New exhibit displays diverse Adirondack holdings, permanently
By Philip Terrie
For nearly 60 years the Adirondack Experience has been collecting North Country contributions to the rich canon of American art. In the museum’s vaults are hundreds of canvases, some by famous artists, like Thomas Cole or Harold Weston, some by less well known but nonetheless significant regional artists; some from the early nineteenth century, some fresh off the easels of contemporary artists.
But until now the museum (ADKX) has been limited in terms of how much it could exhibit at any one time. With “Artists and Inspiration in the Wild,” the Blue Mountain Lake institution has mounted a new, expansive and permanent exhibition, reflecting the vast variety of its extensive holdings. The curators of this stunning exhibit have significantly broadened older, more traditional notions of what an art exhibit should be. In addition to canvases reflecting the values of what we have come to think of as high or academically approved art, they have included compelling examples of folk and vernacular art, items of both aesthetic appeal and functionality.
A fine example of the unexpected is a guitar by Mohawk craftsman Glenn Hill Jr. This item, like several others scattered throughout the exhibit, is accompanied by a brief statement from its creator about how this guitar was conceived and executed: “Using my Haudenosaunee influences and my own knowledge, this became a striking black and red hollow-body guitar.” Other pieces are accompanied by brief interpretive insights from art historians, e.g., Scott Manning Stevens, a professor at Syracuse University. All of this reflects the major goals of the team leaders who planned this years-in-the making exhibit, Chief Curator Laura Rice and Director of Interpretation Cheryl Braunstein. They wanted to mix things up, establish real connections to actual artists and lure in visitors who may have previously found exhibitions of art boring.
The exhibit occupies some 6,000 square feet in ADKX’s main building (the one where the huge map, beloved by visitors for decades, with lighted keys to towns and other features of the landscape, used to be; but don’t worry, this has been moved to “Life in the Adirondacks,” where children and adults can still test their knowledge of Adirondack geography).
According to Rice, while this exhibit was planned to be permanent, individual items will be rotated in and out, and there will be room for new acquisitions to be displayed alongside the old. Every item on display—there are about 250 of them—comes from the museum’s vaults. The exhibit offers all the familiar nineteenth-century chestnuts that many of us have come to treasure. Arthur F. Tait’s “A Good Time Coming” (1862), Sanford Gifford’s “A Twilight in the Adirondacks” (1864), and Levi W Prentice’s “White Birches of the Racquette” (ca. 1878) are some of my favorites. And it also offers a wide variety of more recent creations like Harold Weston’s “Sugar Maples, September” (ca. 1920s) and Edna West Teal’s “Evening at Home” (1959). It includes sculpture, photography, clothing, furniture and jewelry.
The first gallery introduces you to the exhibit’s four main organizing themes: Light, Forests, Water, and Mountains. Each of these then has its own larger gallery. Within these, artifacts and paintings are not arranged chronologically, as the exhibit is designed not to be a conventional exercise in art history but a demonstration of how the Adirondacks have produced a “rich artistic heritage defined by a distinct sense of place.”
Here, you encounter the depth and breadth of this heritage, expressed in a variety of genres. Visitors who may have been put off by art exhibits that seemed at first glance to be stuffy or academic will find, along with familiar paintings, hands-on displays where anyone can experiment with perspective, light and shadow, color, shape and nearly all other variables that artists themselves are exploring.
To make the creative process come home more effectively, the exhibit includes much (but not all) of the studio of Mayfield artist Barney Bellinger, where visitors can see the myriad tools of the trade and where Bellinger will be in occasional residence.
An entire room full of brushes, pallets, easels, oils and hundreds of other implements, this studio humanizes art, makes it personal. Bellinger and other artists will be on the ADKX campus as artists in residence throughout this and coming seasons. They will be answering questions and demonstrating what they do. Paul Lakata, from Caroga Lake, whose medium is oils, was there in July when I had my second look at this marvelous exhibit. I asked him what he was doing there. In addition to interacting with visitors and working at his easel, he told me his goal was simply “to expose more people to art in general.”
The museum’s 2023 season runs through Oct. 9. Click here for more information.
This article appeared in the current issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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