A famed sculptor inspires today’s artists at Chesterwood
Art exhibited outdoors at Chesterwood include Sharp-shinned Hawk by Portia Munson, Between the Forest and the Treesby Derek Parker, and Reaching from a Room by Chrissy Scolar.
PORTIA MUNSON picks a handful of globe thistles in Daniel Chester French’s garden. Her grandmother loved them, she says, and often kept them in a bouquet on a glass-topped table. Munson sets hers gently on the glass of a scanner. It has no lid, and a scan will show the blossoms in detail, a nebula of tiny five-petaled flowers against a deep-black background.
On a quiet summer morning, Munson created a new work in French’s studio with flowers from his garden, coreopsis and Echinacea and more. In the woods on the hill above, two of her images hang on wide cloth panels in the hemlock trees—memorials created from scans, one of a barred owl, the other of a sharp-shinned hawk. A cleared space near them gives a view across the valley where the light shines through.
Munson is one of 14 artists in the 39th annual contemporary-sculpture show, “Out of Site,” here at Chesterwood, the 19th-century house, studio, and grounds of the sculptor who created the Lincoln Memorial a hundred years ago. The show closes October 9 with a day-long community celebration.
Guest curator Sharon Bates thinks French would enjoy knowing creative work still goes on in the place he made. She has a long relationship with his work here, and she remembers entering his studio for the first time almost 20 years ago. “There’s something visceral when you walk into the place where the artist was alone with his work,” she says.
Around his workbench, people can see how he created, with clay and sketches, and they soon will see more. Early fall, Chesterwood will open a new gallery space to show 150 works from its collection for the first time, works that follow French’s thoughts and designs through models and casts.
Bates says she kept in mind French’s monuments in marble and metal as she invited artists to develop or adapt work for the outdoor exhibition—although memorials and monuments are not always stone or bronze. Munson’s sculpture includes two birds she found just after they died, when she went walking in the Catskills near her house.
As she does in Sharpshinned Hawk, Munson often builds prints of brilliantly bright flowers and petals against a dark backdrop. She compares some of her work to mandalas. In one print, she has set marigolds in a goldenorange ring, she has seen them in flower chains, Portia says, as offerings and ornaments in Buddhist rituals. She first made one of her flower prints to honor a great-aunt. Her grandmother’s sister had just died in her late-90s, and Munson was walking around her own garden, trying to compose a tribute in her mind, when she began to imagine the flowers coming together.
French, too, made monuments, Bates says, to capture the essence of the person he wanted to keep in memory. She has spent time getting to know him through his writings and the places where he lived and worked, and she guestcurated a contemporary show here in 2006. After almost 20 years as founding director of the Albany International Airport art and culture program, she left to spend more time with her own studio practice and came back to Chesterwood in 2016 for her first artist residency—at Meadowlark, French’s private space across the road.
His studio at Chesterwood holds some of his essence, Bates says. Entering this room, she walks into his most personal and private place. His tools, a clay model, a plaster cast—all the objects he touched hold a tangible sense of his presence.
That is the kind of experience the museum hopes to instill in the new gallery space. It will show French’s artistic process, and many of his works will for the first time, says executive director Donna Hassler. Because Chesterwood is a historic house and studio, it has not had the environment to show work vulnerable to light and temperature. So the museum is building a 1,000-square-foot, climatecontrolled space beside the barn that houses the visitors center. Hassler expects to open the new gallery on October 15, and she will extend the museum’s season on weekends through October 28 an 29.
Visitors will see French’s work in progress, she says, in plaster models and cast bronzes and earlier versions of finished work. Different models of the same figure show details—the way a head turns, the way the hands or feet rest—and themes he returned to often, like winged figures. A full-size model of Andromeda, one of the largest of the works, reveals textures and tool marks, Hassler says. “It shows the hand of the artist.”