Thursday, October 22, 2015

Go Van Gogh

     Jack Sprat could eat no fat
His wife could eat no lean
And so betwixt the two of them
They licked the platter clean.

     What a wise and wonderful nursery rhythm. To think that even back then they were chewing over the virtues of grass-fed vs. corn finished beef! And pondering how opposites can come together to make a "lick the platter clean" marriage.
     Reminds me of two people I know. He's a slow motion planner, always waiting for things to be just right before doing anything. She's a more spontaneous, do it now type. And most of the time they find a balance avoiding the stress and frustration such a match might be prone to.
     Take a recent Friday, for example. I said, "It's too bad we missed the van Gogh exhibit. This is the final weekend." The end of the summer had been really busy with hay, corn and cows. We had missed a lot of things and were just beginning to catch our breath.
     Gwenne countered, "The paintings are still up today. Let's get in the van and go."
     I complimented her on the clever word play while pointing out that we didn't own a van.
     "Really not a problem," and with that we got in the Kia and went.
     And I'm glad we did, both for the drive and for the art. I take the "Savor the journey as much as the destination" admonition a bit too far. It's a small miracle I ever actually arrive anywhere. For me a trip is all about looking at rocks, trees, flowers, streams and everything else along the way. Years ago we drove to Florida and I tried to do it on dirt roads just to go slower and see more! Had limited success with that endeavor as the asphalt virus has infected most of America.
     There's the Goggle mapped route from Schuylerville to Williamstown, logical and efficient, and then there's the way we went. Down thru Easton to a short visit at the Quaker South Meeting House and Cemetery where the whitefeather story is celebrated. Stops to look at cute little campers (Gwenne) and distant Catskill to Adirondack vistas (me). Detours down inviting dirt roads past well cared for old homes and barns and lots of corn chopping, with plenty of squirrels and turkeys fattening on the leftovers.
     Of special note was the subtle color shift of early fall. Not explosively gaudy as it would be in a couple of weeks but not the bright, energetic green of early summer either. We didn't know it but this Washington County landscape was preparing us for the art we would see later in the afternoon.

     We crossed the Hoosic River on the Buskirk Covered Bridge and entered Rensselaer County. The Hoosic, like the Battenkill, originates in the Green Mountain/Berkshire range to the east and cuts thru the Taconics on its way to the Hudson. The area from White Creek and Eagle Bridge thru Hoosic Falls towards Bennington marks an open break in the high Taconic ridgeline. This is sometimes called a reentrant and is probably the result of erosion by the Hoosic and Walloomsac that has removed the Taconic rock down to the level of the carbonate shelf rocks that lie beneath.

     South of the low hills of the reentrant is the Rensselaer Plateau. This is higher, forested ground underlain by some of the oldest rock in the Taconics. There's a lot of graywacke found here. It's an impure sandstone that formed as an early super continent (Rodinia) rifted apart and began dumping sediments into a newly developing ocean (Iapetus) sometime between 500 to 600 million years ago.  Subsequently, the plate motions shifted and the rocks were pushed up onto the edge of Laurentia, an ancient precursor of North America. This Taconic Orogeny produced the much loved landscapes of western New England and eastern New York.
     With no defined route and just a general northwest Massachusetts drift, I decided to let strange street names be our guide. Sadly we had to forgo Nick-Mush Hill but did traverse Rabbit College Road. This is basically a roller-coaster masquerading as a highway and it dropped us off the plateau and down into the valley at North Petersburg. I'ld recommend this as a mini-adventure but make sure your brakes, steering, airbags and life insurance are up to snuff before the attempt.

     Heading east we followed a mellow route cut by the Hoosic. It's a level, scenic drive thru farm country backed by hills. Just before crossing the river into Vermont is a sign for the Taconic State Forest and Taconic Crest Trail. In the northern Taconics, just east of Washington County, there are a scattering of trails (Merck Forest, Mt. Equinox, Haystack) while a little to the south is this ridgeline trail with several side access points. Definitely worth exploring.

     In short order you come to a string of houses along the road. This is the Village of North Pownal and it seems to cower beneath a big cliff with striking white outcrops. These limestone crags may be similar to Bald Mountain near Greenwich in western Washington County. Both appear to be chunks of Laurentia's carbonate shelf that got broken off and carried along when the Taconics came calling.

     North Pownal has a small park along the Hoosic where mills used to be. The mills are gone now and one can see the effects of lost employment and economic activity. The views to the west of the Taconic Range (with a triple corner of New York, Vermont and Massachusetts up there somewhere) are gorgeous but views don't pay the rent. This community misses the industry and jobs it once had.
     Just down the road is Williamstown, Mass., an upscale college and cultural center with a patrician vibe. Here, down a quiet tree-lined street is the Clark Museum. It houses the art collection of Sterling and Francine Clark and has recently been expanded with additional gallery space and landscaped grounds that include linked reflecting pools. While we were there two boys had found a painted turtle in the water which they were happy to show to a third kid (that would be me). I think we were more taken by this little critter than by the priceless paintings that hung nearby. Speaking of critters, the museum's extensive grounds and walking paths include a pasture where you can stroll amongst a herd of cows. No matter how far I roam I just can't seem to get away from them...

     The van Gogh exhibit was wildly popular and on the day of our visit the parking lot was full, you waited in line to buy a ticket and the galleries were a little crowded for quiet contemplation. We went thru a second time after it had thinned out and it was easier to linger over favorites. The art draws a diverse mix and I'm sure many of the visitors stop at restaurants, seek lodging and do some shopping. Even us poor farmers bought gas and a hot dog at Stewarts.
     Back in Washington County the scale may be smaller but art and culture have a similar impact, enriching lives and wallets. Just recently I was struck by the number of paintings sporting a red sticker at the Landscapes for Landsake exhibit and sale. This signifies that they were sold, providing income for the artist and funds for ASA's farmland preservation efforts. Gwenne, Licia and I were wowed by Landscapes and later in the day had a fun hike amongst the sculptures at the Salem Art Works, but we also found time for lunch at the Roundhouse Cafe and a cone at the Ice Cream Man, dropping a few dollars into the local economy. Art that draws people to a community benefits everyone.
     After returning from the Clark I was telling Holly about our trip and she challenged me, "You're just swept up in the hype, blinded by van Gogh's overblown reputation." She had seen Starry Night exhibited at school and the college owns The Night Cafe. These, along with his self-portraits are among the artist's most iconic works. Let's just say she wasn't star-struck.

The Starry Night - Vincent van Gogh

The Night Cafe - Vincent van Gogh

     Maybe she has a point. I have no training in art appreciation, and who isn't influenced by what they've heard? Gwenne had seen some van Gogh's many years ago in New York City. That experience didn't leave her hungry for more, but when I told her the Clark's exhibit included paintings done in Provence, her curiosity was aroused. Several years ago she had spent time in the south of France and the landscape enthralled her.

Wheat Field with Cypresses - Vincent van Gogh

     The show at the Clark was called Van Gogh in Nature and it was organized chronologically. As a young boy in Holland he had an interest in collecting and identifying all sorts of living things. Several old French field guides that he might have used were displayed as part of the exhibit. Once he began painting he often turned to bugs, birds, trees and landscapes for subject matter. Wheatfields and sunflowers frequently drew his attention as did the rugged limestone crags of southern France.

Wheat Field with Crows - Vincent van Gogh

     He had a short but very productive career, creating over 2100 artworks in a little over a decade. He was engaged with the intellectual life of his time, reading literature and studying other artists while still developing his own very original style of swirls and dabs in a rich color palette. Standing close to his paintings you're struck by the texture and shading, you feel their gravitas. On many canvas's the paint seems to be applied with a trowel, not with a brush. The surface has a topographic dimension that isn't apparent in a photograph.
     The exhibit hinted at, but didn't dwell on the more lurid details of van Gogh's life: his struggles with mental illness, the severed ear, relationships with prostitutes and resulting STD's, overwork and unhealthy lifestyle and eventual strange death from a probable self-inflicted gunshot. Knowledge of his demons provides insight into some of his work but it may not be necessary to appreciate his nature studies.
     What I saw was a man deeply attuned to the places where he lived and painted, a man sensitive to both the cultural and physical environment who worked tirelessly growing his skills to interpret and respond to the world. I'm certainly not qualified to critique his work or pass judgement on his stature as an artist so I'll simply say that I'm grateful for van Gogh and his paintings, for the opportunity to stand before them and contemplate his and my place in nature.

Self-Portrait with Straw Hat - Vincent van Gogh

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