So. Vermont.

This small natural history museum in the Green Mountains is a rare find.

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On a late winter day, I make my way up twisty-turny Route 9 to the Southern Vermont Natural History Museum in Marlboro, Vermont. Its setting is spectacular: just below the Hogback Mountain peak, perched on the edge of a vertiginous drop.

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The museum entrance is through the Hogback Mountain Gift Shop, past the blueberry jam, maple syrup, and Vermont cheddar—pay your $5 admission at the fudge counter—and down a flight of stairs.

 

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The “hundred-mile view,” as it is known, stretches out beyond the picture windows that run along one side of a sloping hall. Lining the other wall are cases filled with fossils and minerals: dolomite, kaliophilite, chrysoprase, petrified wood, brachiopods…

 

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The museum houses the collection of Luman Ranger Nelson (1874-1966). At various times a barber, Chevrolet salesman, state legislator, and chairman of the New Hampshire State Fish and Game Commission, Nelson pursued his avocation as a taxidermist in his barn in Winchester, New Hampshire.

There were few limits on hunting wild animals when Nelson was collecting specimens, including owls, shorebirds, squirrels, foxes, a boar and a bear, nearly 250 species native to the Northeast in all.

 

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It’s not just stuffed bears: The museum also serves as a home away from home for living creatures. A petite saw-whet owl, a giant snapping turtle, a pair of bald eagles, and a white California king snake are among the inhabitants.

 

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Some were hit by cars or otherwise injured and brought to the museum for rehabilitation. Others were taken from the wild and kept as pets until the novelty faded or the upkeep overwhelmed. None could ever live on its own again.

 

 

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The day I visited the museum, the frozen landscape vibrant with light complemented the frozen-in-time atmosphere. You-can-see-forever vistas outside, artifacts inviting close scrutiny inside.

 

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Varnished wooden display cases and cabinets with a nick here and there, creaky wood floors, and hand-lettered labels lend small, older museums a charm that spectacular newer institutions don’t have and don’t want. (In fact, the Southern Vermont Natural History Museum is quite young; it opened in 1996. But the Nelson collection dates mostly from the 1920s and ’30s, and its almost Victorian quality, combined with the homey setting, makes the place seem of another time.)

 

 

Old-school museums’ mix of modesty, eccentricity, earnestness, innocence, creepiness, and decrepitude disarms me, but aside from what they contain, I also respond to what they signify. De facto “museums of museums,” they represent what earlier generations of curators, collectors, and benefactors thought worthy of preservation and display.

 

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Like some of the creatures on display, these repositories of curiosities are an endangered species, succumbing to contemporary visions of what natural history museums should be. (Amherst College’s Pratt Museum, for instance, located in a Victorian gymnasium, became extinct a few years ago. I love its replacement, the sleek, sparkling Beneski Museum, but I miss the bygone Pratt.)

Newer iterations can be self-consciously outgoing, eagerly interactive, but here, contemporary marketing concepts and strategies for boosting “audience engagement” haven’t penetrated. Fine by me.

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Hand-written labels. Simple explanatory placards. It feels personal, human, guileless.

At the same time, in this type of museum, there’s a touch of the grotesque and the gothic that, frankly, I can’t get enough of.

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The displays exude both innocence and the macabre. Animals that look so nearly alive are at the same time so dead: enclosed, seized-up, starkly lit or lurking in the shadows, posed against a painted backdrop of a bucolic valley with a red barn.

650px-Luman_Ranger_Nelson.JPGIt made me ponder Nelson’s intent. Did he hope to capture the feral spirit of the creatures, or was his aim more didactic, of the “this is a red squirrel” variety? From what I’ve read, he loved the outdoors, nature, animals (and hunting) and gave lectures on the subject of bird migration and the life cycle of mammals. So, both, I think. 

 

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As well as conserving the collections of an earlier time and ethos, the museum is quietly but determinedly making a case for the environment. The Thursday afternoon that I spent at the museum, a friendly, knowledgable docent greeted and talked with kids, parents, and other visitors in a down-to-earth way about the exhibits.

The museum seems to be applying a pretty basic formula that includes a dash of hope: Give people a chance to observe animals close up (dead and alive) and they will appreciate them and care about protecting them.

 

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There’s something a little sad about wild animals in enclosures, even when it saves their lives and serves such a good cause. For me the birds of prey were most poignant. Protected, fed, cared for, loved, even—and treated to a magnificent view of wilderness (such as wilderness is today) that they can never experience beyond the chain link.

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But maybe I’m being sentimental. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) Perhaps their attitude is, “Thank God I’m in here and not out there, risking my life every day to catch a measly mouse.” And no question, the six-year-old boy exploring the museum with his parents was tickled to see bald eagles Molly Stark and Stormy.

If I lived nearby, I’d volunteer to tend the pair of ravens, whose look-you-in-the-eye curiosity (probably of the “Do you have something for me to eat?” variety), won my heart immediately.

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Teetering again on the verge of sentimentality, I’d hazard that the Southern Vermont Museum of Natural History encapsulates something very Vermontian. The air of welcome, the lack of pretense, the appreciation of the environment, and the sincere and solid effort that keeps it going all seem in keeping with the innate nature of the state.

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Come summer, I’ll go back to hike the museum’s trails through more than 600 acres of protected land—and for a pint at the Bear Naked Brewery  just above the museum (with a plan to head down that swervy road before dark and definitely under the limit). I’ve heard the potato pancakes by Andrzej’s Polish Kitchen, which also serves kielbasa and galumpkis from a food truck on the brewery premises, are delicious. But after face-to-face encounters with beasts and birds within and possibly beyond the museum’s walls, I might pass on Andrzej’s bigos, translated as “hunter’s stew.”

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Spring Flower Power

Sure cure for the winter blues: the Smith College Botanic Garden Bulb Show 

 

 

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Every year for more than a century, the Smith College Botanic Garden has been forcing spring to come early, in the form of hundreds of bulbs bursting into florescence in the Victorian-era Lyman Conservatory right before the vernal equinox .

 

 

 

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You can’t help marveling over the horticultural engineering behind the show, the timing and the cultivation involved, almost as impressive as the extravaganza itself.

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Even before you focus on the visual splendor in front of you, you are welcomed by a heady, hothouse mix of floral perfumes suffusing the cool air in the two greenhouse rooms. There’s nothing demure about a hyacinth’s aromatic come-hither call to bees, who, despite snow cover and chill temperatures, find their way in through the open windows at the peak of the glass roof.

 

 

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Your eyes go first to the primary colors, bright colors, kindergartner’s crayon colors.

There’s nothing demure, either, about the exhibition’s headliners—the Rembrandt tulips, the indigo cinerarias, the double daffodils, the flamboyant red anemones—in their showy party dresses.

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IMG_6224.jpgBut there’s drama among the chorus, something doughty and stout-hearted about even the smallest specimens. I’m always touched by the appearance of the first snowdrops in my garden.

And there’s nothing braver and more cheering to me than the sight of a bright gold crocus, quavering in the perilous icy spring air, valiantly waiting for the equally brave pollinators.

Multiply the effect of one crocus to the nth power and you have an inkling of the bulb show’s impact.

 

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Then, the more you look, the more you see the subtlety of the plants’ arrangement, the skillful layering and contrasting of shape, color, scale, and texture.

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You stoop down and lean in to admire the small bulbs, such as the grape hyacinths and  fritillaria uva vulpis (the latin name translates to “fox grape”). You stretch up to sniff the delicately scented freesia and the tiny, astringent fragrance of witch hazel.

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There’s a whole narrative arc within this show, from the tightly furled buds to the tulips whose petals are hanging on by a breath. And a historical span, for before you are not just the results of months’ worth of coaxing potted-up bulbs into bloom, but also the products of hundreds of years of hybidization, the culminations of plant breeders’ painstaking efforts to elicit very particular genetic expressions: a frill, a streak, a shade of blue.

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This year, I went to the Friday-night opening of the show. It felt as if every flower had opened just that minute, the curtain had just gone up.

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Outside the world was black and white, snow on the ground, ebony velvet sky. Inside the pristine flowers waited, starkly beautiful in the artificial light.

And in the Church Exhibition Gallery off the main entry, tables set out with fresh-baked cider doughnuts and cookies the size of a sunflower head stood at the ready. Volunteers with warm smiles poured out glasses of cider.

Smith always knows how to throw a party.

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Bigness at Dia: Beacon

Getting happily lost in space at an art outpost
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360° I Ching/64 Sculptures, Walter De Maria, 1981

Why are big rooms—the Pantheon in Rome, the concourse of New York’s Grand Central Terminal—so thrilling? Maybe it’s the pleasurable, paradoxical feeling of being outside in, or of being back in childhood, when everything was bigger. (And, no, I’m not going to stop using “big” and its relatives, just because of its use by a certain Tweeter.)

Big rooms share their bigness. And make you feel wonderfully small. Light. It’s not all about you. Step into a soaring interior, and you feel stimulated, liberated, and calmed all at once. Take a deep breath. Here’s breathing space, room to move.

Many a monolith was built to put the fear of God in you, but nowadays, lofty spaces are more likely to impress as examples of what humans can do. A stone’s throw from the Hudson, Dia: Beacon, in Beacon, New York, is a capitalist cathedral of sorts. It occupies a former Nabisco box printing factory, built in 1929, a place once full of din and hustle, where workers made real things–Ritz cracker and cookie cartons. (More on its history here.)

It’s become a quiet, contemplative temple of art from the Sixties to the present. Minimalism, Conceptualism, the Light and Space Movement… these were on the ascendant about the time American manufacturing, which powered small cities like Beacon and its neighbor, Newburgh, across the Hudson, was slipping off to Mexico and Asia.

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High ceilings, clerestories and other sources of natural light, rooms so large it takes minutes to cross them, industrial construction materials, and industrial-strength scale make the building an ideal setting for big art. It makes a big first impression, prompts a whoa! reaction, and that’s before you even get down to the art.

 

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In fact, before you get to the entrance, artist Robert Irwin’s dramatic landscape design  might lead you down a garden path and into a formal, highly stylized forest of clipped hornbeams.

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Once you do pass through the front door and lobby (also designed by Irwin), you’re among giants. 

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Richard Serra’s “Union of the Torus and the Sphere” looms in its narrow space like the beached hulk of a tanker.

Circling around it produces a claustrophobia-inflected frisson. It’s worth it to get up close to the textured surface.

 

 

Head in the opposite direction to see his “Torqued Ellipses,” standing like tipsy space ships. You can stand inside them; the day I was there, a child was singing in one of them. I don’t think you would want to venture inside Michael Heizer’s “North, East, South, West,” although surveying them might trigger l’appel du vide, or “call of the void,” also known as High Place Phenomenon: the urge to jump that some experience when standing, for instance, on the balcony of a tall building. The four pieces are calibrated voids, negative spaces, enigmas of emptiness.

 

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In another airy room of major proportions, John Chamberlain’s “Three-Cornered Desire,” a sculpture the size of a Smart car, fits tidily. Other sculptures of his pose at intervals. the space feels oddly like a high-end car showroom, if the cars were pulled apart, bent, twisted, dented, crushed, and jammed back together. I’d seen Chamberlain’s work before, but here, his sculptures revealed themselves, made sense, were gorgeous. I got it in a way I hadn’t before.

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In fact, I didn’t expect to like the art so much, something I’m embarrassed to admit. Conceptual art has often left me cold, but at Dia: Beacon, I seemed to see things more clearly. As monumental as their dimensions are, these rooms have a “reticent dignity,” in the words of the philosopher A. N. Whitehead; they don’t get in between you and an object. 

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In any case, I was happy to find Louise Bourgeois‘s work—I always get her—strikingly displayed, dimly glowing in natural light, on the third floor. 

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Compressed, heavy, ancient as rock formations, meticulously executed, and weighted with emotion, her work seizes something deep in the viewer. Other artists’ works produce a heady charge of their own. Robert Smithson’s “Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis),” 1969, attracts and repels in equal measure. It has the allure of a mythic sunken kingdom, and you can’t go there. (Sharp Place Phenomenon?) Disorientation, unease, even fear: contemporary art reflects its roots in an age of anxiety, as it pushes on our ideas of beauty and the nature of art.

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If angst isn’t your thing, installations by other contemporary art masters might better match your mood: Walter De Maria’s “Truck Trilogy,” on exhibit through Summer 2019, or one of the many examples of Dan Flavin’s work. (BTW, the De Maria work at the top of the page is no longer on view.)

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And when you feel overwhelmed, go small.

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Beacon, New York, has blocks of restaurants and stores, including a great bookshop, Binnacle Books, and other attractions. Or take a ferry across the Hudson to Newburgh (pictured), which has parks, art galleries, coffeehouses, and shops to explore.

 

 

Art Riches at Yale University

 

What’s the best setting for an art collection? At Yale University, you can experience answers architects have proposed over the past 100 years, as you move through a sweeping art survey. Three connected buildings, one of them designed by noted twentieth-century architect Louis Kahn, form the oldest United States college art museum: the Yale University Art Gallery. The word gallery hardly conveys the scope of its enormous collection. Just across the street, is another treasure house, in another Kahn masterpiece, the Yale Center for British Art (a subject for another time).

Screen Shot 2019-01-09 at 4.40.33 PM.pngTo the right of the Gallery lobby is the 1928 neo-Gothic Old Yale Art Gallery, designed by a member of the Class of 1891, Egerton Swartwout (a name fit for a character in a Henry James novel). With no formal training in architecture, he gained entree into the field through a letter of introduction to the redoubtable Stanford White.

The first room you come to is the Sculpture Hall. “Be reverent, you are in the presence of Art” is the message of this nave-like place. And you comply.

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Hard surfaces: marble and stone. Tough guys: warriors, rulers, statesmen, and the orator Demosthenes, reputed to have cured himself of stuttering by speaking with pebbles in his mouth. The softest thing in it may be the light falling through leaded glass.

Here and there, the unyielding substances’ vulnerability to hard knocks is revealed—noses lopped off, surfaces eroded. As is their capacity to freeze the ephemeral: a young girl’s stylish hairdo, the delicate folds of a boy’s tunic.

 

Date palms laden with fruit still sway in a wall-mounted Byzantine mosaic floor. (Mosaic photo courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery.)

 

 

The seemingly ephemeral lingers, too, in the form of red pigment on a courtier’s sandals. If not for the museum’s enlightening captions, I might have overlooked the faint traces of paint on the platform wedge depicted on the Assyrian stone relief at one end of the hall.

The massive panel came from the palace of King Assurnasirpal II, in what is now Nimrud, Iraq. (One very nasty man, he reigned from 883 to 859 B.C. and had a penchant for lopping off the noses of those he conquered—while they were still alive.)  Touching, that touch of color having survived nearly 3,000 years. All the more touching, knowing that three years ago ISIS senselessly, deliberately destroyed reconstructed parts of the palace and other treasures in that city.

 

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I also took a closer look at the Sumerian “Votive Statue of a Man” (ca. 2550-2250 B.C.) after reading its caption. The worshipper, it notes, wears his identity on his sleeve; an inscription there identifies him as the son of Ur-ur, “who seeks good health and long lives for his wife and children.”

His bare toes peek out beneath a “tufted skirt, with four layers of tassels resembling fleece,” a status item.

Such details bring us a breath closer to knowing humans separated from us by millennia.

 

 

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And that’s just one room.

If you turn left from the gallery lobby, moving farther into the 1953 Louis Kahn building, you come to a big room full of extraordinary African art. The hall itself is subdued, neutral, its most noticeable architectural feature is the cast concrete tetrahedral ceiling. It’s a wonderful, surprisingly warm setting for the art.

 

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I couldn’t get over “Fragment of a Male Figure,” from the Sokoto culture of Nigeria. Who was he? Cartoonish and tragic, woeful or dyspeptic? Not much is known about this long-ago culture (the figure is dated circa 500 B.C.E.–200 C.E). His story is lost, but what a face. 

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Maybe it was starting off with the African art and the ancient busts, mosaics, and artifacts from around the Mediterranean, but in making my way around the gallery, I was particularly drawn to the modern artworks and  newly sensitive to the affinities between the old and the new. African art’s profound influence on Modernism is well-known; touring this collection brings it home.

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The museum deserves a shout-out for its smart juxtapositions, a Jackson Pollock painting by a pair of Giacometti statues, for instance, and the deft, dramatic placement of artwork, such as Brancusi’s “Yellow Bird” (1919) and the wall of works by Bonnard and Vuillard. (Below, Vuillard’s “The Child at the Door”)

 

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As usually happens to me in museums, I fell in love with artworks I’d never seen before, for instance, Nick Cave’s wonderful, mysterious, totemic “Soundsuit” (2006), made of paint, paper, cotton, wood, and fabricated fiberglass; and Florine Stettheimer’s sublime oil portrait of critic, author, and photographer Carl Van Vechten (the purple socks!).

 

 

I met “in person” iconic paintings, including Van Gogh’s “Night Cafe,” Hopper’s “Rooms by the Sea” …

 

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… and used up the last bits of my store of concentration in another vast space, the room dedicated to spectacular Indo-Pacific art, on the third floor of the Louis Kahn building.

 

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There’s more I could talk about, whole categories skipped, Asian art, European art, American art, contemporary design, but I’ll circle back to African art, to a 2006 assemblage by El Anatsui, a sculptor who works in Ghana and Nigeria.

 

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IMG_5388From a distance, his immense “Society Woman’s Cloth (Gold)” shimmers with the radiance of precious metals. Up close, you see it’s an illusion—or is it?—the “cloth of gold” is painstakingly fabricated from thousands of aluminum liquor bottle caps linked by copper wire.

My photograph doesn’t do it justice. This piece has it all, scale, detail, originality, depth, artistry, beauty.

A good note to end on.

 

 

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 Do you have a college museum near you?

Located in downtown New Haven, the Yale University Art Gallery is free, and you can spend hours exploring its collection on its extensive website.

 

 

 

 

 

A Coterie of Orchids

Recently, I sought shelter from the cold and dry winter air in the warm and fragrant atmosphere of the Lyman Conservatory, part of the Smith College Botanic Garden.

When it comes to plants, I’m not very discriminating; I could count on one hand the ones I don’t warm to. Taking a turn around the Botanic Garden greenhouses, drawn like a hungry bee from one specimen to the next, I marveled at each one’s beauty, complexity, and, sometimes, sheer oddity. Evolution as a series of miracles.

Particularly in the cactus room, individuals among that variously spiky, hairy, furry, squat, skinny, knobby, nubby crowd can border on the preposterous, a Muppet-monster collection.

 

This visit, though, my eyes fixed on the orchids. According to all things Google, the collective noun for orchids is coterie, and rarity comes up, too. I thought of words related to expression, choir and oratory, maybe because like pansies, orchids seem poised to speak.

 

When is peak season for orchids in greenhouse settings (or in the far-flung wilds where they grow untended)? I don’t know, but in one of the main rooms of the conservatory, they were in flower everywhere I looked, and the more I looked the more I saw, the tiny ones, wavering moths, as well as the big, weird, wonderful ones. Those faces! What a delicious way to spend an hour.

Seeing the Light in Santa Fe

What Makes The City Different

In Santa Fe, there are five elements: earth, water, fire, air, light. I’m not the first to observe how it’s strong, but not harsh, how it has a way of delineating, accentuating, adding a glow to everything it touches, as if you were looking through special glasses. (Being someplace new does tend to do that, too.) It was the first thing I noticed about the city when I visited last September, and it’s what lingers.

And that clear, deep, deep-blue sky.

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What else? The surprise of so much greenery—and silver-green sage and the not-quite-there silver-violet of Russian sage. I’d heard the Santa Fe area described as high desert; according to the Santa Fe Botanical Garden website, it’s a semiarid steppe. Neither designation suggests lushness, but Santa Feans cultivate herby, fragrant garden plots right in the city center. In nooks and crannies and courtyards, roses, hollyhocks, cardinal flowers, and caryopteris were blooming, in full-blown, luxuriant, late-summer exuberance. (Flowers live in the present, unconcerned about the cold ahead.) I even saw a micropatch of corn around the corner from Santa Fe Plaza.

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In fact, Santa Fe was full of surprises for me, and not just because it was my first visit to the Southwest. Santa Fe is famous for its adobe buildings, for instance, but I didn’t realize until I saw them how approachable and sensuous they are. You want to give their smooth shoulders a pat. Adobe’s matte surface gives off a soft, warm glow, as if the sunshine was absorbed deep into those thick walls.

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I warmed to the harmony between Santa Fe’s architecture and its natural surroundings. Oddly, it reminded me of a very different part of the world I visited years ago, another place where the built landscape seemed so in sync with the natural one: Nova Scotia. Along its coast, modest houses painted fire-engine red, turquoise, and lemon-yellow (someone told me that they were painted with the same paint used on the fishing boats) stood squarely on gray rock by a steel-blue sea, under untempered northern light.

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Opuntia, “a tea house in a glasshouse.”

I didn’t expect to see so many good-looking contemporary structures around the city. (One example, Opuntia, selling teas, coffee, and meals, along with unusual plants, on Shoofly Street in the Railyard District.) The buildings’ neo-industrial style of clean lines and low profile complements the traditional architecture. They sit lightly on their sites, and walls of windows let in that beautiful light. A far cry from the characterless neo-chain-store-style development gobbling up many parts of the country.

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Another surprise: Santa Fe is home to the world’s largest collection of folk art. And why not? In New Mexico exquisite, expressive art-making has been going on for a couple of  thousand years.

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Santa Fe folk art Wolfe.JPGThe Museum of International Folk Art (MoIFA) on Museum Hill houses 130,000 variously playful, joyous, peculiar, moving, original, and archetypal specimens of human creativity. Alexander Girard (1907–1993) and his wife, Susan, donated more than 106,000 of them, and 10,000 of those are on view in the Girard Wing, which he designed. (As you might guess, Girard was a fascinating man, a master designer of furniture, textiles, wallpaper, logos, and more in the post-war era.)

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MIFA musicians WolfeThe stripped-down-but-grand warehouse of a hall is brimming with kachinas, embroidered samplers, rugs, model boats and houses, pagodas, and Ferris wheels, miniature tableaux, sculptures, tapestries, weavings, carvings, and unique objects that may just revive your faith in humanity.

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Tramp art at MoIFA

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I wasn’t so much surprised as entranced by the Santa Fe Farmers Market. Open indoors all year round and also outside when it’s warm enough, the market—a cheerful warehouse with cement floors and big garage doors—is brimming with cheeses, fresh produce, dried beans, herbs, meats, pies, breads, and ristras, of course (the wreaths made from dried chile peppers) as well as soaps, sachets, wool, candles, and more.

farmers market Santa Fe WolfeEven on an ordinary Saturday, the atmosphere is festive, as if everyone, sellers and shoppers, is buoyed by the beauty and abundance of the goods on display. Despite the size of the market, it has a homey feel to it, with its handmade signs, checked tablecloths, and friendly vendors. A great place for people-watching.

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There’s more to say about Santa Fe, but maybe I’ll save it for another post. You can also read about my trip (with information on other museums, hotels, restaurants, and various diversions) on the travel website gonomad.com.

Have you been to Santa Fe? Are you a fan of The City Different? Leave a comment about what surprised you and what won you over. 

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Fabric, feathers, fur

What’s on at the Williams College Museum of Art

The little New England college town of Williamstown, Massachusettsis not only home to the Clark Institute of Art, one of the Berkshires’ star cultural attractions—right up there with Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, Mass MOCA, the Williamstown Theater Festival—but also to the Williams College Museum of Art. While the WCMA’s profile may not be as high as the Clark’s, its shows are second to none, intellectually engaging and elegantly staged. And admission is free.

Even during the summer, when the Ivy League school’s students are away, the museum has a lot going on, talks, performances, and other events as well as exhibitions. On a recent visit, I spent time with three of the shows: Dance We Must: Treasures from Jacob’s Pillow, 1906-1940 (through 11/11)  RAWR! A WCMA Bestiary (10/31), and Sam Gilliam in Dialogue (9/3).

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Among the 350-plus objects in Dance We Must, the most ravishing treasures are the costumes, headdresses, and accessories worn by modern dance pioneers Ted Shawn, the founder of Jacob’s Pillow, and Ruth St. Denis, and the Denishawn Company dancers (1914-29).

 

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The costumes were designed for maximum dramatic effect, and the craftsmanship behind their creation is brilliant.

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Made from gorgeous fabrics (velvet, lamé, silk), weighty with seed pearls, costume jewels, sequins, and beadwork, befeathered, and dense with embroidery, they are show-stoppers on mannequins, but you also get to see them in motion, in vintage film footage playing at various spots in the exhibition. (I took the photograph of St. Denis from one of the videos; here’s a snippet on my Instagram account fsfoto.)

 

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You might wonder how it was even possible to move in some of the costumes. In a New York Times article, curator Kevin Murphy said that Shawn talked about “staggering under the weight” of his genuine matador’s traje de luces, or “suit of lights,” but in a film of Shawn performing with it on, Murphy noted, Shawn looked “really nimble.”

St. Denis wore the voluminous kimono (below) for her 1913 dance O-Mika over five other kimonos, another triumph of the creative spirit over the flesh. I was surprised to learn that the kimono, like many of the costumes, had been stored in one of the original trunks of the dance company, dating from the Twenties, since 1981. You can read the fascinating details of the objects’ curatorial unearthing here.

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Photographs, paintings, props, and ephemera complement the displays of costumes and make it an altogether immersive experience. The visual splendor of it all is bedazzling, but there’s also a proverbial elephant in the room, and the curators didn’t ignore it.

 

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When St. Denis and Shawn created their dances, they drew heavily from Asian and Native American sources, among others. They admired those sources. They found the dance forms of India, Japan, the Hopi inspiring and embraced them for their authenticity, even championing them as legitimate art at a time when Western critics and institutions designated them inferior. At the same time, St. Denis and Shawn altered and romanticized these dances. One of the show’s merits is that it raises the question, when does artistic interpretation become appropriation?

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After risking sensory overload with the ornate objects in Dance We Must, you can refresh yourself by spending time with Sam Gilliam in Dialogue. Gilliam’s painted, draped canvasses are as lush, sensuous, physical, and suggestive of movement in their own way as any dance costume, but it’s the viewer’s eye that does the dancing.

Since it opened in January, this exhibition has been reinstalled twice to set up, as the title notes, conversations on three different subjects between Gilliam’s Situation VI-Pisces 4, a new WMCA acquisition (below), and works by a total of 13 other artists.

“Topographies of Color,” the current and final of the three, prompts the viewer to think not only about color, but also about form, scale, technique, surface, and, naturally, the diverse nature of art, through the back-and-forth between Gilliam’s art and pieces by Lynda Benglis, Helen Frankenthaler, Gene Davis, Morris Louis, and Jules Olitski.

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And then, there’s RAWR! Drawn from the museum’s extensive collection (a fact that is impressive in itself), the art ranges across time, continents, moods, media.

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cat.wcma.wolfeA medieval unicorn tapestry here, a Max Ernst bird there, some of the artworks are whimsical; others totemic. They play off each other, and all reward scrutiny, be it an ancient Egyptian cat sculpture, a Joseph Cornell collage, an early 20th-century Chinese calligraphic painting of a panda drinking from a bowl, the West African Antelope Marionette Head, or Jean-François de Troy’s oil Declaration of Amour, c. 1724 (detail, above).

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RAWR! is more than a winning menagerie of artworks; it has a philosophical underpinning. In fact, it is presented in conjunction with the Williams College course “The Philosophy of Animals,” taught by Professor Joe Cruz.

“At a moment when species are dying off at an alarming pace, RAWR! considers how art has helped to create arbitrary distinctions between the human and the animal,” reads the WMCA’s exhibition description, and bravo to the museum for making the point.

There are certainly images that speak of that man vs. beast division: the trompe l’oeil painting of a very red (read: boiled) lobster tacked to a board, for instance, the delicate Persian watercolor depicting the gruesome finale of a tiger hunt, and Robert Doisneau’s poignant, disturbing photograph L’Innocent, of a pig’s head in a butcher shop.

Yet overwhelmingly to me, the show iterates that we humans and animals are connected. (Granted, I’m someone who frees moths trapped on the wrong side of a window.) Clearly artists have long understood that through representing animals they find a means of expressing their own feelings and ideas. Again and again, the works in this show reveal the power of animals to amuse, charm, mystify, move, and speak to us. And, I hope, RAWR! encourages people to speak up for animals.

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Are you a moth rescuer? Do you have a favorite artwork featuring an animal? A favorite place in the Berkshires?

Let’s be “in dialogue.” Share your thoughts, tell me a story, leave a comment,  like the post, if you’re so moved.

(Left, terra-cotta Standing Dog, Mexico, 350 BCE–300 CE, from the WMCA collection.)