartoons while working on the school’s humor magazine. Later he studied art in Paris, where he learned to draw on etching plates. Koren values great drawing and skill and cites many European master draftsmen as his models. For Koren, drawing is draftsmanship, which leads to the success of comprehending the visual; draftsmanship is key in creating good drawings, cartoons, or illustrations.
Unlike other art forms, the art of cartoons is unique, often requiring proficiency in both writing and drawing. The success of a cartoon depends on the adroit delivery of both skills. Koren’s writing is inspired by words, phrases, or ideas he comes across in reading or from particular things he hears in listening to the radio or as part of a conversation. His drawings develop by building characters into an environment laden with narrative associations, gesture, and countenance.
Koren draws all the time—and not necessarily with cartoons in mind. As a counterpoint to his cartoons for publications, he continually makes other drawings—his musings—for no other purpose than for him to draw and to think. Drawing spontaneously without a composition necessarily in mind, he draws things that are on his mind—ideas, world events, social issues that are filtering through his thoughts. Drawing becomes the tool by which he thinks. He distills this pensive activity on paper and they exist, in a sense, as records of his thinking. Written words are absent, but narrative, symbol, and humor pervade these drawings as they do his cartoons, and they are full of historical, contemporary, literary, and visual references as well. This ongoing work—largely unseen by the public—illustrates Koren’s lucid skill as an artist and as a highly proficient draftsman.
—Glenn Suokko, 2006