hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture July 2020


The art of venturing outside

Grounds, gardens become destination for visitors to cultural sites



Atelier Van Lieshout’s “Blast Furnace” is among the works in the sculpture park at Art Omi in Ghent, N.Y. The arts center’s grounds have remained open to visitors during the Covid-19 pandemic even as its indoor galleries have been shuttered. Many other cultural sites across the region have continued to welcome visitors to their grounds and gardens. Scott Langley photo


Contributing writer


In the grass near the pavilion, stone blocks stand in rough steps, the color of quartz and clamshells.

In an ordinary year,

children would be climbing on them freely, and on hot days they could have a drink of cold water.
This summer, they will have to keep a few feet away from the sculpture. But they can come with their families and run across the lawn.

Agustina Woodgate’s work stands out from a distance, said Jessica Puglisi, the communications director at Art Omi. Up close, she can see the fossils in the rock.

The sculptures are made of limestone, but not the local stone where ferns and columbines grow at Bartholomew’s Cobble or the marble along the Hoosic and Housatonic rivers. These blocks are oolite from southern Florida. They’re the bedrock of Miami and the keys, condensed from sand and coral and fossil sea urchins. And each one holds a water fountain.

Woodgate created them out of a growing concern for clean water, Puglisi explained. It’s a matter for public debate in Florida, where the seas are rising, and here in the river valleys of New York and New England, where generations of industry left many rivers polluted.

And now, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Woodgate’s fountains are raising the question in a new way, as the museum keeps them turned off to ensure health and safety.

Woodgate’s “The Source” has come as a new work to the Omi International Arts Center this summer, installed even in the upheaval of this spring, as the center closed its indoor spaces and took other precautions against the coronavirus outbreak.

Art Omi’s sculpture park has remained open as a park. And as New York moves gradually to reopen, the museum staff has been able to finish several new outdoor installations, Puglisi said. They plan to open the galleries in July, if area health statistics continue to look good.

Creative places across the region are opening as state guidelines allow, balancing a need for health and safety with a need to keep going, to connect, and to support their communities and local economies.

From Columbia County northward in New York, and from the Berkshires into southern Vermont, museums, arts centers and historic sites have opened their gardens and grounds to visitors. Some have created online content related to their outdoor artwork and exhibits, and some are adding new outdoor attractions, even cafe service.

As Massachusetts began reopening in late May and June, the state allowed parks and gardens to open, and the next phase of that process is expected to let historic houses and museum galleries welcome visitors indoors under careful conditions.

Vermont began allowing museums to invite visitors inside in June, and the Bennington Museum announced it would reopen July 3.


In a writer’s garden
At The Mount, Edith Wharton’s historic house in Lenox, Mass., locals are listening to the fountain running over stone in the Italian garden, and young dancers with Berkshire Pulse are holding classes on the lawns.

Even in unusual times, this is a landmark summer: 2020 is the centennial of “The Age of Innocence.” Wharton completed the novel in 1920, and she would win the Pulitzer Prize for it and become the first woman to win that honor for fiction.

Before the pandemic struck, The Mount had launched a yearlong celebration. This spring and summer, the museum had to move its events and exhibits online, offering a series of free writers’ talks and conversations. For those wanting more than a virtual experience, the gardens and grounds have been open free to all comers.

In late June, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded the museum a grant of $300,000, the largest possible amount, to support its staff through the summer as they prepare for reopening, said Rebecka McDougall, The Mount’s communications director.

On the museum’s grounds, on a warm afternoon day before the rain, the air is sweet with the flowering vines along the garden walls. People rest on the terrace and walk the paths through the tended woods and the meadow by the water.

The Mount hopes to reopen its outdoor cafe in early July, McDougall said, partnering with Mike Mongeon and KJ Nosh in Pittsfield and Lee. Visitors can get a picnic and find a quiet spot for it under the trees. The historic house and bookstore will follow by mid-July.

“People have been very respectful,” McDougall said. “They wear masks … and take care in the enclosed gardens.”

They may hear Cantilena Choir holding outdoor rehearsals on the grounds, and new voices in Wharton’s rooms. The Mount is creating a new audio tour for the house, and it is adding new virtual programming to the lineup announced in June.

McDougall said The Mount’s staff has seen a warm response to its virtual programs, which have regularly drawn more than 100 people, many from far beyond the Berkshires.

As these programs continue this summer, Julie Scelfo, a journalist, justice advocate and former staff writer at The New York Times, will talk with a series of writers about their work. On July 6, for example, she and Kerri Greenidge will explore Greenidge’s new book, “Black Radical: The Live and Times of William Monroe Trotter.” Trotter was the Harvard-educated editor of the Boston Guardian, a weekly newspaper that stirred people in the black working class to build political power against the violent racism of post-Reconstruction America.

Fiction holds the stage too, as Heidi Pitlor, editor of “The Best American Short Stories,” returns with contemporary novelists, including bestselling writer Lily King on July 19. King’s newest novel, “Writers & Lovers,” enters the life of a woman at a crossroads, trying to become an artist.
Wharton would have understood that struggle when she lived here. She became a writer in her time at The Mount, in her 40s, in a time of transitions. Writers may not be gathering on the terrace this summer, but visitors can rest there with a glass of iced tea -- and linger over Wharton’s short stories, where she used to read Walt Whitman’s newest poems out loud with her friends on summer nights.


Tales of a whale – and of love
Up the road in Pittsfield, writers are coming to Arrowhead. The Mastheads writing residency program will return in a carefully modified form this year, said Lesley Herzberg, the executive director of the Berkshire Historical Society, which runs Herman Melville’s historic farmhouse.
The visiting writers, she said, will be able to focus on their work in the big field, in one of five spaced-out Masthead studios that will be set up for the summer.

Because of the pandemic, Arrowhead had to retool its summer season. Herzberg will be hosting livestream events in July and August, including an evening with 19th century suffragist Lucy Stone, a talk on the collections with curator Erin Hunt and a virtual “Moby-Dick” read-a-thon.
And Hunt is curating an outdoor exhibit of Jim Jasper’s artwork based on “Moby-Dick.” He has interpreted the novel in 140 drawings, and Hunt will set them in weatherproof panels, turning Melville’s hayfields into a wide, expansive gallery under the open sky.

The house will also open for tours beginning June 29, Herzberg said, and Melville fans have been gathering virtually since the spring. Arrowhead’s writer-in-residence, Jana Laiz, has started a book group on the recent biography “Melville in Love,” and the book’s author, Pulitzer finalist Michael Sheldon, has met virtually with the group.

Sheldon tells the story of Sarah Morewood, Melville’s neighbor, whom Herzberg describes as a passionately intelligent and forceful woman.

“She knew she was attractive, interesting and beguiling, and she used that,” Herzberg said.
Morewood rode a horse named Black Quake, galloping in the local hills. She threw parties. She roamed outdoors. Herzberg remembers reading an account of a hike she led up Mount Greylock.
“And no one knows about her,” she said. “She’s buried here. And she died very young — of consumption, a month after her 40th birthday.”

Arrowhead has also opened its fields and grounds and nature trails, which are free to all. Although the visiting writers in their cabins are taking in the quiet, locals are walking through the meadows and watching iridescent blue dragonflies dart over the tall grass.


Places to escape and reflect
Up and down Berkshire County, museums with grounds and gardens and trails are welcoming visitors for outdoor pursuits. The Clark Art Institute has seen steady visitors to its trails on Stone Hill this spring and summer, director of communications Vicki Saltzman said.

The museum has been planning to open its first outdoor exhibition, “Ground/work,” this summer. And although two of the Clark’s major summer shows are now postponed until 2021, the museum still plans to offer these site-responsive installations by six contemporary artists on its 140-acre campus, though the exact opening date of the exhibit had not been announced as of late June and was dependent on state health guidelines.

“Ground/work” will gather new work by international artists Kelly Akashi, Nairy Baghramian, Jennie C. Jones, Eva LeWitt, Analia Saban and Haegue Yang, who have each in their own way created work in conversation with the Clark’s campus – the pasture and the wildflowers, and the granite buildings with their reflecting pools and beehives.

In Stockbridge, the gardens at Naumkeag, built in the 19th century as the summer home of the lawyer and diplomat Joseph Hodges Choate, opened at the end of May, in time for the tree peonies to bloom.

Chesterwood, another grand Stockbridge estate (it was the summer home of sculptor Daniel Chester French) is opening its gardens and trails with outdoor sculpture. And the Norman Rockwell Museum has opened its lawns and paths among the apple trees down to the Housatonic River.

Tanglewood will also open its grounds as the music festival goes virtual in July and August.
At Hancock Shaker Village, this spring’s calves and kid-goats, lambs and piglets are basking in the sun, and the historic Shaker gardens are in bloom.

In Vermont, Park McCullough House has opened its gardens and is opening for limited tours in early July, and the historic Lincoln family home at Hildene in Manchester is now open, with its gardens and grounds, farm dairy and hiking trails.

Southern Vermont Arts Center at the foot of Mount Equinox will open solo shows on July Fourth and a “Women Take Wilson” group show on July 11 in honor of women’s suffrage.

And in New York, Salem Art Works’ Cary Hill sculpture park is open dawn to dusk, gathering regional, national and international artists on almost 120 acres with views of the hills of southern Washington County.


Sculpture, architecture and skateboarding
Art Omi has more than 60 works across 120 acres in its Sculpture and Architecture Park, including new outdoor artwork this summer by Dan Colen, Anna Sew Hoy and Will Ryman, and Bianca Best, a young artist creating her first outdoor work.

Best often works with materials like papier-mache, Puglisi said, and her work at Omi brings in massive, brilliantly colored figures like abstracted human forms. They are lithe and acrobatic, and twice life-sized, and they show clearly in the trees along the pond. The museum has cut away the undergrowth to give clear sightlines.

Best’s figures are bright, positive and gestural, Puglisi said. They have a feeling of forward movement. Coming upon one in the woods feels like finding an abstract painting hanging out by the water, in contrast to the steel and stone of the works around it.

On the architecture side, Art Omi is finishing work designed by Steven Holl. The artist Wendy Evans Joseph, based in Columbia County, offers a sensory experience in the park, Puglisi said, something like a labyrinth, inviting people to take in views in different places, sights and scents. It draws them into focus.

And Cameron Wu’s “Geodesic Promenade” invites people to look out at the quiet scene from changing directions and perspectives.

The park and grounds will remain quieter than usual, this summer. Omi has postponed all of its spring and summer artist residencies until 2021, from the writers who would have come from March to June to the dancers, musicians and artists who would have gathered there now in high summer.

Art Omi brings in artists from around the world; a residency of 30 people may have artists from 20 different countries. Puglisi said OMI does not yet know when it will welcome artists-in-residence back again.

But it expects reopen its indoor galleries on July 18 -- if the state continues on its current course of reopening.

Omi’s galleries will offer a long-planned a retrospective of American abstract artist Howardena Pindell, widely known her work in major national shows from the Whitney Museum of American Art to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Delirious” in 2017, a wide-ranging group show of American and international artists from 1950 to 1980, and the Brooklyn Museum’s tribute the same year, “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985.”

Pindell is known for her abstract paintings and explorations in deconstruction and reconstruction, with canvases she cuts, sews, stencils and reshapes into vivid kaleidoscopic forms. This new solo show at Omi will principally explore her work in film and photo collages.

And in the fields outside, Omi is working now with Puerto Rican artist Chemi Rosado-Seijo to build a skateboarding bowl that’s expected to open in August.

Rosado-Seijo has created one on his island, in La Perla, that has recognition now around the world. He worked neighbors in La Perla and around the island to build that a skateboarding bowl by hand outside the Old San Juan walls, on reclaimed land along the Atlantic. It encompasses a handmade pool, built of blocks of stone, that fills with water from the ocean.