The feeling of sharp edges, cold steel and industry emanates from Gloria King Merritt’s triptych digital painting “Changing Gears,” a piece inspired by a vintage model used by a hardware vendor. The model is also on display.
Nearby is a giant – truly giant – paintbrush by found object sculptor Cindy Blakeslee. Its long hairs, on close examination, reveal themselves as strands of cards, shredded in a pasta machine.
A few yards away, a pair of assemblages, also inspired by the paint trade, by John Parker whimsically bring together paint receipts and 19th-century artifacts.
From paint to color, Chris Jeffrey is moving in a 21st century direction by using Vermont-made color-changing filters (they’re used in devices like the Mars Rover) in rooms that change with light sources and the viewer’s position. Color, he notes in his artist statement, does not exist without light.
“20/20 Retrospective: Seeing the Past Again with Contemporary Art” opens this weekend at the historic Kents Corner State site in Calais. In this almost annual 13th art exhibition in Kent – last year was outdoors solely because of COVID-19 – 20 artists put a contemporary perspective on the methods and materials of rural culture in the 19th century Vermont.
The Kents Corner State Historic Site includes buildings long owned by the entrepreneurial Kent family – the 1830s Hotel and Tavern built by Abdiel Kent and the Ira and Abdiel Kent General Store in the 1850s.
The history of the buildings is seen in their bones and surfaces – some pieces have been stripped down to the underlying split tower, some have a wire mesh intended for plastering. Others show the touch of Louise Andrews Kent, a writer and Martha Stewart of the 1920s and 1950s, whose vision of preserving the property as a museum guided part of its restoration. The character and condition of the various rooms – nearly 20 exhibition spaces in total – offer varied links with the past and open up unexpectedly rich links with the contemporary art presented there.
Beyond the main buildings, the landscape of Kents Corner remains roughly what it was in the 19th century. Exhibits extend to the grounds, including with new installations this year including Carol MacDonald’s knitted polyester rope pieces, “Knit Vision I” in Apple Tree and “Knit Vision II” in Cedar. In Christopher Curtis’ sculpture The End of Truth, a window through a rock invites the viewer to consider views and perceptions of reality. The giant Flywheel Industrial Arts clothespins consider a Montpellier industry of the past. Steve Conant’s Orange Hay Rake Bike Rack offers visitors a new place to rest their wheels.
“We are playing with the deconstructed bones of the old building. The arrangement of objects and art is about the conversations that art has with the past, ”explained David Schütz, one of the three curators of the exhibition, with Nel Emlen and Allyson Evans.
“This show is more about the past than a lot of our shows, and very specifically about Kents Corner and what was going on here in the 19th and early 20th centuries,” Schutz said.
Kents Corner, like many hamlets around Vermont, was teeming with small businesses a century ago. Kent’s businesses at this site included the manufacture of starch, boots, shoes, harnesses and saddles.
For “20/20 Hindsight”, some artists have reflected on these legacies.
Carol MacDonald’s “Child’s Boot” engraving, in leather crumpled with age, worn toe, missing laces, recalls a 19th century child who may have worn it. Next to Macdonald’s engraving, set on a wooden shoebox attached to the exposed lap of a wall in the upstairs bedroom is the little boot itself – a boot that was most likely made in the Kent’s shoe manufacture and was found in a nearby house.
MacDonald further explores the shoe theme with a series combining dirt and ink footprints and hand-drawn shoe portraits.
Kate Gridley considers 19th century tools and utensils in her paintings. Antique whisks, egg separator, tea infuser, egg slicer, cast iron trivet, and other pieces stand up like a family portrait in a kitchen-inspired still life. Metallic shapes, wooden handles, colors, and the sense of hands working utensils intertwine with the bare tower wall with wire mesh patches in the old Kent Dining Room where it hangs.
Each year, Emlen and Evans spend countless hours in the weeks leading up to the opening of the Art at the Kent exhibitions, finding exact positions and relationships between the works of art and with the building. Their artful curation provides viewers with many unexpected moments – stimulating, beautiful, contemplative, sometimes spiritual.
In the old Kent Inn tap room, hang a pair of Tom Leytham watercolors of copper tanks and still pipes. At the entrance to Louise Andrews Kent’s eccentric wallpaper rooms is one of John Parker’s beautifully composed assemblages – this one paying homage to the wallpaper business.
The small Kent-made shoe shares a room with the hand-crafted hats of musician and artist Toussaint St. Negritude – shoe-making and haberdashery sharing craftsmanship at opposite ends of the body.
Fossil fuels, which became famous in the late 1800s, are at the center of a gallery, with Steve Conant’s “The End of Gulf Refining Company” suggesting a possible new direction. The harness and saddlery are at the center of another.
For something completely different, a closet that had yet to be opened for the show is brilliantly highlighted with a pair of Chris Jeffrey’s overflow boxes.
As always, Art at the Kent is a lot like Brigadoon – he only appears briefly, then disappears for another long time. Like Brigadoon, it’s breathtaking while he’s here.