Monday, July 12, 2010

Eaton and the Reverence of Nature

This post was written by Charles Clark, whose Charles Eaton painting, Evening Quiet, is featured in the current exhibition Connecticut Treasures: Works from Private Collections. The work is a promised bequest to the Museum. We thank him for sharing his thoughts with us!

For the last thirty years I’ve been researching and writing about Connecticut artists who were in their day famous but owing to shifts of taste became, or remain, obscure. Threats to Connecticut’s beautiful countryside drove me first to landscape painters like Charles Warren Eaton, but recently I’ve become interested in contemporary artists like Norman Ives, a graphic designer, painter, and printmaker, who worked with abstracted type forms, and who lived and worked in the New Haven area.

My great-grandparents were patrons of Eaton’s and all my relatives had his paintings and drawings hanging on their walls. This is how I first saw his work. From 1900 to about 1910, Eaton gained fame as the “Pine Tree Painter,” the sole artist to record the white pine forests that were so common across the Northeast at that time. These are the paintings he is best known for today.

When I was a boy, paintings like Evening Quiet, a good example of the pine tree genre, struck me for their mystery, their peacefulness, and their rich glow. They didn’t look like anything else, and as I learned more about Eaton, and wrote about him, I realized we were bound by a love of the New England landscape and an absolute reverence for trees (a critic once commented on the unvarying beauty of Eaton’s trees – whether he painted in Connecticut, or Belgium, or Italy, here was an artist who knew nature and whose landscapes are more than an assembling of natural forms.) That he read Emerson and Thoreau comes as no surprise.

As a little jest, but in truth, sincerely, I once told a friend that after a bad day, as a form of meditation, I’d “take little walks in these paintings.” Art not only amuses and pleases, and shocks, but can edify and even console. Rather than announce “look at me, aren’t I pretty,” paintings like Evening Quiet quietly establish a rapport with the viewer. They are antidotes to this noisy age, evidence that, upon reflection on the timeless beauty of nature, mankind can, with any luck, live a life of modesty.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Planting The Museum's Cornfield

One of the things I love about being a summer intern here at the Florence Griswold Museum is that my days are often filled with surprises-

everything from noticing something new in a painting thanks to a second grader to planting a cornfield! Only a couple of weeks ago on June eighth, I found myself out behind the Museum's garden helping to plant several hundred Indian corn seeds along with fellow co-workers Ted, Randy and Matt F. But why would an art museum plant a field of corn you may be asking yourself.

No, the museum is not establishing a farm to grow vegetables for Café Flo (Indian corn is purely a decorative variety of corn). Instead, the plantin

g was part of the many preparations that we are making for the exciting Harvestime festival at the museum in October. After the grand success of the Wee Faerie Village, David Rau the director of education and outreach at the museum has developed a similar concept for the museum grounds that will engage the creativity of local artists once again. No crows will dare to touch our precious cornfield thanks to the over two dozen scarecrows created by local artists inspired by famous artists from around the world and though out history which will dot the grounds for the month of October. These scarecrows will come in all shapes, sizes, colors, patterns and designs. On your journey around the grounds you will run into all sorts of characters- anyone from Picasso to Georgia O’Keeffe to Childe Hassam. H

owever, even an incredible scarecrow exhibit such as this is incomplete without a cornfield! And it looks like our field is off to a good start; after only two weeks the corn is already around 11 inches tall and is flourishing because of all of the rain and hot weather we have been having. Please feel free to come by and check on the progress of our cornfield throughout the summer when you come to visit the museum. The field is now nicely marked with a sign featuring Van Scarecrow, our very own scarecrow mascot. (Here my fellow intern Ian is posing with the newly installed sign.)

The cornfield will be featured in one of the exciting activities planned for the scarecrow exhibition; guests will be able to pose in scarecrow costumes in front of the hopefully very tall cornfield (the plants are supposed to get to 8 feet by the end of the summer). The museum will be hosting lots of other special events including Not-So-Very-Scary Nighttime tours of the scarecrows as well as pumpkin carving and scavenger hunts. In the meantime, I will be reporting every once and a while about how our corn is shaping up. Stay tuned for the next step- thinning the corn. At this point, it looks like the corn might be knee high by the fourth of July!

(Below is an updated photo of the corn taken on June 24th)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Betty's Tree

Red Bartlett Pear Tree planted in honor of Betty Chamberlain


Elizabeth (Betty) C. Chamberlain, of Old Lyme, is a longtime friend and trustee of the Florence Griswold Museum. To honor her years of service and devotion to the Museum, the Buildings & Grounds Committee proposed, back in January, to plant an ornamental tree in her honor. 

It was agreed that an espalier ornamental fruit tree (Red Bartlett Pear – pyrus communis) would be planted on the west side of the Rafal Landscape Center.  Everyone felt a pear tree would be a welcome addition to the museum grounds. Sheila Werthiemer, our Garden Historian and leader of the volunteer “Garden Gang,” observed that, although there is no record of an espalier tree being planted on the old estate’s grounds, they were being cultivated in America during the Lyme Art Colony days, certainly by 1910.

“Espalier” refers to the horticultural practice of training trees through pruning and grafting in order to create a formal "flat plane “ or menorah candlestick branch pattern. Espalier trees usually grow against a wall, fence, or trellis. The technique was used in Medieval Europe to produce fruit inside a fortress courtyard where open space was at a premium. It eventually was seen as a means of decorating courts and garden walls.  In the 17th Century the word espalier described the trellis  or frame on which a plant was trained to grow.

Sheila selected the pear tree from a local nursery and planted it on April 23, 2010. In addition, we also decided to plant a number of low blueberry bushes to flank the tree. Suitable signage was installed to identify the tree and why it was planted.

Please look for this tree on your next visit to the Florence Griswold Museum.  

Friday, May 28, 2010

Introducing Van Scarecrow

A year or so ago, while planning the Museum’s Wee Faerie Village project (October 2009), I was looking for an illustrator who could produce a fanciful map for the project. While on the website of children’s author and illustrator John Himmelman, one of the faerie dwelling architects, I noticed a link to his son Jeffrey Himmelman’s website. That click brought me to a world filled with colorful warriors and witches; all odd, yet endearing, creatures. It didn’t take me long to know that I’d found my faerie village map maker.

But indeed, I had found much more. As we began working together on the Wee Faerie Village project, it occurred to us that having faerie images would be useful in conveying our concept: that these winged creatures were the artistic muses to the original artists of the Lyme Art Colony who stayed at Miss Florence’s boardinghouse.

I sent Jeff some images of faeries that I liked from books and websites, and asked him to draw his idea of a faerie to get the ball rolling. What he created was a beautiful faerie woman dressed in autumnal splendor with wings shaped like oak leaves. She was a strong, warrior-type faerie, but the tone was going in the right direction.

As the project developed, Jeff suggested that the faeries for the project should be younger to appeal to the many families we hoped to attract to the Museum. He was dead on, and with only a few drafts passed back and forth, he created, (or is the word conjured?) the image of “Griswold,” the boy faerie. Griswold was both boyish and elfish in form, with an acorn cap beret, a sharp pencil tucked sword-like in his waistband, and wings that resembled oak leaves and maple seedlings. He was shown holding an old-fashioned ink pen like a spear in one hand while cradling rolls of drawing paper in the other.

Soon, Griswold was followed by “Flor
ence,” a girl faerie. More demure than the first female faerie, and matching Griswold in character, she was shown cradling a paintbrush. Winged and dressed in leaves, she was crowned with purple flowers and had a colorful artist’s palette and pots of paint strapped to her belt.

This duo was followed by a small band of other faeries, as well as a faerie dog and cat, along with a faerie gate that led into a intricate map of the campus that enabled over 10 ,000 visitors to find their way around the Wee Faerie Village. The Museum also created a series of puzzles and magnets using the Griswold and Florence images that sold very well during the three-week run of the event.

Now, a year later, the Museum is embarking on another fall event geared for families called “Scarecrows at the Museum: A Harvestime Adventure.” Instead of faerie dwellings, this October the Museum grounds will be covered with full-scale scarecrow creations based on famous art and artists.

To kick off this initiative, I contacted Jeff Himmelman to see if he was up to drawing scarecrows that alluded to famous artists. Within days, the first rendition of Van Scarecrow was attached to an email. The resemblance to Vincent Van Gogh was startling, from the craggy beard to the sun-worn hat. In Jeff’s depiction, however, one of the scarecrow’s eyes was a button sewn into place that was slightly unnerving.
A quick straw poll (get it?) among the staff confirmed that we needed a slightly less maniacal looking scarecrow mascot—one that would not actually scare crows, not to mention small children.

Always open to constructive criticism, Jeff went back to the drawing board, and a revised Van Scarecrow appeared. Before we went to color, the final step, I asked Jeff to incorporate some corn (I was in the process of negotiating the planting of a small cornfield on campus) and a crow. I figured a scarecrow couldn’t be too scary if he had a crow buddy. Jeff went to work. The email marked “Final” arrived a few days later.

“Et, Voila!” as Van Scarecrow might have said it. The first official image for the Museum’s “Scarecrows at the Museum” was born.

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Curating: an art and a science

One of the most exciting aspects about the museum's upcoming exhibition, Landscapes in Counterpoint, is the dual role played by the artist Tula Telfair. Nine new landscapes by the artist form the centerpiece of the exhibit, but she also acted as curator for the remaining gallery displays. Relying on her extensive formal training, and inspired by a modern grouping of works in an installation she saw at the National Museum of Denmark, Telfair selected nearly three dozen paintings from the Florence Griswold Museum's permanent collection. These works inform and augment the exhibit's examination of the nature of landscape painting in its' historical and modern forms. Above, a glimpse of some of the works curated by Telfair for the exhibit. You can read more about her selection process on the museum's official webpage.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bringing an exhibit to life

{Tula Telfair and museum staff prepare to hang one of Telfair's landscapes in the Smith Gallery}.

A certain hushed formality is a given in most museums. Such an atmosphere seems fitting for spaces devoted to the display of meaningful works of art. However, as these photos prove, the last days leading up to a well-curated exhibit are anything but hushed or formal!

Yesterday, artist/curator Tula Telfair and the rest of the museum staff got down to work installing paintings in preparation for this weekend's opening, Landscapes in Counterpoint. Gallery walls are often repainted to complement a new exhibit. In this case, Telfair elected to re-use the soft gray hues that provided the backdrop for the previous installation, Sewell Sillman's Pushing Limits. After the walls dry, the art is hung with painstaking care, and finally, text labels are added next to each piece.

These images also give viewers an idea of the true scale of Telfair's dramatic landscapes.  Below, a glimpse of Curators Amy Kurtz Lansing and Amanda Burdan, and Museum Director Jeff Anderson, working with Telfair's Most Approaches Suffer from the Predictable Isolation of Schools.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Landscape painting, under the microscope

Tula Telfair, Pleasure Was Considered Decadent, 2010.  Oil on canvas, 70h x 80w inches. Courtesy of Forum Gallery.

Although Tula Telfair's landscape paintings occupy monumental canvases that seem to encourage distanced observation, she urges her viewers to step close to each work. Imagine looking at a painting under a microscope. On Telfair's canvas, you'll see the traces of three to seven different painting techniques, for the way that paint sits on the surface varies depending on the terrain that's represented. This style of seeing invites the viewer to imagine her style of working on the canvas by examining the brushstrokes themselves.

Telfair's actions are preserved forever on the surface of her paintings, and are a direct response to the imagined landscape. As physical terrains shift, so does her method of painting each subject, with a towering expanse of cloud depicted intentionally differently from, for example, an expanse of field. Her technique speaks to a rigorous art education and deeply thought-out creative process. As Telfair puts it, in her landscapes, paint is a subject in itself.

So be sure to lean in closely to examine Telfair's landscapes when you visit the exhibit. A scientist is rewarded with a new display when peering through the microscope, and you'll be rewarded with an entirely different view of Telfair's paintings by examining them thoroughly!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Exploring the modern landscape

Tula Telfair, Most Approaches suffer from the Predictable Isolation of Schools, 2010.  Oil on canvas, 72h x 108w inches. Courtesy of Forum Gallery.

Tula Telfair's powerful landscapes reflect memories of her own experiences in nature. At a young age, she witnessed the vast terrain, varied weather systems, and changing color palettes of landscapes around the world. But unlike the traditional works of the American Impressionists or Hudson River Valley School, the images on her canvases don't represent real locales.

Instead, Telfair's landscapes are imagined - vividly imagined. When I spoke to her last week about her work, she emphasized how important it is that her dramatic paintings provoke strong emotional responses or memories in viewers. As a thoroughly modern landscape painter, she creates image-based work that treats both the landscape, and its' viewer, as subject. 

As viewers, we're on the right path if we feel on edge or overwhelmed, or if a painting triggers powerful physical sensations from our own remembered experiences of the natural world.

Certain landscapes have the power to remind us how ephemeral our lives are, in the context of our existence in a mysterious universe. Many of us have experienced universal moments of awe and wonder as we have looked across a mountain range or craned our necks to see a night sky full of stars.  It's this sometimes unsettling, but essential aspect of the human experience, that Telfair's work evokes. Which landscapes have had that effect on you?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Behind the scenes with Tula Telfair

{In her Manhattan studio, Tula Telfair works on the landscape paintings that will be the centerpiece of the museum's upcoming exhibit.} 

There's an unmistakable relaxation response in our bodies that heralds the spring season, isn't there? Longer sunny days, warm breezes, and blooming flowers inevitably inspire easier smiles and sighs of contentment as everyone thaws out from the long, cold winter. 

It's exactly that kind of powerful, sensual physical response to nature that inspires Tula Telfair's dramatic landscape paintings, and she seeks to evoke a similar reaction in her viewers. Last week I had the pleasure of going behind the scenes with her to talk about her upcoming exhibit at the Florence Griswold Museum, Landscapes in Counterpoint.

As with any body of creative work, Telfair's landscapes have evolved over time. They began as quick color studies meant to inform the narrative, figurative pieces she was creating at the time. But one morning, an art dealer walked into her studio to find a grouping of these luminous, colorful landscapes scattered across the floor, "like little jewels", she remembers. 

From that dealer's initial interest in showing similar pieces, a body of large, dramatic landscapes has emerged. Now, she spends the days in her Manhattan studio absorbed in large canvases like the ones pictured above, working on as many as eleven at one time. In the weeks leading up to the opening of her exhibit on April 24th,  I'll be posting more from behind the scenes, sharing pieces about her creative process, and recommendations for the upcoming exhibit. 

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Sillman snapshots

Throughout the exhibition Pushing Limits, we've been incredibly lucky to hear from Sewell Sillman's students. The anecdotes that they've shared about their teacher have ranged from colorful and amusing to moving and inspirational. Read on for some of our favorite snippets from former students who are now designers, art professors, and award-winning painters. 

Friday, March 19, 2010

Uniquely inspired by Sewell Sillman

Did you know that the museum has a guest book in the first room of the Krieble Gallery? It's easy to get so absorbed in the art itself that you might miss it... but the next time you're here, it's worth a look! Of course we love reading glowing reviews of our exhibits (like the one below).

We're so fortunate that our lovely visitors also share their impressions from their experiences at the museum, in words or with their own drawings... and the Sewell Sillman show has inspired a larger-than-usual outpouring of thoughts and images!


It's exciting to see how the museum's first full-scale contemporary art exhibit has inspired so many of you!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Red on Edge": Tell + Show Gallery Discussion

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The Krieble Gallery was transformed into an experiential learning lab on Sunday, for the first in a series of gallery talks devoted to exploring Sewell Sillman's modernist approaches to the treatment of color, line, and time. In "Red on Edge", Amanda Burdan, the curator for the newly-opened Sewell Sillman exhibition Pushing Limits, gave an engaging lecture on how Sillman's artistic practices drew on the radical ideas behind modernist color theory. Attendees had the opportunity to see firsthand how these techniques influenced the art on display in the gallery, and even got a peek at works that are not a part of the exhibition.

The next interactive gallery discussion, titled "Reflecting on a Line," will be held on Sunday, March 7 at 2 p.m. Expect to discover some surprises hidden within the pages of Sillman's personal sketchbooks, which help tell the story of how he developed his unique drawing style!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Opening for Sewell Sillman: Pushing Limits

What a wonderful start to the exhibition! Over 300 people attended the opening of Sewell Sillman: Pushing Limits. The Museum was so fortunate to have Jim McNair and all the people who made the exhibition possible in one place. Read more about the exhibition...

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Getting inside the mind of an artist

If you're curious about the creative process, a peek at an artist's personal sketchbooks (Sewell Sillman's are pictured at left) can be a guilty pleasure. But what about the problem-solving, and exploration of new techniques, that lie at the heart of that process? To answer those questions, the museum will be hosting a series of experiential art labs and gallery talks inspired by Sillman's own creative process, aimed at allowing participants to really dive in and gain an understanding of the techniques he applied over the course of his career. Using his own fine art portfolios and personal sketchbooks as hands-on inspiration, Tell & Show gallery talks will stimulate discussion about how he tackled the problems of color, line, and time. In addition, two series of art labs, one geared to children and the other to adults, will set up drawing and painting exercises as a way to play with the techniques Sillman himself used.

These Sunday activities are free with museum admission. Read more about them here, and then get your creative juices flowing with a visit to the exhibit and an afternoon of artistic exploration!

Monday, February 08, 2010

Another Sillman sneak peek

Have you ever wondered how a museum exhibition goes from an idea to a finished product – practically a work of art in its’ own right? Last week, I got a sneak peek into that process, as preparations shifted into high gear for the Sewell Sillman opening. Amanda Burdan, the exhibit’s curator, introduced me to the model of the Krieble Galleries that she used to design the exhibit. This dollhouse-sized version of the museum is pictured in the photo. You can see the scaled model art on the walls and floor, which Amanda could easily move around as she planned the best way to display Sillman's works.

Over the course of his career, Sillman produced screen prints, oil paintings, and watercolors, in addition to working with textiles, relief sculpture, and collage. It can be a challenge to find the best way to display such a wide variety of artwork, but it's also a great opportunity to engage the viewer by customizing the exhibit into a flow that maximizes the visual impact of Sillman's works. 

Friday, February 05, 2010

The art has arrived!

Yesterday, some extremely good luck got sprinkled on this writer, the newbie in marketing. (Maybe it was pixie dust left over from the Wee Faerie exhibit!) I got the chance to hang out with Amanda Burdan, the curator in charge of the new Sewell Sillman exhibition, Pushing Limits, as she unpacked Sillman's works in the exhibition prep area. In the photo above, I caught Amanda carrying one of Sillman's pieces past the long line of metal display racks where the rest of the museum's permanent collection is housed. 
Various pieces of Sillman’s were scattered across a large table: a pile of beautiful, worn sketchbooks; pillows and textiles printed with his signature abstract, wavy lines; a huge piece of limestone with lines carved across the block. I have never been up close and personal with art in this way before. I had the chance to bend over the stone and examine the rough edges of the carving, and saw Sillman’s scribbles and doodles flash past my eyes as Amanda thumbed through the worn pages of his sketchbooks. It was totally magical to be able to move among the pieces of his life’s work, and to see them just as they might have been lying out in his studio. This is an exciting exhibit for the museum, too, being the first devoted exclusively to the work of a contemporary artist. 
As someone who regularly gravitates to the Renaissance and Impressionist galleries in any museum, yesterday evoked a new sense of connection and excitement about modern art. It was heightened by the thrill of getting to play art historian and examine Sillman's work in a much more personal way than my typical experiences as a visitor to formal museum exhibits has allowed. Next week I'll post a few more sneak peeks as the museum gears up for the opening of Pushing Limits on Friday, February 12.

Friday, January 08, 2010


The Museum is pleased to announce a new addition to its landscape – a beautifully crafted garden arbor that recreates a prominent historical feature of Miss Florence’s perennial garden during the days of the art colony. The new arbor was a project of the Museum’s Buildings and Grounds Committee chaired by Curly Lieber. Constructed of cedar and stained white, it was expertly installed by Bogaert Construction of Essex on January 4, 2010 against the backdrop of a pristine snow-covered garden. All parties concerned are very pleased with the outcome. We invite visitors to take a look at it on their next visit to the Florence Griswold Museum.

The idea of replicating the arbor has long been a goal of the Museum. A film from the 1920s shows Miss Florence walking toward the camera and passing under an arbor in the garden. Stills from the film guided the Museum in developing custom designs to replicate its scale and design characteristics. The arbor consists of four columns connected by a canopy of wooden lintels. At the Museum’s Annual Benefit in September 2008, money was raised from our patrons for this purpose. In 2009, the Museum commissioned Bogaert Construction to carry out this project, with the expectation that the arbor would be erected by the end of the year. Special thanks to Bruce Lawrence, John Bogaert, Paul Deckelman (Lead Carpenter) and Kevin Wakelee for their work on the arbor, and to trustee Chad Floyd and garden historian Sheila Wertheimer for their advice and help in bringing this to realization. Sheila reports that climbing roses of an heirloom variety favored by Florence Griswold will soon be climbing along the arbor. Something to look forward to this summer!

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Jeffrey Andersen Ted Gaffney
Director Facilities Manager