Cornish Colony Connections: Filmmakers Link an Era’s Intellectual Ferment to Today

  • Director of Photography Ben Silberfarb, left, and Gaffer Andy Reichsman, right, prepare for a wide shot of a group of plein air painters outside the Little Studio while filming with Director Nora Jacobson at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, in Cornish, N.H., Monday, July 24, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Norwich film maker Nora Jacobson, right, director of photography Ben Silberfarb, left, and camera assistant Adam Maurer, middle, check the composition of a shot while filming plein air painters at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, N.H., Monday, July 24, 2017. Jacobson is directing a 52 minute film about the history and people who made up the Cornish art colony. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Producer Fern Meyers, right, and author Jim Atkinson, left, wait for their cue to enter a scene during filming of "Land and Legacy of an Art Colony," about the Cornish Colony, at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, N.H., Monday, July 24, 2017. Meyers, a retired musician, has written three books about the Cornish Colony and conceived the idea for the film about the artists, musicians and conservationists associated with it. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Director of Photography Ben Silberfarb shoots details of a painter's easel as Beth Stanton, of Pittsfield, Vt., works on a painting in the foreground outsid the Little Studio at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, N.H., Monday, July 24, 2017. The group of painters provided a backdrop for a scene in Land and Legacy of an Art Colony, about the Cornish Colony. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, August 04, 2017

Norwich filmmaker Nora Jacobson paced up and down the pergola of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Little Studio in Cornish on a recent late-July day, while rain trickled onto her through the wreath of grapevines overhead.

Under the west end of the fully-covered portion of the pergola, cinematographer Ben Silberfarb and his crew were training two cameras on art teacher Joan Hoffmann and a group of painters with easels, facing Mount Ascutney … or at least the part of it visible through a wreath of clouds.

“Think we can start?” Jacobson asked.

Finally, a production assistant held up a clapper to open Scene 18B of Land and Legacy of an Art Colony, a documentary about the visual and performing artists, the writers and the pioneering conservationists who orbited around Saint-Gaudens while he summered and later lived and worked year-round in Cornish in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The aim of the film, conceived last fall by Etna author and Cornish Colony scholar Fern Meyers, is to illuminate how colony members collaborated and sparked movements that carried into the 21st century. Jacobson and Meyers developed a structure for the film — following two descendents of Cornish Colony members on a one-day tour of the colony’s landmarks — and they hope it will find a home on public television.

While Meyers called the film’s conceit “a docudrama,” Jacobson this week referred to it as “not reality TV, that’s for sure. It’s a hybrid documentary, much more documentary than fiction.”

“Action!” Jacobson declared on this penultimate day of the shoot. Improvising on the script that Jacobson and Meyers had assembled for the weeklong shoot, Hoffmann advised the class during the first run-through to consider the innovations of Impressionist painters of the mid-to-late 19th century.

“Look from the hollyhocks to the apple trees,” Hoffmann said. “Then you see Ascutney in the fog. What we want to capture today is the feel of the fog on Mount Ascutney. The Impressionists sought to catch the color of the day, the color of the moment.”

Never mind that most of the colors this late morning were gray. Waiting to move among the painters for her part in the scene, Meyers lamented the disappearance of the sunshine that had graced the shoot to date.

“The one day we were going to be outside … ,” Meyers began.

“No, no,” the director reassured her. “Now if we had been at Marsh-Billings (the national historic park in Woodstock) in this weather, it would have been miserable. We can work around this.”

Jacobson, Meyers and their crew spent more than a week working around circumstances such as noise and tourist interruptions, while shooting scenes at Saint-Gaudens, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller, the Plainfield home and studio of Cornish Colony poet and playwright Percy MacKaye and Blow-Me-Down Farm on the Connecticut River. To bolster the impression that everything was happening in real time, Meyers recruited veteran stage and television actor Jonathan Farwell, son of composer and Cornish Colony member Arthur Farwell, from semi-retirement.

While he spends most of his time working in community theater in Fort Collins, Colo., these days, the 85-year-old Farwell couldn’t resist the invitation.

“For one thing, this is the first SAG gig I’ve had in about 15 years,” Farwell said with a mischievous grin that longtime viewers of soap operas such as The Young and the Restless, All My Children and The Edge of Night might remember.

For another, Farwell remembered a 2005 visit to the Upper Valley, during which he played some of his father’s music on a piano at Saint-Gaudens, and performed in an adaptation of the play Love Letters at Kimball Union Academy in nearby Meriden.

“It was the first time I’d ever seen the place,” Farwell recalled before one of his Saint-Gaudens scenes on July 24. “I knew a little bit about the colony from my mother, but my father was 60 when I was born, so his time here (1912 to 1917) was well before I came along. One of the things that struck me then was how you can see Mount Ascutney from so many angles. I’ve kind of fallen in love with that mountain, its singularity.”

During the week of shooting, Farwell also fell under the spell of the colony.

“I had an epiphany the other day, at Percy MacKaye’s studio,” he said. “Many of the colonists had signed the wall there, and we looked around and found where my father had signed it. I stood exactly where my father had stood 101 years ago.”

The younger Farwell also “learned about many things other than my father,” among them what diplomat-turned-gentleman farmer George Perkins Marsh discovered while experimenting with novel methods of sustainability at his farm in Woodstock. During scenes of his visits to Saint-Gaudens and Marsh-Billings, Farwell marveled at research that both sites are sponsoring on climate-related changes to songbird populations.

“It’s been an astonishing education for me — all the ferment that went on here long ago and how it relates to our own time,” Farwell continued. “That legacy is still very alive here — with the plein-air classes, with children’s theater. It’s been an amazing, full-circle experience. A whole education about not only the history of the colony, but the spirit, the engine that drove the thing. It was a breeding ground for movements we know today. Whether they meant to or not, they established an ambience of artistic creativity that intensified itself here.”

A week after the shooting wrapped, Jacobson said she grew to appreciate the homework Farwell did in preparation to make his tour of discovery look natural on film.

“I had no idea if that would work, and that we could shoot it,” Jacobson said. “Fortunately, Jonathan had done a lot of research ahead of time. He had very thoughtful comments and questions that he asked people who are experts on the colony.”

Now comes months of editing, during which Jacobson will distill hours of footage into the 52-minute format suitable for broadcast on public TV. After that, Jacobson will whittle some more to create a 12-minute film for the Saint-Gaudens historic site to screen in its theater.

“When you’re editing you have to decide whether the audience will grasp it,” Jacobson said this week. “The trick is how not to overwhelm people with detail and keep the historical through-line going. How it’s all going to stick together in a way that’s good and fun and interesting.”

With the camera rolling on take 2 of scene 18C, Jonathan Farwell didn’t sound worried while pointing to the plein air class at the other end of the Saint-Gaudens pergola.

“There’s something reassuring about seeing landscape painters here, as artists have done for thousands of years,” he said to Saint-Gaudens curator Henry Duffy. “I suppose if it weren’t raining, they’d be out in the garden?”

Tax-deductible contributions toward the movie’s expenses can be made by check payable to Meriden Bird Club and mailed to Fern Meyers, 62 King Road, Etna, N.H. 03750.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.