Demeter, Persephone and Sabra Field

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(Host) Tom Slayton is here with some observations on the latest set of prints from the quintessential Vermont artist, Sabra Field.

(Slayton) Instead of depicting the landscape of Vermont in her latest set of prints, Sabra Field has chosen to illustrate a classical myth that echoes nature, plays with the inner recesses of the human mind – and should have meaning for every Vermonter. It’s called the The Demeter Suite and is on display at the Middlebury College Center for the Arts through August 11.

The myth of Demeter and Persephone comes to us from ancient Greece, that fertile hotbed of western culture where so many of our attitudes and archetypes were shaped. You could think of the Greek gods as one great big unhappy family whose quarrels and schemes echoed through the human world, upsetting things as often as they set things right.

That’s certainly the case with Demeter and Persephone, two goddesses who personify the earth’s fertility and who seem to suffer more than they should – perhaps an early recognition of the suffering of the earth itself. Sabra Field’s Demeter Suite recreates the myth visually through a series of 12 color woodblock prints. We see Demeter with the fruits of the earth and with her beautiful young daughter, Presephone; we see Persephone kidnapped by Hades and carried away to the Underworld. We see Demeter’s anger at the loss of her daughter and we see her spectacular punishment – she creates winter to punish the earth. And at last we see Persephone’s return.

When beautiful Persephone is freed from the Underworld, spring comes back to the earth – the flowers bloom in her footsteps and birds serenade her. But she has eaten four pomegranate seeds – the fruit of death – and so must return to the underworld for part of each year. The final print in the series shows her return to Hades, with fall leaves swirling and the chill of the coming winter in the air. Yet the myth tells us that spring will come back again with Persephone’s return. And so the eternal cycle continues.

Recreated in the Demeter Suite by Sabra Field, this strange and beautiful story has meaning for all of us in Vermont, where the seasons play such a strong part in our lives and the natural world is a close and intimate companion. The Greek myths, like myths of all cultures, express our subconscious mind and reformulate the experiences that unite us as human beings in a mysterious, yet perfectly accessible way. Winter does sometimes seem like a punishment, just as spring brings life and beauty back to the land. Summer is always regrettably brief, and we in Vermont are especially aware that fall and winter always return too soon.

Agriculture, by which the land’s fertility sustains us, is thankfully still an important activity in Vermont. And atop the Vermont State House today is an echo of the myth – a female figure. You may call her “Agriculture” as all the guidebooks do, or Ceres, her Roman name. But it’s
actually Demeter, an envoy from the natural world, from ancient Greece – and from our own subconscious mind.

The Demeter Suite will be on display at the Middlebury College Center for the Arts through August 11, along with many other prints by Sabra Field.

Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.

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