Art Notes: Finding Art Amidst the Ruins

  • Tioga, PA; July 22, 2009

    Tioga, PA; July 22, 2009

  • Wayne Nield, of Canaan, at his AVA Gallery exhibition.

    Wayne Nield, of Canaan, at his AVA Gallery exhibition.

  • Canaan, NH; January 23, 2014.

    Canaan, NH; January 23, 2014.

  • Tioga, PA; July 22, 2009
  • Wayne Nield, of Canaan, at his AVA Gallery exhibition.
  • Canaan, NH; January 23, 2014.

Ruins have been the subject of a spirited debate in American culture in recent years, a debate that centers largely on Detroit. The Motor City has tens of thousands of empty buildings, and photographers have descended on the city in droves to document them.

Finding beauty in decay is nearly as old as art itself, and the complex emotions viewers experience looking at images of a ruined city are feelings Americans seem to struggle to reckon with. Maybe it’s because we’re still such a new country, we’re not used to the idea of a civiliation that’s grown up, matured and died. The uneasiness that has pervaded the United States since 2001, and that worsened after the Great Recession seems to stem from not knowing what’s next now that our mid-20th century power and prosperity have diminished. Our ruins — Detroit’s Packard Plant and its abandoned neighborhoods, for example — are symbols of past greatness, but also spark fears that our decline is irreversible.

Europe has a more nuanced view of ruins. There was a landscape movement in the 18th and 19th centuries to include ruins in public parks, and signs of antiquity — Greek stonework, Roman roads and aqueducts, Druidic stone circles, crumbling Romanesque churches — are everywhere.

New England is perched somewhere between Europe and Detroit, in both space and time. We’ve seen at least one collapse, followed by a second wave of growth.

After the Civil War, this region started to empty out. The young moved to cities to take jobs in the new mills, and farmers moved west in search of land that was easier to work. By the time the Great Depression struck, New England had hollowed out. Then, after World War II, people began to move back in, lured by the countryside and by the work of Helen and Scott Nearing, the homesteaders who authored The Good Life , and enabled, eventually, by the construction of the interstates. At the same time, the New England textile industry that grew up in the late 19th and 20th centuries was starting to fall apart as jobs moved first south, then overseas. Another economic collapse that left empty mill buildings all over the landscape.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that ruins will always be with us, that they are not only part of the visual life of New England and U.S., but are part of what attracts us to certain places. Like it or not, New England’s crumbling houses and barns and mills are part of the scenery that people come here to see. Art and literature help us understand and process what these buildings mean.

Wayne Nield, who settled in Canaan a couple of years ago, knows this first-hand. He was born and raised in Baltimore, Md., where around 15,000 buildings stood abandoned by the year 2000.

“Over a third of the city left,” said Nield, who worked extensively in historic preservation in Baltimore .

AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon is showing some of Nield’s paintings. “The Walls of the Reliquary,” his first solo show in several years, includes a handful of paintings he’s made in response to the worn buildings he’s encountered in the Upper Valley. His paintings look like pieces of the decayed buildings themselves, although they’re made on blank canvas. He doesn’t paint them from life, but rath er looks around, then paints in response to what he sees.

“I find beauty in ruins,” Nield said this week. There’s a street in Canaan he often visits, where he looks at the old railroad station. People apologize for the state of downtown Canaan, he said, but it has it s own beauty.

“I think Americans have an exaggerated sense of wanting things to be new,” Nield said.

What’s lost then is a sense of how to live with what’s old, past its prime, perhaps, but packed with associations. Maybe art that looks at ruins can help soothe the distinct anxiety America seems to feel as it constantly reinvents itself.

Nield will give a gallery talk about his work on June 5 at 6 p.m.

Also at AVA: “White on White: Churches of Rural New England,” a touring show of photographs by Massachusetts photographer Steve Rosenthal and sponsored by Historic New England; “Material Matters,” recent work by White River Junction artist Dave Laro, who specializes in assemblages that call the meanings of objects into question; and in AVA’s second-floor library, works from students in a recent drawing seminar. All shows are on view through June 6.

Of Note

The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction holds its eighth commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 17 at 11 a.m., in the Briggs Opera House. This year’s speaker is the creator of the bestselling Amulet series and illustrator of the Harry Potter book covers, cartoonist Kazu Kibuishi.

Immediately after the ceremony, CCS will open its annual Thesis Exhibition of work by graduating students at the school’s headquarters in the Colodny Building at 94 South Main St. Both the ceremony and the exhibition are free and open to the public, and the show will be open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday through June 22.

Betsy Derrick’s stint as artist in residence at Long River Studios in Lyme continues on May 15 and 16, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. On May 17, Derrick will talk about her favored medium, oil pastels, and will be on hand from 1 to 3 that afternoon.

Openings and Receptions

BigTown Gallery in Rochester, Vt., opens a solo show of recent collages by Marcus Ratliff with a reception Saturday evening, 5 to 7.

Lyme’s Converse Free Library has shown art on and off over the years. Now, the library’s Betty Grant Gallery has a new coordinator, and a new exhibition of paintings in watercolor and gunpowder by Carole-Anne Centre. Gunpowder has to be the best, least-used medium I’ve come across in the Upper Valley. I think the only other instance I’ve seen was in a show of contemporary Chinese art at the Hood Museum several years ago that featured work by Cai Guo-Qiang, who works mainly in gunpowder on paper, a technique he calls “explosion drawings.” The library is on Route 10 in Lyme. Centre’s work remains on view through July. Call 603-795-4622 for more information.

Themes of Nature: Native Portraits of Vermont,” pastel and watercolor paintings by Patricia Killian, are on display at Norwich Public Library through June.

The Ledyard Gallery in Hanover’s Howe Library hosts the annual “55+ Art Show,” a group exhibition of work by amateur artists age 55 and over. This is the show’s 28th year, and it continues through May 28.


White River Junction’s Scavenger Gallery hosts “Never Seen Again,” a suite of paintings by New York artist Judith Vivell that tackle the subject of extinction. Also on display will be new jewelry by Scavenger owner Stacy Hopkins from her collection of work cast from natural history specimens.

Vivell, a realist painter devoted to the natural world, also has an exhibition of large-scale portraits of birds in the lobby of the Vermont Supreme Court in Montpelier, through June 27.

Zollikofer Gallery in White River Junction’s Hotel Coolidge exhibits the “CCS Student Art Show,” work in a variety of media by students at the Center for Cartoon Studies, through May 19.

Two Rivers Printmaking Stud io hosts “Collaboration: A Study of Emotion in Color and Form,” prints by Patty Castellini and Victoria Shalvah Herzberg. The show consists of monotype and solar plate etchings exploring color and the human figure, prints the artists made working together and on their own. The show will run through June 4.

Art on the River Gallery, a new showcase for small works at 100 River St. in Springfield, Vt., hosts “802: Just Vermont,” photographs by Goldie May and John Sinclair. Call 802-885-6156 for more information.

Randolph’s Chandler Gallery holds its Area Artists Show, featuring work by artists from east-central Vermont, through June 15.

“2-D 4-D Fiber Art,” an exhibition of work by Hanover fiber artist Shari Boraz, is on view at the Roth Center for Jewish Life in Hanover. Boraz dyes and embroiders natural fibers and has been working in textiles since the 1970s. The show continues through June 15.

The Hood Museum of Art hosts “The Art of Weapons: Selections from the African Collection,” and “In Residence: Contemporary Artists at Dartmouth.”

Aidron Duckworth Art Museum, in Duckworth’s former home and studio on Bean Road in Meriden, hosts “How Colors Sing,” a show of landscape drawings and abstract paintings by Amherst, Mass., artist Lorna Ritz, and “Exhibition XXIII, Simplified Forms in Color,” a show chosen by two of the museum’s new trustees that features simpler forms and figures from Duckworth’s oeuvre.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s spring arts shows include work by painter Georgina Forbes, digital painter Gloria King Merritt and photographer Hunter Paye, as well as participants in the yearly Employee & Volunteer Art Show.

“Girls, Girls, Girls,” recent paintings by Daisy Rockwell, is on view at the Main Street Museum in White River Junction.

Collective — the Art of Craft, a cooperative gallery in Woodstock, is featuring the work of jeweler Joy Raskin, photographer Miranda Hammond and leathersmith Kim Rilleau through the month of June.

Tunbridge Public Library shows paintings by Peter Flint.

Alex Hanson can be reached at, or 603-727-3219.