An Animal Kingdom in Maine

The Langlais Nature Preserve and its creators

Elephants, bears, giraffes, alligators, and other creatures, including a famous biped or two, populate the Langlais Sculpture Preserve on River Road in Cushing, a village situated on one of Maine’s multitudinous arms extending into the Atlantic. The sculptures are big, rough-hewn, totemic, animated.

In summer a profusion of wildflowers—goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace, thistle, clover, and jewelweed—and sumac, reeds, and tall grasses threaten to encroach on the mown paths. There is birdsong, crickets creak, and chipmunks raise the alarm. The atmosphere is lush, verdant, peaceful.

In winter, snow settles all around a former president, still convinced of victory, sinking into a swamp.

Before I stopped at the preserve, I assumed the artist was a local with an exuberant creative bent. Bernard “Blackie” Langlais (1921–1977) was a Mainer born and bred but also someone who studied at prestigious art schools, traveled to Europe on a Fulbright, was represented by the Leo Castelli Gallery (who launched Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns), and had work in a groundbreaking exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961.

I admit I’m swayed by credentials, but face to face with a sculpture, I believe, you meet it on its own terms. Langlais’s CV is not the point, except as part of the history of an artist who went his own way—an “around Robin Hood’s barn” sort of way—to end up on a farm on a back road, about 90 miles from where he started.

N.B.: Maine probably has more artists down its back roads than it has moose, road signs about the latter notwithstanding. Here’s a short list of artists past and present with a Maine connection: Winslow Homer, Rockwell Kent, Lois Dodd, Louise Nevelson, Fairfield Porter, John Marin, Berenice Abbott, Robert Indiana, Marsden Hartley, William Wegman… Also Alex Katz, who was a friend of Langlais, and Andrew and Jamie Wyeth, who lived down the road.

“Local Girl”
Langlais said he wanted to show Christina’s face. Wyeth was amused.

Also not anomalous: Langlais’s weathered pachyderm standing shoulder to shoulder with old apple trees, birches, and white pines. Starting off as a painter, in 1956, Langlais had a revelation as he was fixing up his summer cottage in Cushing with scraps of lumber: Wood was his true medium.

Wood crops up in Langlais’s story again and again. His Chelsea loft overlooked a lumber yard. His French-Canadian father was a carpenter. He was born in 1921 in Old Town, Maine (pop., 1920: 6956), home to factories that made those traditional New England products, shoes and wool, but also turned the forests surrounding Old Town into lumber, paper, matches, and canoes.

Thoreau’s The Maine Woods describes Old Town as it was when he passed through in 1846: “The mills are built directly over and across the river. Here is a close jam, a hard rub, at all seasons; and then the once green tree, long since white, I need not say as the driven snow, but as a driven log, becomes lumber merely.”

In Langlais’s hands, once-green trees became sculptures and reliefs. The oldest of 10 children, as a boy Bernard had already made a studio of a loft in his grandfather’s barn. In adolescence, he felt the hard rub of his hometown: “[I] was just biding my time, waiting to finish high school so that I could go somewhere else.” Thanks to his Aunt Isabelle, a nurse in Washington, D.C., he was able to start his education at the Corcoran School of Art. He went on to the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, the Brooklyn Museum School (where German Expressionist Max Beckmann was his teacher), and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris.

Langlais’s show at Castelli in 1961

By the mid-1960s, despite successes, Langlais was restless again. “I think I’ve had it with NY,” he wrote friend and mentor, Bill Cummings, cofounder of the Skowhegan School. In her monograph about Langlais, curator Hannah W. Blunt said that he felt “coerced into night after night of parties and distracted by the scrutiny that comes with celebrity.”

Nixon in the swamp

In 1966, he and his wife, Helen Friend Langlais, bought the farm next to their summer cottage, 80 acres of land, with a wood-shingled house and various outbuildings, overlooking fields that slope down to the St. George River. It was rural, but on the main drag to Rockland and Rockport, where Langlais was involved in the early years of Maine Coast Artists, now the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. (I wrote about CMCA here.) And a number of artists either were living or spending summers in the area. But mainly, for the next 11 years, Bernard worked like a demon, producing a menagerie of more than 100 wood sculptures around the nineteenth-century homestead. Twelve still stand on granite ledges, by the winding paths, in the pond.

In Googling to know about Bernard, I ended up falling for Helen.

There are photographs of her in the Bernard Langlais Papers, one of the collections of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. In one, she’s wearing a big smile and a big winter coat, overnight case in one hand, chic leather bag and packages in the other, cleared for departure. In another snapshot, she sits at a kitchen table, in their downtown loft perhaps, looking less readable, more like a farm woman than the chic Manhattanite of the previous shot.

On a rustic porch, she sits with Blackie, petunias and house plants on shelves behind her. Chestnut-haired, smooth-skinned, strong-limbed, with a winsome expression, she’s what might once have called a handsome woman.

Like her husband, Helen was a Maine native. Born on October 6, 1929 in Skowhegan, the daughter of a state senator, she earned a bachelor’s degree from University of Maine and a masters from Ohio University.

In 1953, a grad school friend, artist Nancy Wisseman-Widrig, introduced Helen to Bernard  when Helen was visiting her in New York. In their high heels, the two tripped up a fire escape from the first floor to Bernard’s third-floor studio at 212 West 28th Street, to find the artist seated at his easel, cocooned in blankets. Said Nancy, “I wanted them to meet because they both had these funny accents.”

Helen and Bernard, on their wedding day in Oslo

As old-fashioned as handsome, the word helpmate seems an apt, possibly understated term for Helen. In 1955, when Bernard was studying art on a Fulbright in Norway—he was a big fan of Munch—Helen worked for the Norwegian government. (They were married in January of that year at the American Embassy.)

Helen was studying voice when they moved to Maine permanently. She gave up the lessons and became a teacher at the Cushing Elementary School, while Bernard devoted himself to art. They had no children.

After Bernard died, age 56, of congestive heart failure in 1977, Helen kept things going for another 30-odd years. She maintained detailed records of her husband’s artworks (no easy task, as they numbered more than 3,500) and made tremendous efforts and expenditures to conserve the outdoor sculptures, relentlessly exposed to salt air, storms, and insects.

At one point, it seemed she would lose the house because she couldn’t pay the estate taxes on the collection. She overcame that, however, and then some. According to the Bangor News, “Helen was instrumental in creating Maine’s first-in-the-nation artist’s estate tax law, which allows payment of estate taxes in works of art. The first use of the law was in 1980 when the Langlais estate donated numerous works to state institutions in lieu of taxes.”

Helen died in 2010, age 80, at Windward Gardens Nursing Home in Camden, Maine. Aprile Gallant, who curated the Portland Museum of Art’s Langlais retrospective in 2002, was quoted in Helen’s obituary as saying, “Being the widow or widower of an artist is a particularly demanding job … Helen was tough-minded but generous. She devoted her life to preserving Blackie’s work and his memory. His workshop was preserved almost as if he had just stepped out for a moment.”

Before Helen died, she arranged for her husband’s work and their home to go to Colby College Museum of Art, in Waterville, Maine. The museum partnered with the Kohler Foundation in Wisconsin and the Georges River Land Trust of Rockland, Maine, to secure the future of that sizable legacy.

The Kohler Foundation played a key transitional role. It took temporary ownership of the collection, restored and preserved works on the property, and eventually gifted hundreds of Langlais artworks to nonprofits in Maine and beyond (see below). The Colby College Museum of Art has 187 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper. In 2014 The Georges River Land Trust took ownership of the land and operates it as a preserve open to the public.

“Helen really liked the role of the artist’s wife,” said Wisseman-Widrig, who was Helen’s neighbor for many summers. “She had a great romantic idea about what it meant to be an artist. She loved the idea of the serious artist willing to sacrifice everything to make art. She was just so supportive, of Blackie and everyone else.”

Extending from Kittery to Presque Isle, west to Norway (Maine, that is) and east to Eastport, the Langlais Art Trail encompasses public libraries, museums, art centers, town offices, community centers, the First Baptist Church in Gardiner, the Portland International Jetport, Colby College Museum of Art, and the Langlais Sculpture Preserve.

Under the stewardship of the Georges River Land Trust, the Langlais Sculpture Preserve, 576 River Road, Cushing, Maine, is open dawn to dusk, with a 1/4 mile ADA-accessible path. Admission is free.

The photographs of Bernard Langlais as a child, his letter, the Castelli show, the wedding couple, and Helen on the sidewalk, in the loft, and on the porch are all from the Bernard Langlais Papers, circa 1925-2010. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

For more on the story of how the daunting task of organizing, preserving, and distributing the Langlais estate was accomplished, you can read this article in the Colby College’s alumni magazine.

Farewell to Summer

Savoring late-season sweetness at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

On the eve of the autumn equinox, I thought a last look at gardens in their full, late-summer sweetness would be a way of marking the transition to a season that, except for its wild and crazy color scheme, is all about winding down. Fall is lovely, especially that short-lived flamboyance, but it can be wistful, too. I’m a little taken aback: What, wait a minute, summer’s over?

I took these pictures in mid-August, at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, in Boothbay, Maine.

The CMBG is the largest of its kind in New England, 300-plus acres, and it has an expansive feel, thanks partly to its square footage, partly to the layout, and partly to the use of masses of cone flowers, bee balm, black-eyed Susans, sedum, Joe Pye weed, and grasses across big spaces. As is often true of botanical gardens, the it-just-came-together, naturalistic effect here is the result of artful selection and arrangement of such hard-working, easy-going plants, interspersed with many more delicate specimens.

You could easily spend a day here, given all there is to see: a number of themed gardens, including a kitchen garden, a children’s garden, a meditation garden, and the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses; a greensward or two; ponds, fountains, burbling brooks, and other water features; a vine-covered arbor; a grass-roofed cottage.

The Native Butterfly and Moth House provides temporary habitat for monarchs, painted ladies, red admirals, black swallowtails, luna and polyphemus moths, and other species, at every stage of their life cycle. The Learning Apiary’s hives house honey bees, while the adjoining Native Bee Exhibit calls attention to the fact that there are more than 276 species of the proverbial busy ones in Maine, most of which go it alone.

Several trails take you variously through rhododendrons and woods, past sculptures (watch out for oversized trolls), and, in the case of the Shoreland Trail, along the tidal Back River to a landing that extends far out into the water. If it seems like gilding the lily to set gardens within Maine’s exceptionally beautiful forests and salt-water inlets, the CMBG, and its visitors, successfully manage to have it both ways.

The gardens make the most of Maine’s natural assets, highlighting the good looks, for instance, of the granite outcroppings ubiquitous to the state, by using them as key elements in garden designs, as well as putting granite, Ellsworth schist, and other local stone to work for seating, paving, walls, pillars, and other parts of the hardscape.

The gardens blend together numerous native plants and trees—lowbush blueberries, birches and red pines, lupines, mosses, and ferns—with more exotic flora: dozens of dahlia varieties and cultivars in the Dahlia Garden, hosta, epimediums, “Snowcicle” hydrangeas, a grove of dawn sequoias.

The day I was there, there were lots of families, not surprising given that it was the height of vacation season, and lots of little happy campers (and their moms valiantly pushing strollers along dirt trails). The Fairy Village, which invites DIY constructions, was seeing serious action when I went by, and the table with a caterpillar display outside the Caterpillar Lab was drawing in the curious, too.

The view from the Overlook Bridge…

It makes me happy to see people, especially children, enjoying being outdoors, their curiosity and wonder piqued by the splendor (and oddities) of nature. It’s great to be in a place that encourages environmental literacy—which seems ever more crucial, if we’re to combat climate change and preserve wildlife—in ways that seem unforced and simply pleasurable for everyone. In fact, my overall sense of the CMBG is that it quietly draws attention to the attractions not only of inspired horticulture but also of the Maine landscape, and makes a powerful case for actively appreciating the flora and fauna that dwell there.

… And from the other side of the bridge.

The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens are open 9 to 5, every day, rain or shine, through October 17. As well as its gardens and trails, CMBG offers tours, events, exhibits, and programs, including ones, such as the Winter Gardens Book Club, that are online and held after the gardens close for the season.

Here’s more on the trolls, the stars of the “Guardians of the Seeds” exhibition by Danish artist Thomas Danbo.

Fresh Paint

In the current at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, Maine

I don’t always know what to make of contemporary art, or what it’s asking of me. The critics and historians aren’t along for the ride, murmuring in my ear, telling me it’s good, how good, and why. Of course, contemporary art is a roomy category, so whether it’s gorgeous, mind-blowing, off-putting, or opaque depends on the artist, the style, the medium, the context…

And being on your own with a work of art, even, or especially, a challenging one, can be freeing. Sometimes the best thing to do is just relax and let the art come to you in its own good time.

The Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA), in Rockland, Maine, helps that to happen. Celebrating its 70th anniversary next year, the center presents exhibitions and events year round in an understated, elegant set of glass and corrugated-metal boxes set around an exterior courtyard. Designed by the highly regarded architect Toshiko Mori, the five-year-old building has a youthful energy. Gleaming in the clear, strong light of a Down East summer day, it put me at ease before I walked through the door.

CMCA is on Winter Street, off Main Street, and around the corner from the wonderful Farnsworth Museum. As is true of many of New England’s smaller cities, three-story brick buildings predominate downtown, and against such a backdrop, the architecture of the center stands out. But its kin, the commercial warehouses, are just a stone’s throw away, down by the waterfront.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Rockland was one of the busiest ports on the East Coast, shipping out lime and granite, fish and lumber, and building the ships that carried those raw goods all over. The port no longer sees that level of trade, but the city still come across as vibrant and gritty, as Merriam Webster defines it: “plucky” and “having strong qualities of tough uncompromising realism.” So it seems fitting that Rockland should take on often tough and uncompromising contemporary art.

Artists started CMCA in 1952. Several were from away; they came to the midcoast region looking for a cheap place to live and work. Cheap but beautiful.

They were not the first, nor the last to be attracted to the sublime quality of Maine. The illustrious roster of artists with a Maine connection includes Winslow Homer, George Bellows, John Marin, Rockwell Kent, Marsden Hartley, Andrew Wyeth, Berenice Abbott, Robert Indiana, Lois Dodd, Kosti Ruohomaa, and Alex Katz. Sculptor Louise Nevelson, originally from Russia, moved with her family to Rockland as a small child, captained the girls’ basketball team in high school, and took off for New York City as soon as she could. Winslow Homer and Berenice Abbott, to name two, were off-islanders who chose to spend their final decades in Maine.

The Shape of Things, in the largest of the three CMCA galleries, is an exhibition of 23 works by Maine native David Row (through September 12). Row’s CV is lengthy and impressive and the show beautifully presented, but initially at least, the art took a back seat to the room itself. I couldn’t get over the look of the satiny cement floor and the glowing, rain-puddle reflections of the sharp-edged geometric paintings. The room’s bigness and the light filtering down from the clerestory windows in the sawtooth roof made the space feel like a church between services, somewhere contemplation feels natural.

Although everything about Row’s oil paintings, their colors, textured surfaces, size, meticulous finish, their sophistication, was spot-on, I was truly drawn in by his “lighttraps.” Like outsized jewels, the cast-glass sculptures just seem to have it all, all the qualities of the paintings, but something else, something ineffable, something deeply satisfying.

Kitty corner from, and at an aesthetic slant to, the The Shape of Things, was Will o’ the Wisp, a collaborative installation organized by artists Joy Feasley and Paul Swenbeck. According to the exhibition brochure, the title refers to “the mischievous sprite that leads weary travelers deeper and deeper into a treacherous swamp with its lantern-like, shimmering countenance.” At first glance, I felt less like a weary traveler than a college student stepping into a dorm room, circa 1969—not a bad thing.

The overall effect was the sum of a slew of artworks: Feasley’s circular shag rug, a sort of a psychedelic color wheel; Swenbeck’s Specter Moon, a light show of lunar landscapes; audio, terraria, dangling Indian brass bells, a glass orb, a seeweedy polyester resin sculpture, craft-y objects. The metallic mesh wall covering gave the room its own shimmering countenance.

A lot going on, but then the sensory overload sorted itself out into its component parts. Swenbeck’s Four Crinoids, brass sea flowers, seemed almost to sway in the air, or in an ocean current, in one corner. Kelsey Halliday Johnson captured the surreal spirit of fungi in her Biomediation (mushrooms at the end of the world) nine prints in an oval, each in an oval slice of Maine wood.

Across the room, Shannon Bowser’s watercolors of lichen took a different light-handed, loose tack to convey the otherworldly nature of forest life. I thought about how easy, and unfortunate, it is to pass by a toadstool or minuscule pixie cups sprouting on moss or a tree stump without a glance. (Did you know that, according to the Virginia Native Plant Society, “lichens are not plants, but an association, often called ‘mutualism’ of two, and sometimes three different organisms”? Cohabitation, also very sixties.)

For those tending to the neurotic, the show might provoke an unease related to that “treacherous swamp” atmosphere it’s going for: To think all this is going on around us, without our knowing. That nature does its own thing can be both a comfort and a stimulus of existential anxiety. The artists have tapped into the confounding, and unsettling because ultimately unknowable complexity of the natural world.

Remarkable how an assemblage of work in several media by eight artists could coalesce into an installation so richly satisfying on both sensory and emotional levels. And so smart of the CMCA to exhibit The Shape of Things and Will o’ the Wisp together. The concept of generating a “dialogue” between art works comes up so often it risks becoming a cliché, but in this case, it was happenin’.

Maine fungi.

The CMCA’s website has a terrific gallery of photographs of the center’s founding members and a full schedule of upcoming exhibitions and events.

“When the Artists Descended on the Midcoast” is a fun, candid account of the period when the center got its start, as recalled by Stell Shevis, 100 years old at the time of this article’s publication.

And here’s another post I wrote about midcoast Main, the Farnsworth, and Rockland.

Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway

At a moment when a New York Times headline, “Should I Mask? Can I Travel?,” reflects a wide unease, the Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway exhibition at the Clark Institute of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts, offers a means of escape to another place and time. It’s a wonderfully presented show, right down to the passageways with photomurals of Norwegian settings.

Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928) was born, grew up, and lived most of his life in western Norway, and as an artist, he took as his subject matter the place he knew so well. Among the 85 works in the show, pastoral landscapes and scenes of rural life predominate. They constitute a visual inventory of Nordic elements: fields of marsh marigolds, Midsummer Eve bonfires, rhubarb stalks, hay drying poles, grass-roofed farm buildings, berry-picking children, foxgloves in forests, flinty blue fjords, glacier-streaked mountains.

Small apple trees blossom against brooding skies; modest houses huddle at the foot of looming mountains. His art conveys the wild, somber, fragile beauty of the region. The brooding, moody, melancholy-leaning quality of many of the paintings and prints syncs nicely with the current zeitgeist, in fact.

But partly because the scenes are beautiful and partly because they’re beautifully painted, the effect is restorative. When I reached the end of the exhibition, I felt as if I’d been tree-bathing. Afterward, walking on one of the Clark’s trails, I saw the trees, tiny woodland flowers, and the cows in the woods more keenly, as if through Astrup’s eyes, a sure indicator of an artist’s talent.

During Astrup’s lifetime, art was moving at a clip toward modernism. The first big show of the Impressionists was six years before his birth. Seurat was pixelating in the 1880s. In 1904, Cezanne was advising his friend, Post-Impressionist painter Émile Bernard, “Treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone.” (Cubist Georges Braque was so impressed by Cezanne’s published letters that he memorized passages.) In 1911, Kandinsky wrote, “Must we not then renounce the object altogether, throw it to the winds and instead lay bare the purely abstract?”

Astrup studied in Paris, hung out with a cool crowd in Berlin, and was well travelled, visiting London, Vienna, Algiers, and elsewhere. He would have gone farther afield if his poor health hadn’t stopped him. He kept himself well informed about what contemporaries were doing: “I would like to study the abstract painters a little more closely—Kandinsky and the other Russians—basically they interest me more than the French—Picasso and Matisse—although I would really like to have a French painter such as Le Fauconnier as a teacher.” (Le Fauconnier was a prominent Cubist artist.) He also greatly admired Henri Rousseau’s paintings and in London went to the Tate to see Constable’s landscapes.

So the artistic choices he made were deliberate, and he chose to color within the lines. While he wanted to paint the world around him, he said, “as ordinary people [saw it] straight through the air right into the thing,” his way of seeing was individual, original, and forward-thinking. He didn’t “renounce the object” or dispense with perspective, but he made use of aspects of modernism that worked for him.

For example, Spring in Jølster (1925) incorporated several perspectives, looking up, looking down, and straight ahead all at once. Mildly vertigo-inducing, the painting also features a pair of trees reduced to Cezanne-like green diamonds, other foliage rendered in almost hyper-realistic detail, and a tree planted dead center, dividing the canvas in two, in disregard of compositional conventions. Yet it all hangs together, a rich swirl of houses, mountains, sky, water, flora, and a wild creature or two.

Color plays a big role in Astrup’s work, his use of vibrant reds, pink grays, brown grays, and blue grays, and every green in the universe, among others, has a modernist feel. “The raw colors of western Norway,” as he once described them, add drama and movement and sometimes serve the artist’s intent to show a psychological landscape. If you go to the show, be sure to see his wooden palette, daubed with all his favorite colors.

One of the paradoxes of art is that constraints can foster creativity. Damp air tamped down Astrup’s health all his life; he made it a focal point of his work. You can almost feel the mist on your face when you look at The Parsonage in the Rain.

When he was young and poor (he was never well-off), he used old trousers for canvas. No matter the seam in one corner, an early painting that isn’t at the Clark, Old Woman With a Lantern, is atmospheric and evocative. And from an inhospitable patch of land across Lake Jolster from his childhood home, Astrup wrested a farmstead, Sandalstrand, now known as Astruptunet, terracing the rocky, steep slope to grow crops, constructing and restoring outbuildings, and sowing wildflowers on their grass roofs. In his studio there, he made art that showed the magic of his home turf.

In the midst of the magic, you might succumb to the dangers of romanticizing Astrup’s experience. The exhibition wall text makes clear his life was no picnic. A recurring landmark of his work, the rustic parsonage of his childhood permanently damaged his lungs, and three of his siblings died there, of diphtheria, in one week. A Financial Times article about Visions of Norway notes that Astrup, beset on and off by depression and anxiety, in middle age told a friend, “I find myself in an artistic ‘backwater,’ and every time I approach the right current—I am driven mercilessly into the backwater again.” When he died at age 48, he was still struggling to keep his head above water artistically and financially. The Clark tells his story straight, giving equal weight to the good and the sad.

Visions of Norway is the first North American exhibition of Astrup’s works. Coverage of the show invariably notes that while well-known in Norway, Astrup lacks the international name recognition of fellow Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. I guess it’s inevitable that the comparison be made, and it makes a great editorial “hook,” but it leaves me indifferent. Who doesn’t know (and relate to) Munch’s iconic The Scream, which encapsulates a sentient being’s response, on a bad day, in a bad era, to modern life? Maybe it’s better to be Astrup, spared having his work turning up as Internet memes. Dodging around the tropes—starving artist, tormented artist, neglected artist—I’m just delighted to meet Astrup the artist at last.

All old paintings take us to a place we can’t go. They bring us within two feet of the past, and no closer—that’s part of their allure. As much as we can learn from paintings about the people who made them, the worlds they show, and about art itself, finally we remain tourists. But it’s worth packing a bag with your curiosity and an observant eye and spending an hour or two with Astrup’s remote world.

Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway is on view at the Clark through September 19.

Other things Nordic: The Unseen, White Shadow, and Eyes of the Rigel, by contemporary novelist Roy Jacobsen, form an utterly enthralling trilogy about life on a cluster of Norwegian islands above the Arctic Circle. The writing and the stories are both extraordinary.

Seeing Saint-Gaudens

What do monuments have to say to us?

A vast sloping lawn, perennial gardens, towering hedges, murmuring fountains, a classic New England Federal-style house, beautiful views at every turn … the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park in Cornish, New Hampshire, is an idyllic place. And home to more than 100 works of Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), from coins to monuments.

This pre-eminent sculptor of the Gilded Age spent many summers in Cornish, relaxing and working. Over time, his home became the nexus of a settlement of painters, musicians, actors, writers, landscape designers, and other artists—the Cornish Colony. The last seven years of his life, he was a “chickadee,” what colony members called a year-round resident of the area.

In Cornish, in the mid-1880s, he created what is probably his most famous work, Abraham Lincoln: The Man, also known as The Standing Lincoln, the original of which is in Chicago. Other larger-than-life tributes—the Admiral David Farragut Monument and the Sherman Monument in New York, the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment Memorial in Boston, and the Adams Memorial in Washington—made his reputation. His lithe Diana once stood poised with bow and arrow on the roof of Madison Square Garden.

Saint-Gaudens’ training as a sculptor began at age 13, when he was apprenticed to a cameo cutter. He augmented what he learned during that five-year stint through classes at the Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design, then study at the L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and trips to Rome. Like Renoir, whose artistic education also started when he was 13, painting dishes in a porcelain factory, Saint-Gaudens got technique under his belt early and never looked back.

Renoir once said, “How difficult it is to know just where the imitation of nature in a picture might stop.” The question doesn’t seem to have bothered Saint-Gaudens overly much. His considerable energy was focused on coaxing granite, marble, and bronze into looking like the ripples of a wave or the folds of a bow and whipping those obdurate materials into monumental shape. With sorties into symbolism: victory, loyalty, and courage took the form of solidly built females, looking, depending on your point of view, solemn, fierce, or grumpy. He put heroes of the era on literal pedestals, ready to honor and inspire, but firmly based in representation.

When I visited Saint-Gaudens’ summer home, I met up head-first with the question of how much imitation is too much. I looked at the outsized sculptures and reflexively thought, nope. The furniture of every public park, the perch of pigeons, statues of bygone notables, even those we still respect, often seem to have said all they had to say. (Yet the Princess Diana statue, recently unveiled at Kensington Palace, is not only proof of how art can imitate life to a disappointing degree, but also proof that the taste for the doggedly representational lives on.)

So while duly impressed by the sheer scale of the big statements—the technical feat of making them, never mind getting giant plaster casts from a hilly New Hampshire estate to the foundry—I gravitated to the intimate stuff. I studied the pleated waves of the Farragut memorial, the curvaceous brass fish making real ripples in a marble pool. Admired the medallions on the walls of the New Gallery & Atrium, delicate profiles of Saint-Gaudens’ son Homer and others; the very lifelike but rough-around-the-edges horse’s heads, a gilded one in the main room of the studio, a plaster version in a small workroom off the main room. A big bronze hand on a shelf above old letters reclining in a cubbyhole.

And the place was so seductive! The park’s layout encourages you to wander and linger at will. So on a perfect summer day in a beautiful spot, I moved around like a tourist rather than a museum-goer. I strolled the allées, poked around the stable, moseyed among tall delphiniums at their peak and peonies just about to call it quits, and ended up on the veranda of the house, Aspet, looking out at pointy-headed Mount Ascutney on the horizon.

I’d breezed by the vigorous Puritan caught in midstride and the bust of Lincoln. I’d hardly given The Standing Lincoln the time it deserved. Familiarity was working against the last two: I’ve known what the 16th president looked like from the first time I had a penny to put in my pocket.

Fortunately, well-versed scholars have been more conscientious. Writing about Abraham Lincoln: The Man, Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Thayer Tolles points out that the statue was distinctive in its time because Saint-Gaudens portrayed Lincoln “not as a man in action, but as a man in an intensely private, introspective moment.” As innovative as its intimacy was that Saint-Gaudens’ portraits “melded accurate likeness with projection of character, the result of research, observation, and instinct.”

To get Lincoln’s likeness right, Saint-Gaudens used a Vermonter, six-foot-four Langdon Morse, as his model. He had him walk through fields to rusticate his shoes and pants. As for Lincoln’s character, maybe the artist’s having glimpsed his subject a couple of times gave him a sense of the man. During his apprenticeship, Saint-Gaudens had seen Lincoln on the way to his inauguration. The next sighting was also in New York, when Lincoln was lying in state after his assassination. After waiting in an “interminable line,” as the sculptor recalled years later, the 17-year-old Saint-Gaudens filed past the bier, then rejoined the queue to view the dead president again.

Saint-Gaudens took monumental sculpture even further into the future by conceiving of it as a composition of several elements, the figure, but also the base and inscriptions, and integrated with its surroundings, a Victorian version of today’s “immersive” experience. (He often collaborated with the architects McKim and White on the bases.)

As shamelessly breezy as I was on my Cornish visit, I was stopped in my tracks by its version of the Shaw memorial, cast in 1997, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the original’s unveiling. It stands at one end of a long garden room, enclosed by tall walls of hemlock and white pine. The setting is just the beginning.

“There was no clear precedent for the audaciousness of the Shaw Memorial, nothing quite like it in its fusion of two major forms of public sculpture, the grand equestrian statue and the narrative relief,” wrote Deborah Chotner, assistant curator, American and British paintings, of the National Gallery of Art, for the NGA’s 1997 exhibition on the memorial. She noted, “Saint-Gaudens reinterpreted his sources to create a new and totally original public monument that democratically united a commander with his troops.”

It’s big, detailed, dynamic, cinematic. A loblolly pine cone lies tucked in one corner and Memory hovers just over the heads of the men. Even on a sunny midsummer day, the bronze glows dark and mysterious. Like the past, the memorial’s full of shadows, but its ambition is to put what’s past before you.

The Massachusetts 54th was one of the first regiments of Black soldiers to be formed in the North during the Civil War, headed up by 25-year-old Robert Gould Shaw, scion of a family of fiercely abolitionist Boston Brahmins. There was considerable skepticism, not confined solely to rebel forces, that the soldiers would pass muster.

On July 18, 1863, the 54th led the charge on Fort Wagner, the first stage of a Union Army plan to take Charleston. Nearly 300 soldiers, 42 percent of the regiment, were killed, wounded, or captured.

Frederick Douglass’s son Lewis, who was among the wounded, said, “Not a man flinched.” The assault failed, and Shaw died in the attempt, but “the courage and sacrifice of the 54th helped to dispel doubt within the Union Army about the fighting ability of Black soldiers and earned this regiment undying battlefield glory,” according to the National Archives website.

Joshua Benton Smith, an African American businessman, proposed building a monument to Shaw in 1865. Shaw’s family lobbied for one that honored the Black soldiers as well as Shaw. The effort to create the memorial stretched over 32 years, including the 14 years Saint-Gaudens took to make it.

“My own delay I excuse on the ground that a sculptor’s work endures for so long that it is next to a crime for him to neglect to do everything that lies in his power to execute a result that will not be a disgrace,” Saint-Gaudens once explained. “There is something extraordinarily irritating, when it is not ludicrous, in a bad statue. It is plastered up before the world to stick and stick for centuries, while man and nations pass away. A poor picture goes into the garret, books are forgotten, but the bronze remains to accuse or shame the populace and perpetuate one of our various idiocies.”

Shaw Memorial, Boston; Library of Congress image; glass negative, 1900.

When it was unveiled in 1897, some 54th Regiment veterans were still alive to march by and doff their hats. Three years later, Harriet Tubman, who had worked as an intrepid scout for the 54th (and had cooked Shaw’s last meal), visited the memorial by the Common and, reported the Boston Herald, “dropped a silent tear for the departed dead.”

Last year, many a Robert E. Lee sitting on Traveller, and his confederates, came crashing down. The Shaw memorial has come under scrutiny, too. He knew about idiocies, but Saint-Gaudens probably didn’t foresee the objections.

The points of debate are more complicated than those related to glorification of white supremacists. It was the first public monument in the country to honor African American soldiers, but Shaw is on a horse, front and center. Then again, thanks in part to the 1989 film Glory, the monument is probably better known today for its celebration of the Black troops who surround him.

As my eyes played across the frieze, the movie’s climactic scene of the charge played in my head. Then the dramatic film images died away, and the memorial did its job, bringing home to me that these bronze figures stood in for living, breathing, dreaming, thinking, feeling humans. I tried to imagine all “the things they carried,” to quote the title of Tim O’Brien’s short story collection about soldiers in Vietnam.

As a Harvard student, Shaw complained to his parents, “Everything is stupid here,” and later he moped at his job in his uncle’s mercantile firm. In soldiering, he found his purpose, and in the way Saint Gaudens’ Shaw holds himself, straight as a plumb line, it shows.

But what I found most compelling was the tight, determined squad marching all around him. Canteens on their hips, rifles on their shoulders, eyes forward, in step, no doubt scared to death, but resolute. With no battleground in sight, I couldn’t help reading the procession as an inexorable, and extremely brave, march toward a momentous struggle.

Where the figurative becomes symbolic here, the monument monumental, is in its representation of more than a moment. The memorial tells us, Black lives have always mattered. By the end of the Civil War, some 37,000 African Americans had died serving in the Union forces. The monument honors the essential, heroic role African Americans have played so many times in this country’s history and continue to play. (Thank you, Black women of Georgia.) It speaks to me of a debt owed, not yet recognized or repaid.

Currently, you can visit the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park and see just about everything—the studios, the stables, the grounds, the sculptures—except the interior of Aspet, the house. Here’s a link to learn more.

This Thayer Tolles article gives more background on the artist.

This NEH article has good information on the Shaw Memorial, the Fort Wagner battle, and Saint-Gaudens.

To read more about the controversial aspects of the Shaw Memorial, this Commonwealth article from 2019 is a good place to start. Another interesting perspective can be found here.

And for more on the amazing Harriet Tubman and her work with the 54th, see this National Park Service article.

Views of Naumkeag

Once the summer retreat of New England blue bloods, an estate in the Berkshires retains its elevated status

Can you say that a 44-room Shingle Style cottage “perches” on a hillside? Maybe “presides over” is the more accurate description of Naumkeag’s presence just up the road from the center of Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

It presides, yet recedes into the surrounding landscape. What makes this Trustees of Reservations property one of the Bay State’s “irreplaceable natural and cultural treasures,” as that nonprofit puts it, is its gardens and grounds—and its views of the Berkshire mountains beyond.

Naumkeag was originally the summer home of the blue-blooded Choates. Like acorn-laden oak trees in a mast year, the family trees of both Joseph and Caroline Sterling Choate, who built it, are thick with New England’s first white settlers, Revolutionary War veterans, and U.S. senators.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts, Joseph made his name and a vast fortune as an attorney. He argued cases before the Supreme Court and served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of Saint James in the early 1900s. Caroline, a member of New York’s social elite the Four Hundred, was an advocate of women’s higher education who helped to found Barnard College. She was studying art and considered herself wedded to that calling when she met Joseph, then a young lawyer “winning his spurs at the bar,” according to her New York Times obituary.

Materially, their marriage in 1861 got off to a modest start, but with certain amenities, listed in a letter Joseph wrote his mother: “a bed, two tables, four chairs and a sofa, a cream pitcher, an asparagus fork, six salt cellars and a rug, and there might be a much meaner stock to begin upon than that, you know.”

By 1884, the Choates could afford to hire Stanford White, of McKim, Mead & White, then on its way to becoming the premier architectural firm of the Gilded Age, to design a summer home for them. Over time, Joseph and Caroline, and later their daughter Mabel, acquired antiques, art, and oriental rugs (as well as a 1930s-era Frigidaire for the kitchen) to keep that lonely asparagus fork company.

Prominent Boston landscape architect Nathan Franklin Barrett laid out the grounds on the steep slope of Prospect Hill, previously a favorite picnicking site of the family. His plans spared a favorite oak tree and introduced the copper and European beeches that are now majestic specimens.

Mabel Choate became Naumkeag’s guardian after her mother’s death in 1929. Like many socialites of her time, her life was a mix of purpose and privilege.

In the “privilege” category: A few months after her mother’s death, and the Stock Market Crash, she bought a 15-room duplex on Park Avenue. In the “purpose” category, she was a philanthropist and an active advocate for such causes as maternal health, neurological research and treatment, and historic preservation. She seems to have lived her life with energy and flair (that hat!), traveling in Europe and Asia, collecting fine art, furniture, and decorative art objects, entertaining—the Baron and Baroness Rosenkrantz, in Hot Springs, Virginia, the Condé Nasts in Stockbridge.

Mabel Choate, left, in the early nineteen-teens, with the original Gibson Girl. (Library of Congress photograph, from a glass negative)

And she had a passion for gardens. According to the Trustees’ archives website, she was a member of the Garden Club of America, the American Peony Society, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, and the Lenox Garden Club.

In 1926, at the Lenox Garden Club, she met the master landscape architect Fletcher Steele, then in the early years of his career. That meeting was the start of a nearly 30-year collaboration in the reimagining, remaking, and expanding of the estate’s gardens. Steele had his own room at Naumkeag, with a bell connected to the kitchen, and Mabel gave a birthday party for him every year.

“In my mind, Naumkeag is now a work of art,” Choate wrote Steele in 1950, when she was 80. “Thanks to you. I am more interested in it and excited about it all the time.”

Eight years later, Mabel Choate died and, thanks to her bequest, Naumkeag became a Trustees property.

Steele combined a modern approach to design with the belief that gardens should have a “patina,” according to a Spring 2016 Preservation Magazine article. (He said of Naumkeag some 20 years into it, “Nothing gets right until Time gets in its work.”) In the decades after 1958, the gardens’ patina-making outran Choate’s endowment for their maintenance. A million-dollar matching gift to the Trustees in 2012 made an extensive restoration possible. During the process, workers unearthed a lost rock garden and determined that the famous blue steps were originally navy, not the bright blue they had been repainted over the years.

About designing the Blue Steps, Steele said, “I figure that comfort in going up a steep hill depends on variety of leg action, the lack of which makes a long flight of steps intolerable … So I put up four ‘divisions,’ each one having a couple of steps and turns, two ramps of different steepness and a graduated flight of half a dozen steps to a platform.”

When you see the steps, their gracefulness, more than their engineering, is what stands out. Google “Naumkeag,” and their image is everywhere, but by exercising some leg actions of your own when you’re there, you can discover several other dramatic settings: the re-created linden allée, the Chinese Temple Garden entered through the Moon Gate, and the Afternoon Garden, with a parterre bordered by Venetian gondola poles.

I went to Naumkeag most recently for its Tulip and Daffodil Festival, a succession and a profusion of spring flowers, more than 130,000 bulbs in all, that goes from mid-March to mid-May. During the festival, if you can tear yourself away from all that floral glory, you can also tour the ground floor of the house.

In the heat of the summer, the somewhat shadowy interiors (lots of dark woodwork, antique tapestries on the walls) must have offered a cool refuge. It’s a showplace, but not terribly showy. Like Steele’s garden designs, the house has a patina, too: from the soft golden glow of a miniature Chinese screen on a mantel, the glimmer of the dining room’s tin-leaf ceiling.

I enjoyed my look-round, but the spring light was calling, and I wanted to see everything outside before I ran out of steam. So, I moved on to the Chinese Temple Garden to admire the aged marble paving, the young ginkgos, a comical trio of watering cans, and the copious peonies (plus a shocking-pink art installation in the temple that seemed made to be Instagrammed).

My last stop was the fountain where artificial bubbles floated on the water and real ones into the air, a delightful, mysterious reminder that the beauty of gardens, even those that endure, is ephemeral and evanescent.

The tulips are all just a memory, but Naumkeag’s gardens are open for the summer season, Thursdays through Sundays. At the nearer end of the linden allee, there’s a terrace with tables and chairs and a food kiosk offering drinks and snacks. Find the Naumkeag website here.

The restoration of the gardens is a fascinating story in itself. You can learn more about it in the Preservation Magazine article mentioned above and this photo essay from the National Trust for Historic Preservation website.

Robin Karson’s Fletcher Steele, Landscape Architect: An Account of the Gardenmaker’s Life, 1885-1971, University of Massachusetts Press, is an excellent account of his life and career.

And to read more about Joseph Choate, who led a full and interesting life, take a look at this American Heritage article.

R.I.P. Jan Morris

A little tribute to a brilliant, prolific writer who loved and wrote eloquently about Venice. And some photographs of same.

Although by and large the obits about Jan Morris, who died November 20 at age 94, described her as a travel writer, she didn’t consider herself one; in fact, in a 2015 interview, she told The Guardian:

“I hate being called a travel writer. I have written only one book about travel, concerning a journey across the Oman desert. I have written many books about place, which are nothing to do with movement, but many more about people and about history. In fact, though, they are one and all about the effects of everything upon me–my books amount to one enormously self-centred autobiographical exposure! So I prefer to be described as simply–a writer …”

That’s how I enjoyed her: as a writer, of tremendous style, perception, curiosity, and joie de vivre. When I was learning about writing and about the world, reading her accounts of places, in particular, Venice, gave me great pleasure and taught me about how to look, how to live, how to think, how to write (all interconnected).

And revisiting Venice to write this post, I was impressed all over again by how much research Morris had done into the city’s history, by her powers of observation, how skillfully she drew connections between past and present, how generous, receptive, how willing she was to meet the Venetians on their own terms. Hardly “self-centred” (or self-centered).

During an extraordinary career as a journalist and the author of “fortyish” books (the Times of London described her as “a bit hazy on the exact number”), Morris covered a variety of subjects over a range of genres. She was also notable as a “transgender pioneer,” in the words of the Los Angeles Times; about half her life she was James Morris.

Her career got a jump-start in 1953 when she sent a coded scoop to The Times of London reporting Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s successful ascent of Mount Everest, dispatched via messengers from an expedition camp at 20,000 feet. She went on from there to, you might say, even greater heights, capturing the Zeitgeist covering Adolph Eichmann’s trial, interviewing Che Guevara.

Her trilogy Pax Brittanica is an acclaimed history of the British Empire. There were essay collections, novels, and memoirs, including Conundrum, published in 1974, about her 10-year transition from man to woman.

And the “non-travel writing” writing, including that book about La Serenissima.

In a 2015 Vanity Fair essay, Morris wrote about how she got into the Floating City for the first time in a back-door kind of way, at the end of World War II. At that time, she was still James, “an officer of the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers (founded 1715), […] my menial job would be helping to run the motorboats of Venice, almost one and all requisitioned by the army.”

Here’s her description of the first time she went to the legendary Harry’s Bar during that original visit:

“I paused on the doorstep there, but as I did so I caught the eyes of the Venetians behind the bar, one at the cash desk, two others busy with trays and glasses. They all looked up, too, but their expressions were different. Their look seemed at once speculative, interested, amused, kind, and collusive. I loved that look, and it was, I came to think, a true look of Venice. It put me both at ease and on my guard, and it has kept me going back to Harry’s Bar, with more or less the same sensations, from that day to this.”

And to give you just a taste, here’s an excerpt from Venice, written in 1960:

“It is very old, and very grand, and bent-backed. Its towers survey the lagoon in crotchety splendour, some leaning one way, some another. Its skyline is elaborate with campaniles, domes, pinnacles, cranes, riggings, television aerials, crenellations, eccentric chimneys, and a big red grain elevator.

“There are glimpses of flags and fretted rooftops, marble pillars, cavernous canals. An incessant bustle of boats passes before the quays of the place, a great white liner slips toward its port; a multitude of tottering palaces, brooding and monstrous, presses toward its waterfront like so many invalid aristocrats jostling for fresh air. It is a gnarled but gorgeous city […] the whole scene seems to shimmer–with pinkness, with age, with self-satisfaction, with sadness, with delight.”

In that Guardian article, Sam Jordison ended the interview with a great question, “Is there a question you haven’t had before that you’d like to be asked?” Morris’s reply was equally good:

“Yes, I would like to have been asked if there was any moral purpose emerging from my 40-odd books, and I would answer yes, my gradually growing conviction that simple kindness should be the governing factor of human conduct.”

I took these photographs of Venice in 2008. Morris’s book helped set me up to fall in love with the city on my first visit years before, and I was not disappointed my next two, either.

I was entranced each time by all its magical elements: the architecture, the art, the votive shrines, the vaporetti, the traghetti, the piazzas, the vivid, tingling presence of the sea and the evidence everywhere you look of the city’s long, glorious, and inglorious history. By its elegance, its dog-eared corners, the thrill of hearing music at La Fenice, the shopkeepers’ curious but charming custom of propping open their doors to let in the sea air, even when it was wet and cold as a dog’s nose…

As a tourist, you hope that by being courteous, open, and appreciative, the locals will cut you some slack, but on each of my stays in Venice, I met people who went beyond, who extended courtesy to me, who were interested in finding common ground, even if it was just for a few minutes. Simple kindness.

For further reading, follow these links to The Guardian article, the Vanity Fair article, and The New York Times‘ Jan Morris obituary.

Back at The Clark

Returning to the re-opened Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts

The last time I wrote about The Clark, I talked about the particular cocktail-party appeal of mingling again with art familiar from earlier visits.

I didn’t know then–who did?–that two years later museums would shut their doors for months. Stepping into The Clark’s soaring entry hall this time, I was even more grateful to see old friends.

I said hello to “Sleigh Ride,” “The Bridal Path, White Mountains,” and all the other Winslow Homer dazzlers in the first of the American Art rooms. I greeted George Inness’s bucolic “New Jersey Landscape.” I caught the eye of Sargent’s Madame Escudier.

Then, in the dreamy violet gallery with its laylight ceiling, I surprised myself.

In college I loved the paintings of Renoir, Monet, and co. Then, other artists, other periods nudged them out. The pastel surfaces, the misty landscapes, the rosy nudes: “chocolate box” is the adjective their detractors have used. Without ever rejecting the Impressionists, I admit I treated them rather nonchalantly. This visit, I went for the bonbons.

“Paint generously and unhesitatingly,” advised Impressionist Camille Pissarro. It’s also important as a museumgoer to look generously. To stop, step in, step back, give a painting its due, especially if you have tended to breeze by it before. But I wasn’t thinking this all through at the time. I just followed my feet to Renoir’s “At the Concert.”

Mother and daughter or sisters? One corseted, in black, hair up; the other, in white, in short gloves, hair still unconstrained, streaming down the length of her back, the curve of her cheek still showing a trace of childhood plumpness. Both bandbox perfect and bringing to mind those adjectives—fresh, dewy—long applied to girls.

But what about that big, mottled, wine-dark section? At first glance, it looks hastily done, as if Renoir were eager to get on to the more interesting parts or ready to put his brush down. Yet that smudgy, swirly suggestion of a maroon velvet curtain lends motion, texture, contrast, some mystery.

A quarter of the canvas, it keeps things from getting too fussy, and it sets off the faces, drawing attention to the most precisely rendered area of the painting: the older one’s eyes. Is she listening, watching, waiting, dreaming? In the midst of a sensuous material world, she seems to have gone somewhere else.

“People are crazy about Renoir,” Sterling Clark, the museum’s cofounder, wrote in his diary. Well, the artist could make an onion look sensuous, as another jewel in the Clark’s collection demonstrates. Part of my pleasure of looking at these works was feeling the pleasure Renoir took in looking and painting.

And pleasure was what I was after, my first time in a museum in seven months.

I spent time with other portraits. Its ornate gilded frame aside, the Degas self-portrait seemed very modern; he could be a Brooklyn hipster.

Rembrandt’s “Man Reading” struck me as a portrait of Every Reader. The label bolstered that impression, noting that the painting may be a tronie, done as a study of a subject, not a representation of a specific individual. (I wonder, did every reader wear a big, black hat in 17th-century Holland?)

Rembrandt’s common-law wife, Hendrickje, and Titus, the only child of his to reach adulthood, both died of bubonic plague. It may have killed Saskia, his first wife, too, that or tuberculosis. Plague broke out in Amsterdam again and again during Rembrandt’s lifetime. Whether or not it was Rembrandt’s intention, “Man Reading” captures the comfort of retreating to intimate, interior experiences during terrible times.

Shelter from the storm? Onto a Joseph Mallord William Turner masterpiece, “Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water.” Turner’s lengthy title is more literal than the painting: a commotion of sea and sky; blurry figures huddled in a corner, blotches of paint, bursts and pinpoints of light.

It’s like looking into the eye of a hurricane (a metaphor for our time). And the closer you look, the more the imagery disappears. Turner’s signature sinks and merges with the surf.

Find the signature.

Meanwhile, outside the museum, the calm, crystalline fall day was calling.

The setting of the Clark is so beautiful that, on a nice day, you’re tempted to linger by the vast reflecting pool, designed by landscape architect Reed Hilderbrand, before you step inside, and you should always give yourself time to explore the grounds (140 acres in all) and trails, which are free and open to the public.

The afternoon I visited, a shiny flatbed truck stood next to sculptor Eva LeWitt’s “Resin Towers A, B, and C,” at a spot halfway up Stone Hill, which looms behind the museum’s main buildings. The colorful, nearly 11-foot-tall totems and works by five other contemporary artists comprise Ground/work, the museum’s first outdoor exhibition. Jenny Holzer’s stone benches inscribed with statements that are witty, disturbing, and provocative all at once, as well as work by Thomas Schutte, William Crovello, and Giuseppe Penone, are also on longterm display en plein air.

You can climb Stone Hill straight up a steep path or take a trail that winds more gently through woods and brings you out by the Lunder Center. I was there on one of the last days of the solo exhibition Lin Mae Saeed: Arrival of the Animals (now closed). I confess, every time I see a show in this part of the museum, I fantasize about setting up house in the spacious galleries.

At any party, the time comes when you have to go home, and after a dash into the Manton Research Center to wave at the Constables, I went. I didn’t have the chance to thank my hosts, but I am grateful. Spending time with art has never been more nourishing.

The pandemic protocol for visiting The Clark is painless: You buy your ticket in advance for a specific entry hour. Masks and social distancing are required.

Once I was there, I realized that museums are pretty safe places to be: the ventilation systems are excellent; the spaces are big and airy, with a minimum of surface (even fewer you’re permitted to touch); and staff is on hand to monitor things. I relaxed and enjoyed the art.

On my way to The Clark, I stopped to see “Big Bling,” the Martin Puryear sculpture on the edge of the Mass MoCA campus in North Adams. Forty feet tall, made of wood and chain-link fence, it’s terrific from every angle.

At the Apex

An orchard with a view

I’ve been buying Apex Orchards’ peaches and apples for years at a farmers market, but I hadn’t been to the orchard itself in Shelburne, Massachusetts, since they opened their farm store in 2016.

Located on Peckville Road, no less, the store is stocked with local foodstuffs and products: goat cheese, honey, vinegar, maple syrup, barbecue sauce, soap, ice cream, yogurt, squash and other fresh produce, and of course, the fruits of its orchards: peaches (the season’s almost over), pears, and numerous varieties of apples, including Macoun, McIntosh, Gala, Golden Delicious, and Honey Crisp.

It also sells cider from a neighboring orchard, and because no self-respecting farm store in New England can be without them in October, bins and stacks of pumpkins. Last weekend, a food truck was dishing up fried dough.

You can walk or ride the tractor-towed trailer down the hill to pick your own. Or you can do what people were doing on the perfect fall day just past when I was there.

Loll on the grass. The sign in the photograph above reads, “Go no further,” and I take that as an invitation to recline. Breathe in the crisp, clean air, and don’t forget to smell the asters (but don’t inhale the bumblebees!) in the colorful garden outside the store.

Take in the jaw-dropping 50-mile views and pick out peaks on the horizon (Mount Monadnock, Little Monadnock, Mount Grace, Mount Toby, the Notch…)

Stroll, scamper, herd your kids, or walk your dog.

Fling yourself from the split rail fence. The last is perhaps best left to people this tall and under.

And watch the clouds cast shifting shadows over the range. In a couple of weeks, those hills will be hosting the “carnival of autumn”–I’m borrowing that felicitous phrase from one of Marsden Hartley’s brilliantly colored landscapes of New England in the autumn.

“Carnival of Autumn,” Marsden Hartley, 1908, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

If you’re in the area, a 10-minute drive takes you along the Mohawk Trail, a leaf-peeping destination for more than a century, and to the villages of Shelburne Falls and Buckland, separated by the Deerfield River and connected by an old iron bridge. There’s a really sweet quality to the downtown. For example, when I visited, Baker Pharmacy on Shelburne Falls’ main street was displaying first-graders’ science projects, complete with papier-mâché blue eggs, in its window. And how many local shops offer you a means of making your own Tintin rocket ship or Eiffel Tower figurine?

Here’s a link to the Apex Orchards website. If you’re within driving distance of Apex or another orchard, pay it a visit to get some fresh air and support a local farmer.

If you’re in the Hilltowns of western Massachusetts and looking to go deep into fall foliage, try this wonderful trail in Ashfield that I wrote about here.