This autumn is proving to be startlingly colorful, and what better way to celebrate than with a drive. So a group from the Florence Griswold Museum ventured first to the Smith College Museum of Art and then to Historic Deerfield. But first, some trivia. Did you know that the seasonal term ‘fall’ comes from the old phrase ‘leaf fall time’? The leaf fall was our backdrop as we set off on our journey back in time.
Our current exhibition of three Connecticut women artists includes Mary Rogers Williams, who taught under a dominant male artist presence, at Smith College for over 20 years in the 1880s and 1890s. When she asked for recognition for her teaching service with a promotion to Assistant Professor, she was basically fired. Even a woman’s college might not be so enlightened back in the day.
But it was fun to see her teaching domain and hear a sophomore talk about her research on Williams. Of course, her source was the same as the exhibit’s–Eve Kahn‘s research through Williams’ papers and a trove of paintings found in a Connecticut boathouse. I’m not kidding. The paintings were ‘stored’ there and kept by the descendants of an artist friend Henry C. White, who inherited the works from Williams’ also unmarried sister. Had he not safeguarded, in his way, those works and her letters, well, like so many others, Williams would have been basically forgotten.
Although we had a tour of the museum with a women artist theme, including a lackluster Lilly Martin Spencer, I was much more attracted to other women artists displayed there.
Florine Stettheimer doesn’t show up in too many museum collections, outside of the Met and PAFA, but one surprised me here. Her style is unmistakeable, and I’m always delighted by her sense of color and her take-no-prisoners attitude about art and being a professional and living her life her own way. Right on, sister!
I sought out the works of Smith alums. Just loved the monumental jelly doughnuts by Emily Eveleth.
This particular Betye Saar work just makes me happy. The back story is she was slated to speak at Smith, but that inner-flea-market- dumpster-diver took hold of her, and she went off to explore for treasure. She bought a whole bunch of salt shakers, seen at these branch ends, like a different season’s leaf. She was also two hours late for her talk. What was Smith to do, except acquire the work.
Saar typically captures some folkloric, cultural, or puns on African American stereotypical content in her work. Here the shakers stand in for a rural Southern tradition of putting bottles in tree branches to capture spirits. The docent in the gallery said she thinks of this as a chair we can sit in and dial our ancestors. I would have loved to have a sit in this spiritual phone booth and dial out.
Not to be missed are the “artist-designed” bathrooms. Here’s a slide show to give you a sense of how it looks.
Historic Deerfield didn’t have a compable “historically-designed” bathroom, but its designs are equally inspiring. I hadn’t really thought through that there were two waves of Colonial Revivalism. One spurted off as a reaction to industrialization in the late 1800s through the 1920s or so, spinning off the Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco.
In the 1940s, a second wave exploded, in response to the Cold War. Interesting. Moguls wanting to leave their legacy in the latest fashion built historic villages, with the Rockefellers
reconstructing a Disneyfied Colonial Williamsburg and the Flints making their own mistakes with existing structures in Deerfield.
What’s fun is on “The Street” are the actual buildings for the post office, school, and two working farms as they existed in the 1700s. Probate records and dendrology (using tree rings to date wood and hence structures) have helped more recent historians correct earlier mistakes, like stuffing rooms full of things, more like a gallery than someone’s Puritan home.
The Deerfield houses have these double doors seen above, because originally the houses all had a center hall chimney. You wouldn’t have room to swing open a single door, so double doors became the style, as well as the practical solution. Even later, when center halls were valued for entertaining and the chimneys were moved to the sides of houses, the double door style can still be seen.
Besides small gardens associated with each house, several farmers shared acreage in a common field, where they could grown various grains. These were used to feed the really money maker for Deerfield–stall-fed oxen. You gotta love this oxen toy shown in the museum.
Who wouldn’t love this Colonial form of marketing? It’s all in the unrelievedly blue paint. Every bit of this facade–the dentils, the eyebrows, the pilasters–are all painted this robin egg blue. Paint was very expensive. Most of the houses left the cedar bare to weather. The 1747 house has been painted this blue since 1801. Why? If you went into the tavern to get help resolving a dispute, you would ask for a lawyer. The tavern keeper could then direct you to the blue house. Unmistakable bill-boarding. Like the leaves that fall every year, some things never change.