Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Visit to Homer's Studio in Maine

By: Paul D'Ambrosio, Vice President and Chief Curator
All art is local. No matter how much you study a particular painting you never truly understand it until you have seen the spot it depicts. I recently traveled to Maine and took the opportunity to pay a visit to the Winslow Homer Studio in Prouts Neck.

It was fortunate that the director of the Studio Project, Dan O’Leary, was so generous with his time as to meet my wife Anna and me on a Saturday morning to show us the site, which is not yet open to the public. The studio was purchased by the Portland Museum of Art a few years ago and they have been carefully restoring it to the period in which it was inhabited by Homer, from the 1800s until his death in 1910. Dan O'Leary, Director of the Homer Studio Project and the new President of MWPAI, gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the studio, still in the process of restoration and not yet open to the public.
I have been familiar with the Prouts Neck paintings for some time: there are great examples in the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester and the Clark Art Institute, among others. What I did not understand until visiting Prouts Neck was that many of the oft-published notions about Homer are not as simple as they seem.

Homer lived a private, isolated existence in Prouts Neck. Well, he did have his brother Charles’ house about 200 feet away, where he went for meals prepared by his sister Matty. Homer kept to himself and didn’t like visitors. True, he was not keen on people stopping by the studio unannounced after he had achieved fame, but he also made friends with a number of the local fisherfolk and included them in his paintings. He also had a sense of humor: when someone asked him where all the empty rum bottles in his studio came from, he replied that he didn’t know; he had never bought an empty rum bottle in his life.
Lastly, Homer is a faithful transcriber of nature. Yes and no; he was very accurate in his depictions of natural phenomena that he observed daily, but he also took artistic license by creating composites that altered or combined a variety of elements. Waves that occur at high tide and low tide are seen together; islands are left out of the background; a distant view of the rocky coast is combined with a close-up of the studio building. The results are hard to argue with; nobody captured raw nature like Winslow Homer, who lived on its doorstep for much of his life.
Cannon Rock, one of Homer's favorite spots, just about 100 yards from the studio.
As I mentioned above, the studio and grounds are not yet open to the public. The Portland Museum of Art hopes to complete the restoration in the next few years and open the site for visitation. In the meantime, the museum has a wonderful gallery of Homer’s work in its main building.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Niro's Journey

By: Michelle Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions
Shelley Niro created this series of paintings for a film she has been working on for more than ten years, called Kissed By Lightning. The paintings detail the Journey of the Peacemaker, which is the basis of the unification of the five Nations which became the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Nations.

The story begins with Grandmother’s Dream. The Spirit (the eagle) visits the Grandmother, telling her to leave the child alone because he is going to bring peace to the Haudenosaunee People. The child and his mother are surrounded by modern-day horrors ranging from the Bosnian War to common-place pollution.

The Peacemaker and His Canoe relates the part of the story where the Peacemaker travels in a stone canoe. Scholars of the story indicate that a stone canoe could indicate that this story has been around since the ice-age. Others explain that the Peacemaker has come from a different time or even place.

Face of Peace is a composite painting showing the importance of women in the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy, who have always acknowledged them as equals.

Dark Times illustrates a period of time when disease ripped through the Haudenosaunee territory, leaving few survivors. Society as they had known it had disappeared. Social graces, manners, ceremonies were forgotten. Basic survival skills were forgotten. Grandmothers and grandfathers no longer were there to teach the young. Knowledge had vanished.

Monster Man appears in the next painting, eating a human leg. This person represents people who fear they can never change. He was a man who terrified everyone around him. He was notorious for his cannibalism. After meeting with the Peacemaker, he was able to change, and show others how they too can change.

The Peacemaker Combs Snakes From His Hair shows what one person can do for another person. By removing varmints and bugs from The Monsters hair, The Monster can now think more clearly for himself and start to live a healthy life.

Dreaming of Cornfields shows Hiawatha’s distress as he thinks of his wife and daughters who are no longer with him. In his state of mourning, he can no longer think clearly for himself. His grief keeps him paralyzed and in a catatonic state.

The Healing Of Hiawatha shows the Peacemaker’s hand on Hiawatha’s head, absolving him of grief. With the application of wampum to his forehead, the Peacemaker brings him out of a state of confusion. They begin their journey together, bringing healing to the other people who are also in the same state.

Shelley Niro’s paintings are on view in Our Stories Made Visible: Two Mohawk Women Artists. The 7th Contemporary Iroquois Art Biennial featuring Katsitsionni Fox and Shelley Niro through July 5.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

We love Otsego County!

By: Michelle Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions
Twelve years ago I moved from Maine to a small town just outside of Cooperstown. I was embraced by the local community and within a short period of time, came to feel like part of a larger, county-wide community. This was a completely new experience for me because Mainers rarely identify themselves by the county they live in. But here in upstate New York, I soon realized the importance (and pleasure!) of county affiliations.

This week at the Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers’ Museum, we are showing our deep appreciation for our friends and neighbors in our county. Otsego County Appreciation Week began on Monday and continues through Sunday June 28th. We’ll be offering half off admissions and memberships for Otsego County residents, and we’re hosting lots of fun events. At the Fenimore Art Museum, art activities will be offered for kids every morning at 10:15 a.m., and a curator-led tour will be offered each weekday afternoon at 2:00 p.m. My tour will be on Wednesday June 24th and I’ll be giving an overview of all the exhibitions currently on view. My colleague Paul D’Ambrosio will lead a tour of America’ Rome on Monday and Thursday and Eva Fognell will lead a tour of the Thaw Collection on Tuesday and Friday. And at 11:00 a.m. each morning, visitors can experience a guided tour of the new Interpretive Trail and the Mohawk Bark House which are located on the shore of Otsego Lake behind the Fenimore Art Museum. Speaking of Otsego Lake, I want to encourage you to bring a picnic to enjoy on the grounds of Fenimore when you come. I, too, will be taking my lunch lakeside, enjoying one of Otsego County’s natural treasures, near its premiere cultural treasure that I’m lucky enough to call my home away from home.Thank you Otsego County!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Poestenkill, NY and The Village Crossroads at The Farmers' Museum

By: Michelle Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions
Bird's-eye views of burgeoning American cities and towns became a popular promotional tool for town development and an expression of local pride during the mid-19th century. Most were sold in lithographic form to a mass market. Hidley, a house painter, carpenter, taxidermist, and handyman, painted five views of Poestenkill during the 19 years that he lived there from 1853 to 1872. One of these views was made into a lithograph for wider sale. This particular painting is probably his earliest and shows the town from the east viewed from a natural elevation, "Snake Hill." A number of the buildings, such as the Eagle Hotel, Union Hall, and Poestenkill Union Academy, still stand today. Did you know that this painting was the inspiration for the layout of the Village Crossroads at our sister museum, The Farmers’ Museum? Its first-hand account of the organization of a mid-19th century rural New York village was the perfect primary source as The Farmers’ Museum was being created in mid-20th century. Want to learn more? You can check it out here.
Top: Poestenkill, N.Y. by Joseph Henry Hidley. Gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0382.1955

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Katsitsionni Fox’s Skywoman series

By: Michelle Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions
Katsitsionni Fox’s series of paintings based on the story of Skywoman, who plays a central role in the Iroquois Creation Story, are a personal re-telling of the story she has heard her entire life. “As a young girl I remember hearing about the woman who fell from the sky in our Creation Story. The idea that a woman was first here on earth was empowering even on a subconscious level to my young mind,” she said. Fox’s artist statement reveals more:
It has not been until recent years, as I have matured as a mother and now a grandmother, that I have reflected on all that is revealed in the Creation Story. The Sky world, I have been told, is a reflection of the world in which we now live, which is far from perfect. I began to think about Skywoman not as the flowery character of a story but as a courageous and determined woman, mother and grandmother who not only survived but triumphed over every obstacle in her path. She had to leave her family and the world she knew. She was abandoned by the men in her life, her uncle, her husband and then her lover. She was alone and pregnant falling, falling, falling… into darkness and uncertainty. She created a new world for her daughter and cared for her grandsons when their mother passed away. I could relate to many of the issues that she faced, and could feel her fire burning inside me and in all women that I know. She lives on today; her teachings are vital and sometimes heartbreaking. She also resonates with the beauty of life, love, birth, femininity and the power and strength of all women.

Katsitsionni Fox’s paintings are on view in Our Stories Made Visible: Two Mohawk Women Artists. The 7th Contemporary Iroquois Art Biennial featuring Katsitsionni Fox and Shelley Niro through July 5.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Shelly Niro's Skywoman Series

by: Michelle Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions
In the summer of 2001, Shelley Niro created this series of four paintings based on the story of Skywoman, who plays a central role in the Iroquois Creation Story. She worked in a loghouse on the grounds of the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave, New York. Niro had lived in the same loghouse as a child, before it was moved to the museum. She said of her experience, “I had no real intention of making drawings based on the Skywoman Creation Story. I knew I wanted to make something expressing freedom, no boundaries, and I had a real hunger to use the human form as a base for this project.”

Preparing for the Fall is the first in the series. A modern Skywoman falls through the hole in the sky where the Great Tree of Life once stood and makes a hopeful attempt to try to pull herself back up to the surface. Instead she grabs onto tobacco plants and strawberry plants.

Losing My Stuff is the second in the series. As Skywoman continues to fall, piece by piece, the things she carries start to fall away. Her beautiful red blanket gets whisked away and her sunglasses, used to keep out the brilliant rays of the sun, disappear into the cosmos.

Through The Constellations shows Skywoman resigning herself to the journey’s struggle. After months of worrying about her destiny—Where is she going? What will she find there? Does her family in the Skyworld worry for her and wonder where she is?—she starts to think about the future. She is pregnant and now worries for her unborn child. She begins to plan and rest up for the conclusion of her voyage.

Loving It is the final painting in the series. Skywoman is near the end of the expedition and now embraces the adventure of this passage. With the medicinal plants she brings from the Skyworld, to the relationships she will eventually make with the animal world and water world, she becomes the mother and role model for those who follow her.

Shelley Niro’s paintings are on view in Our Stories Made Visible: Two Mohawk Women Artists. The 7th Contemporary Iroquois Art Biennial featuring Katsitsionni Fox and Shelley Niro through July 5.
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