(HOST) This weekend in Weston, there will be a display of paintings that embody the tension between the mythic, pastoral ideal of Vermont’s past and the hard reality of rural life in our state. Commentator Tom Slayton tells us about the exhibit.
(SLAYTON) Art, especially art that is based in our own place, opens our eyes to the world we live in and gives us new ways of understanding that world. In an art exhibit that has just opened in Weston, landscapes created a half-century and more ago show us an older Vermont: the farmed countryside, the small villages, the rural people and rural pastimes of this small, vigorous state.
Many of the scenes and folkways depicted have passed into history. All of the artists who created them are now dead. But that earlier Vermont lives on in these works of art. They constitute an important historical record of our past, and a part of our collective memory.
And they are something more than that, as well.
Taken as a group, these paintings and prints explore the idea of Vermont as a near-mythic pastoral place – a rural place where people and nature live and work together in harmony. Yet many of them go beyond the pastoral ideal and give us hints of the rugged reality beneath that time-honored concept.
The sagging barn roof in David Humphreys’ painting, “Vermont Farm,” is an example. So is the drama of two ox-handlers’ heaving and hauling on their team in Irwin Hoffman’s vigorous painting: “Country Fair Ox Pull.”
In John Clymer’s “Hoosick Valley,” a painting that was later used as a cover for the Saturday Evening Post, a small boy and girl climb a hill to get the view. The sentimentality of that image is balanced by the solid, stony reality of the craggy landscape in the valley below.
These notes of gritty reality temper the Romantic glow of pastoralism.
On the other hand, the hard work of haying is rewarding and often beautiful, as the long view stretching into the distance in Hoffman’s oil, “Vermont Harvest,” shows us. And boring days in a rural schoolhouse are shortened by the light-hearted play of recess – and the majesty of the mountains beyond – as Walton Blodgett suggests in “Country School.”
Thus an interesting tension exists in many of these images between the pastoral ideal and the real country world of hard, sweaty work, hay dust, sagging buildings and recalcitrant animals. Beauty wins the day in most of these paintings. But the rugged core of reality is never far away. That tension is one of the links these paintings share with some of the nationally recognized regionalists of the era -painters such as Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood.
The intangible ideal of pastoralism can be seen in today’s Vermont as well as in these paintings, but is often overlooked, or misunderstood. We need to understand the ideal, its value, and the way it often bumps up against our more gritty reality, even today.
Works of art such as these now being shown in Weston can help us do that, and bring us closer to the complex reality of the Vermont we live in.
The show, at the Weston Playhouse, is open to the public September 29th and 30th and October 1st.
Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.