ART in Vermont c. 1970

It was in the spring of 1965, if my memory serves me right, that the local Grand Union store out on Washington Street decided to upgrade its appearance in the community, and in the process of sprucing itself up, ordered a grand new sign, for what was still a very un-grand and not very super market. Of course the sign aroused the usual democratic protest in both the weekly newspapers since Vermont had recently approved a law against signs of all sorts. To this day it is almost impossible to find anything up here, since all business signs on the road are an just four inches high and not more than a certain number of letters. Driving at the snail pace of our legal 50 MPH you still miss most of them, which explains why you see so many car turning into driveways to turn around and go back for another look. But we like our countryside looking like a postcard from l890, and this is a prime feature of our tourism policy. People just come up here to see if it is true that there are no fifty foot roadsigns in the state. When they get lost we tell them they can't get there from here; but with so few signs around that might be after all more true than humorous.

Well, as I was saying, the Grand Union was taking down an ancient sign in the form of a large arrow pointing to the store, a somewhat weathered ten foot high plywood affair, when it occurred to me that this was something I could use. The men said sure, take it if you want it (laughing as I loaded it onto my home made trailer) and when I got it home, I suddenly realized the possibilities. I lived on a countryside dirt road a few miles from the famous Morgan Horse Farm, a mandatory tourist stop for Flatlanders looking for something famous to see in their ten day Vermont Vacation.

I had a steady flow of traffic all summer, so combining the idea of the sign with the welded steel sculpture I had been making for several years, I envisioned the grand idea of a sign saying: "GALLERY". A can of white paint covered the old plywood and I figured large black letters carefully o look professional. So my sign began to take shape, pointing toward a dozen sculptures in every shape and color arranged around my well manicured and inviting lawn. I even put up by the road one of those zig-zag fences you still see in Vermont, by splitting old telephone poles from the first generation of phone lines which had fallen by the roadside. I believed in doing everything simply, the old-fashioned way, to counter my sculpture which was clearly "cutting edge" for l970 with its abstract shapes and bright painted brashness.

It was color which set my sculptures apart from the work you might see in the 57th St. galleries in New York. At that time it was always rusty as a sure sign that it was "Art", rust was the new patina of the avant garde sensibilities. In The City this reddish tan color of rust was something new, while in Vermont it was familiar enough in the junked car lots which were visible everywhere. Used car parts is now a big business, but then it was driving or pushing the old buggy out to the back of a meadow. And if it were lined up with l938 Bucks and some pathetic little Henry J's for parts, no state-approval was necessary at all, so long as you put up an isolating fence which everyone could see over. Local residents fumed in the weeklies against the abomination of junk cars defiling the landscape, while the newly established New York retirees countered with comments on stretches of manure on the road, the result of someone pulling the wrong lever in front of an enemy's house. Disgustibus non est disputandum.

I was tired of rusty sculpture, and did something unthinkable for that time: I painted my work bright colors. I heard of a fellow named David Smith over in New York State who was welding stainless pieces up and painting some of them bright hues, so I went over a saw his meadow full of brightness of color, talked with this fellow a bit, and came home figuring that I was in the right direction. He told me he had never sold a piece, but he died a few years later and then his work became priceless, is now in all the big-time collections.

So I thought I could have a gallery by the roadside and see about selling art myself, at my place half a mile north from Middlebury's ancient covered bridge. Thus came about the origin of my "GALLERY ---->" enterprise, with the original arrow on the sign fortunately pointing to the right side of the road. Now I would settle down for an interesting summer of showing tourists my new work, perhaps sell some pieces to art-hungry city-folk who thought art was found only in the Met and the Modern. Why not even hope to become a landmark on the road to the Horse Farm in time?

It was a few weeks before Memorial Day that the cars seeking the Horse Farm began to appear. Soon enough someone would pull up, braking in a flurry of road dust and yell in a loud voice from the car window "How do I get to the Morgan Horse Farm ?". I would pretend I was hard of hearing, so they had to get out of the car and walk over to where I was piling up something, then I had a choice: "Can't get there....etc." or "Never heard tell of that one!". If the driver were antagonistic, I could give him a set of directions which would keep him busy for hours until he came back late in the afternoon staring at my place in disbelief. I could accept bad manners which we have locally also, but when someone asked questioningly if I had a toilet........ I could hardly refrain from pointing to a row of trees as the back of the yard. Since I wore nondescript dark clothes and had a beard, one lady asked if I were Amish, to which I retorted Hassidic. I could see them through the car back window arguing in disbelief as they headed down the road.

But it was Memorial weekend that my first visitors appeared. A well dressed man in his forties stopped and walked onto the lawn, looking at this and that until I came out to greet him. He mentioned "The Modern" having some of these things, energetically beckoned his wife who was loathe to leave the air-conditioned car, but finally acquiesced. What interested him most was this piece, he liked the tubular construction which reminded him of organ pipes, and we talked about the naturalness of rust as a natural process in the world of iron. After all, everything changes, nothing is permanent, and the rust and especially the scale denotes time passing....... he went on in this vein, while his wife looked more and more unconvinced. Finally he asked me what I thought, and I said the only way to really view this piece was to lie down on the grass underneath and look upward through the pipes at the ethereal blue sky. He tried it, jumped up and insisted that his wife try this too. After a while she went back to air-conditioned car, we talked more and shook hands, and he said as he left that he was very much interested in this piece.

Next morning a less congenial visitor was looking at the same piece, musingly, until his high school son whispered: "Dad, it's just a pile of junk", which was not entirely wrong. I had little titles on pieces of wood stuck up near each piece, that afternoon I retitled this one as JONQUE which made people laugh and pass on without seeing the piece. But one man who worked for the Fire Dept. in Poughkeepsie was fascinated by the piece "Fire-Box" with the label "Use in Case of Emergency". It was a small rusty welded box, sealed with no input and a pathetic little faucet to dribble out a few drops perhaps. This was mind-bogglimg to a man who drove a big red firetruck with a thousand gallons of water furnishing pumps before the line was connected to the hydrant. But my other fire department piece (somehow demolished long since) which had a box base, a pole with a Fire Alarm box on it, and in faded blue letter aloft "Fire Dept. NYC" really turned him on. "You know, half the Alarm boxes in the country don't work, the telephones have been vandalized, you can break the glass and pull the lever, but that the end of it. Big scandal down our way...." and he was chuckling all the way to the car.

Of course people want something they can recognize, and nothing would work better with the un-initiated than a Figurative Piece, I believed. So when a young family with three kids kept looking at this black and white painted figurative assembly, I thought they had in fact recognized its basically humanoid shape. They looked and peered, went around the back and then screwed up their eyes and squinted at it carefully, just like the seasoned art connoisseur in the TV art education series, and finally asked apologetically: " I wonder if I can ask you a question....... Well, what IS it?" They all smiled expectantly waiting for a word of enlightenment, but I hadn't the heart to tell them they had missed the point completely. "You know, a piece of sculpture is in the final analysis whatever you make out of it. It is not the maker's idea, it is entirely yours." They all smiled again and seemed relieved, walked around all together smiling at each piece in turn before heading back to the car with a polite "Thank You", and so on the Horse Farm.

This one had a title which was pretty clear: "Lady on a Barstool", so having a clue from the little Title before guessing, the elderly white-haired gentleman with his blue-haired wife had a much better time. They really liked the brash colors, he kept saying how nice it would look in their garden among the junipers behind the electric recirculating frog-pool. They even quoted Frost's line about getting a little color and music out of life, and kept on looking at it from the car window before leaving. On the way back they stopped and asked if they could take a picture of it, nice people with a nice appreciation, but in the last analysis not into buying and greedy possession-getting, so I can still have the Lady to enjoy here thirty years later. After all, a gallery is a show-place, not a sales-room, or so I mused to myself.

The lawn was not large so I had to place pieces of sculpture to best effect, and I tried to make interesting pairs by comparison. Over there by the large elm tree (that was in l965, in a few years those landmarks of the countryside were all gone, now just a botanical memory) I stood the piece you see on the left, bright stainless steel rods framing translucent Lucite sheets so the light could come through with more vivacity than any painted surface. The upright rods were slim and when the wind blew there was a slight shaking of the frames which seemed to be gently nodding to each other. Now in contrast I sited something quite different, placing my gigantic torso in hammered steel along the fence line and nestled into the corner so he could be seen well, but not at first glance. After all, with all that mass and muscle, he wanted a degree of personal privacy. Now these two which I had conceived as an artistic contrast, turned out to have a very different role as the summer rolled on. Let me give an example: A dainty lady with two impeccably scrubbed and attired young children was moving over toward this area, while her husband was looking at the Lady on a Barstool quizzically. She liked the piece on the left well, showed the children how light and airy it was, and was thinking that it would look elegant in their manicured Westchester garden. Then full of smiles and happiness, they turned together toward the MAN, and in one flash of the eye grasped his formidable shape, his threat to surprised eyes and above all his affront to innocence. "Mummy, what is that thing down there sticking up?" and she turned them, wheeling them away to something nicer to look at, without a word. Soon they were back in the car and the older girl was looking at her Daddy with a new vein of suspicion, as they headed on to see what the horses had to offer.

Back from the road and to the side of the house, near the few neglected apple trees from an ancient orchard, and looking down the hill to the river, and beyond toward the mountains, was this eight fool tall piece. It was an eye catcher in its resplendent red, bright where the sun hit it and darker in the interior folds of the angled metal construction. Standing on a block of marble, it was the mark of self-confidence, assurance and exuberant poise. As soon as they walked from their rich blue Mercedes, the couple from suburban Connecticut went right to it, viewed it from every angle, then for relief looked at everything else before returning to this one with a serious eye. They knew Art and understood what I was doing, she mentioned to him a word about their landscaping which I overheard, so I knew they were contemplating this piece in earnest. "I simply love it, Jim, and it would be so great standing beside the pool, right size and stature. But I somehow can't get by the color, that red is so bright that it's almost abrasive..... I wish it were something lighter, perhaps a light hue or perhaps something like.... " And in his turn, answering, the man of authority said: "You may be right, honey, but a baby blue like those l954 Cadillac convertibles is out of the question. It has to be something more decisive, more energetic in reflecting the light. I was thinking of a medium peach so it would match with the garden planting in hue, while standing out in terms of its size and complexity. More subtle approach I think...." But then she took the matter up in her turn, and thinking of the large pieces in the De Santovac Museum which were all famous and iron, she pressed on: "Jim, color is great, but you know there is nothing as rich in its own way as the hue of naturally rusted steel. You see it everywhere, I mean in every gallery, and it won't seem out of date later. Color may be a fad, you know." She apparently believed this doctrine about color fads, since her whole attire was matched levels of tan, relieved only by her blue eyes, blond hair and the whiteness of her energetic smile. And Jim in reply: "We could get it in white, that is always nice and clean beside a swimming area, cool and relaxing in summer and in winter it can fade into the snow scene, to emerge in Spring like Osiris rising beside the Nile." He had taken a few cultural courses in college which he was always fond of remembering on the right occasion.

They left later with a warm handshake and a question if they should leave a check as deposit now, but I said that was not a concern. We should be in contact soon (they said). I was sure they were going to get it, it was just the color adjustment which was in question, and after waiting to hear back through Labor Day and on into Color Season, I assumed they would be back in the weeks before Thanksgiving. I did phone them later in November, but the housekeeper said they were gone to their villa in Coast Rica for the winter, and I never heard from then again. Oh well, I was still a teacher with my small monthly checks for survival needs, it must be hard trying to live on a sculptor's profits. At least until you were firmly dead and ready to become famous.

I was sometime after Labor Day, when the mornings were getting crisp and the afternoons shorter, just as I was thinking of taking the Gallery sign down for the year, when a man appeared asking to be shown around. We like to think of America as a classless society, where everyone is somehow equal and similar at least in first impressions, but we all know that you can tell a great deal about anyone from the way a person talks, from dress and personal style of bearing, from the kind of car he drives and the wife who gets out from the passenger's seat. All summer I had been unconsciously noting small things about my visitors, figuring where they had come from, what their interests would really turn out to be, and of course which one of my pieces they might be most interested in. But this man was somehow un-typable. He didn't speak with the unmistakable Vermont country accent, his clothes were quite ordinary as neither city nor local style, he seemed interested in art but clearly not a veteran museum-goer, so I gave up trying to type him and we turned to conversation.

Actually he was a very pleasant man to talk with, there was something open-minded and serious about his manner, and we were having a good conversation going from piece to piece, he asking small questions and I taking pleasure in fashioning intelligent answers. Here at last, I was thinking,, is the kind of person I was hoping for in my summer's gallery venture, an inquisitive man who seemed to be taking it all in easily and with sharp interest.

The afternoon was now late and he said he should be getting along soon, we shook hands and he was walking toward his car, when he turned around for a last look. He seemed to be musing, so I asked if there were anything he might be interested in. He nodded, and we walked over to the back of the yard near what had been an apple orchard once, now just a trio of sad and neglected trees.

"Well, maybe..." he said. "I was wondering how much you would be asking for...... this .......?



William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College