Taking a walk among the beasts and along welcoming streets
First the beasts…
I was a little shocked when an art-loving friend told me she didn’t know that Brattleboro had an art museum. The Huffington Post does; it recently named the museum one of the best in New England. Well, “best lesser-known,” to be exact. Perched above the Connecticut River, Brattleboro is the first metropolis you come to driving north on I-91, and it’s not surprising that it has its own museum. (More about the city later.)
I don’t visit the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center as often as I might, but every time I do, I’m impressed by the caliber, the freshness, and the heft of its exhibitions. Housed in a former railroad station dating from 1916, the BMAC has the airiness of a Chelsea art gallery. I love history, and New England history, but there’s something lifting and light-footed about a place focused squarely on the present; its shows feature contemporary art, and it has no collection. The physical space echoes that expansiveness. The main hall’s generous proportions and enduring materials, marble from nearby quarries, terracotta tiles, walnut-stained oak, make it a very pleasurable place to see art.
Through February 11, “Touchstones, Totems, Talismans” proffers creatures native and exotic. With this assemblage of photographs, paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures Chief Curator Mara Williams has created a little wilderness.
This seems a fitting show for a Vermont museum: wilderness goes hand in hand with civilization in the Green Mountain State. Forests and pasture and tumbled stone walls border its backroads; wedged between towering rock faces, its interstates skirt massive granite boulders. Its humans go into the woods to snowshoe, canoe, hunt, bird, roam, and rove. Even the state’s city dwellers aren’t much removed from nature–it’s usually just outside the window.
Its variously winged, beaked, four-legged, and furred inhabitants go about their own business, asserting their claim: moose amble across the road, hawk on the hunt skim gleaned fields seeking their harvest, juncos from farther north flock to feeders, bears raid the feeders, vultures circle the trees just off the highway.
So the state is rural, but “Touchstones” is far from provincial. It convenes work by artists from all over—New York, New England, California, Israel—namely, Walton Ford, Bharti Kher (“Misdemeanors,” at top), Colleen Kiely, Stephen Petegorsky, Shelley Reed (wall of works, below), Jane Rosen (bird sculptures and raven drawing, above), Michal Rovner, Rick Shaefer, and Andy Warhol.
The show prompts us to ponder our connection to animals, our distance from them, how they delight us and puzzle us, their familiarity and their strangeness, what we think of them and how they make us feel, what they are and who they are, and what we have done to them (mystification, domestication, taxidermy, captivity, extinction). The art is accomplished, original, wonderful, a menagerie of works that draw you in with their artistry and their messages.
Off the main hall are four other exhibition rooms. In one is the immersive installation “Shimmering Mirage.” Two others are given over to “Open Call NXNE 2018,” a diverse range of works on paper, through March 10. (Below, a vessel made of paper wasps’ nests, by Justin Perlman.) After looking at “Finding my Signature,” an absorbing piece made of dozens upon dozens of receipts by SeungTack Lim, and a quartet of delicate cross-stitched grids by Marjorie S. Forté, I wondered whether something about the genre of works on paper encourages a microscopically meticulous approach to art. (See more images from the show here.)
Next, the streets…
After visiting the BMAC, you can head up the hill to Main Street and savor the meticulous artistry of the store window displays.
Making a circuit of Brattleboro’s downtown, which includes several side streets as well as the main drag, takes you a step back in time to when a small town’s center was a nexus of vibrant commerce. It’s not just the effect of the Victorian-era architecture and the classic storefronts, either.
Besides the to-be-expected banks, restaurants, and coffee bars, Brattleboro’s commercial district has a hardware store, a hotel (the Latchis, lobby, above), a florist’s, a framer’s, a bridal shop, a bead shop, bicycle sellers, a furniture store, a music club, a camera retailer, stores selling LPs, art supplies, used books, men’s clothing, and sporting goods, even a Christian Science reading room—and Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters, worth a story unto itself (look for one, soon).
In short, it’s a mix of idiosyncratic shops and the kinds of stores that used to be standard components of a downtown but have disappeared in many places, replaced by generic franchise outlets—or nothing. No wonder I laughed when I heard the blast-from-the-past Sixties hit “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” in Sam’s. I was kind of wondering myself.
It’s disarming, but not quaint, in the way that some “destination” downtowns, preserved or revived by money, can be. You sense the effort that goes into keeping the town afloat; the care with which store windows show off the goods within alone speaks to that. Brattleboro also has that Vermont down-to-earth goodness vibe. And don’t be surprised if a semi hauling a massive load of fresh-cut pine logs or fragrant milled lumber lumbers by, headed straight through town.
Among the idiosyncratic are…
Mystery on Main Street carries mysteries, thrillers, crime novels, and suspense fiction. Candle in the Night is an elegant furniture store, 11,000 square feet, about half of that given over to Oriental rugs and kilims, each one more gorgeous than the last.
Miller’s Bros. Newton sells slacks (a blast-from-the-past word!) and “travel blazers,” ties discreetly patterned with, among other things, lighthouses, grappling hooks, and Bayeux tapestry figures, Harris tweed sports jackets and caps, Viyella shirts, plummy Italian pullovers–everything a civilized man could ask for. (An online review reads, “Walked in alone as a slightly shabbily dressed 17-year-old. The man didn’t even bat an eye, came right over and took my measurements, answered all my questions, and even gave me some style advice.”)
One can certainly live a lifetime without buying beads, but Beadniks makes a powerful case against such austerity. Its stock must number in the millions (trust me, you have no idea how many kinds of beads exist in this world). It also sells candles, other housewares, and sweet children’s toys and maintains the Museum of Beads & Cultural Artifacts, a collection, as a notice on the door states, “dating from 10,000 BC through the last century … from every reach of the globe.”
When it comes to sheer volume of items, carefully, artfully and, one senses, lovingly arranged, the nirvana of window displays in Brattleboro has to be the storefront of Delectable Mountain Cloth. Did you grow up with the I Spy books? These windows are similarly beguiling.
Take a summer stroll…
While there’s something quintessential New England-y about visiting a little Vermont city in the winter, being all bundled up, seeing your breath, sloshing through sandy snowy slush at the crosswalks under broody, lowering skies, you can enjoy an equally picturesque experience at a (usually) more congenial time of year: Brattleboro’s blockbuster Strolling of the Heifers.
I won’t call it moo-ving or make any other bad puns about it. I will say that watching this parade of dewy-eyed Jerseys and Holsteins, often led by young 4-Hers, good-natured, goofy farm floats, earnest school bands, and riders on high-spirited horses, all cheered on by a high-spirited crowd and all in the service of supporting local family farms, is a pretty perfect way to spend a sparkling June morning.
Do you have a favorite store in Brattleboro? A favorite town in Vermont? Leave me a comment about it.