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Painting Lake Champlain

Painting Lake Champlain
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This May, an extraordinary traveling art exhibit will begin its six-month celebration of Lake Champlain, the lake that Samuel de Champlain first explored 400 years ago. The exhibit–39 pieces of art, most of them paintings–was created by contemporary artists living and working in Vermont.

I had the good fortune of seeing the collection come together last fall, at its jurying in a converted stone mill building on the banks of Otter Creek in Middlebury, the hometown of the exhibit’s curator, painter Doug Lazarus. Nearly 100 interpretations of the lake filled the mill’s downstairs rooms. Jurors picked and separated and winnowed, crowding the lucky winners into one room, hanging them on the walls and leaning them against one another along the baseboards. Occasionally, a second thought would move a piece back or forth between rooms, but most of the decisions were visceral, almost instinctive, with little debate or disagreement.

The jumble of images captured the sprawling, wild, cultivated lake in all its colors: the farmland spreading out below Mount Mansfield toward the blue and the islands; the sun-gilded surface stretching away from the heights of Mount Philo; in early-morning stillness; in frigid wind; in brooding weather; in blinding light. Geologic history, Revolutionary War history, the Industrial Revolution, all hard by moonlight, brightly colored fishing shacks, and “sea smoke,” the ghostly mist that hovers above the water just before the lake freezes. One of the contributing artists, Ethan Allen descendant Helen Shulman, later described her painting, Waiting for Champlain, 1609, as speaking to “Champlain’s breathtaking moment of discovery, when the lake must have seemed to him more like a vision than a reality.”

Stephan Jost, director of the Shelburne Museum and one of the jurors, noted that an unusual number of the chosen pieces were “long and horizontal, set high, almost aerial views–which shows how so many people see the lake,” which stretches some 120 miles in length and measures just 12 miles across at its widest point. And he commented on the wide range of styles and techniques, even as the bulk of the body “stays within the picturesque tradition, rather than rebelling against it.”

The exhibit touches on tradition in more ways than one. Artists have long been attracted to the New England landscape. In the mid-19th century, Thomas Cole and other painters of the Hudson River School found romance and idealized beauty in rugged wilderness, most notably in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Other artists–including Winslow Homer, N. C. and Andrew Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, Ogden Pleissner, and Eric Sloane–have helped capture and create our shared sense of a regional landscape, and along with it some of our identity, and our mythology. Many of New England’s most widely known landscape artists have been natives or summer residents, although there’s a strong, and long, tradition of artists coming into New England, often from New York, and seeing our landscape from an outsider’s perspective. Such is the case, too, with the artists of the Champlain’s Lake Rediscovered exhibit.

In a couple of important respects, though, the exhibit is breaking new ground. “As a region, the art of the Champlain Valley is way underexplored, historically,” Jost notes. “There’s been little scholarship, no dedicated exhibitions.” Curator Doug Lazarus is especially excited about shows scheduled in Boston and New York; he believes this will be the first time that a collection of Vermont art has traveled to major cities.

The title “curator,” by the way, doesn’t do justice to Lazarus’s involvement. With the help of the Vermont-based nonprofit Willowell Foundation, he has found the funding and secured the political approvals to make his brainchild a significant part of the state’s official quadricentennial celebration of Lake Champlain. He figures that a show of this size could easily run $300,000 or more–but through thriftiness and creativity he’s making do with a third of that.

He’s inspired by a mission beyond marking the lake’s discovery: He feels that Vermont has become home to many, many talented artists, and it’s time that people outside the region took notice. As he commented to a local newspaper reporter last year, just before he mailed out 1,000 invitations for submissions to the exhibit, “We’re not looking for picture postcards here. We’re looking for work that will be treated respectfully when it goes to the urban centers.” That’s the discovery he wants to celebrate.

Venue information and slide show of exhibit paintings: champlainslakerediscovered.org.

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