Art Notes: Couple Make a Visual Almanac of the Upper Valley

  • Michael Chaney and Sara Biggs Chaney brainstorm ideas for images to add to their April almanac painting of local landscapes at home in Wilder, Vt., with their dog Vegas, Tuesday, March 27, 2018. They will fill each of 30 spaces on the gridded canvas, one for each day in the month of April, with images and researched text on the theme of local landscapes. Michael Chaney is a professor of English and Sara Biggs Chaney is a lecturer in writing, both at Dartmouth College. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

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    Sara Biggs Chaney and her husband Michael Chaney have developed their non-verbal communication skills while executing the physical processes of creating paintings together, like taping off the grid that will define each small image in their next almanac painting at home in Wilder, Vt., Tuesday, March 27, 2018. "We were always making art next to each other, but we never were making art with each other," said Michael Chaney, adding that it was just a matter of time until they began working together on a project. "Narcissism and self-involvement is a real occupational hazard," said Biggs Chaney. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Michael Chaney and Sara Biggs Chaney refer to a previous almanac painting while brainstoring ideas for their next, in Wilder, Vt., Tuesday, March 27, 2018. Their goal with each painting is to create a cohesive visual whole made of smaller, separate images, so that the viewer's experience changes depending on their distance from the work. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • March Almanac, a painting by Michael Chaney and Sara Biggs, hangs at their home in Wilder, Vt., Tuesday, March 27, 2018.(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Separate images come together to make the form of a crow in the painting Almanac with Crows by Michael Chaney and Sara Biggs Chaney hanging at their home in Wilder, Vt., Tuesday, March 27, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • February Almanac, a painting by Michael Chaney and Sara Biggs Chaney, hangs at their home in Wilder, Vt., Tuesday, March 27, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/5/2018 12:05:13 AM
Modified: 4/6/2018 1:33:22 PM

Much of it started with a murder — of crows. “A mega-murder,” said poet Sara Biggs Chaney, referring to the collective noun for the raucous black birds who, at certain times of year, gather in huge, cacophonous numbers outside her family’s home in Wilder. She pointed out the window where, by an old well planter on a then-snow-covered knoll, crows come to sit and scream by the hundreds.

“It. Is. Deafening,” she said.

Chaney and her husband, Michael, are both creative types who are inspired by such enigmas of nature, and seek to puzzle them out, together, through art of many mediums. She is a lecturer of writing at Dartmouth College’s Institute of Writing and Rhetoric who is especially interested in translation studies. He is an oil painter and English professor at Dartmouth, where he chairs the African and African American Studies Program, and also specializes in the autobiographical graphic novel.

Since September, the Chaneys have been working daily on what they hope will be a year-long visual “almanac” of the Upper Valley, where they’ve lived since 2005. They’re particularly interested in documenting their own little corner of the Valley, on Jericho Street, in their house at the base of Gillette Hill. The mixed-media pieces — there are six finished ones so far — integrate both of their scholarly fields, though not in overtly academic ways.

“Sara is a working poet, and I would say quite a successful one,” said Michael Chaney in an interview at Tuckerbox, in White River Junction, over caffeine and a generous serving of lavash bread. Sara grinned into her lap. The Chaneys are the kind of couple who are always singing each other’s praises; the interview was peppered with phrases like “Tell her about the time you did this,” or “Tell her about what you did with that.”

Later on, Sara would lament the writer’s life as one so replete with rejection that success is a slippery measure. But her writing has found a home on a number of platforms — including in her and Michael’s almanacs.

The Chaneys work in their dining room, and begin by stretching strips of masking tape over a canvas to divide it into a grid — almost like a calendar, with each square representing a single day and becoming something of a miniature canvas unto itself — or what Michael described as a “crystallized capsule” of his and Sara’s life in the Upper Valley. They listen to instrumental hip-hop as they fill in the squares, sometimes discussing their visions with each other, sometimes letting them converge on their own.

The “squares” (or more accurately, rectangles) vary wildly in content. Some are tiny oil paintings by Michael Chaney, which may be abstract or representational or surreal. Others are snippets of Sara’s poetry, configured into shapes both familiar and not. Still others hold what the Chaneys described as “archival” materials, collected both from their own everyday lives, and from their digging into centuries past.

Their research has uncovered stories and questions that have at times consumed them: The freak violence that ran through the family of a Tunbridge man named Harvey Ainsworth; a man from Windsor named Lemuel Hedge who held many patents, including one for a band saw. Some of their almanacs incorporate yellowed strips of old newspapers that, they said, would otherwise have been thrown out.

The pieces are not “almanacs” in the true — or rather, the traditional — sense of the word. Both the Chaneys’ almanacs and the quintessential Old Farmer’s Almanac are calendar-based documents that present themselves chronologically. But rather than a collection of weather forecasts and astronomical data, the Chaneys’ almanacs are part visual diary, part daily art-making exercise, part catalog of personal experience that embeds unexpected and often interactive artifacts of place.

Or, to hear Chaney tell it as only a poet can, “There’s a whole bunch of weird (expletive) on here.”

Among that weird (expletive):

 — A weather-themed spinner whose pointer lands on one of four outcomes, all of them mud.

 — A miniature comic about ellipses.

 — Bits of local newspapers from 200 years ago, in 1818.

 — Bits of T. S. Eliot poems.

 — A red autumn leaf, immortalized in varnish.

 — Paintings of pumpkins, their dog Vegas running through snow, stars over trees, their 16-year-old daughter dressed up in costume from her favorite musical, Cats.

 — A denim pocket, filled with salt.

 — Word puzzles.

 — Another spinner, this one with a pointer made of birch bark, that lands on one of two curlicued words: “poetry” and “miscellany,” which Sara called “a pretty good caption for this whole thing.”

 — Recurring motifs of crows’ feet.

 — Salt packets.

 — A twig.

It started off as a project just for themselves, as a way to work together on an evolving record of their adopted home and its history, and so it feels odd to know how far beyond the Upper Valley some of their almanacs have traveled, they said. Almanac #2 was featured in a juried awards exhibition in Naples, Fla., and Almanac #3 is in a juried exhibition in Kansas City.

Now that she’s creating for other people’s eyes as well as her own, “it does change the way I do things,” Sara acknowledged, “in ways that I don’t necessarily like.” She still feels deeply attached to each almanac, and a part of her hopes nobody will buy them. It confuses the sense of belonging one has to one’s own memories, she said. But another part of her likes that people are interested in the kind of tricks she and Michael like to play.

The Chaneys’ favorite trick might be harnessing what Michael called “the line between reading and seeing.” From a distance, he went on, Almanacs #2 and #5 appear as lines of block lettering that spell out a poem by Sara.

“Then, as you get closer, you realize they’re paintings,” he said. The lettering yields to the picture in which it’s embedded: The “S” in CHOSEN, for example, is also the zig-zagging staircase at the construction site on Gates Street. The “T” in WINTER comes from the gap between two doors.

“We’re interested in that interplay of how the brain interprets and experiences something as text versus image,” Michael said, dipping a shred of lavash bread in baba ganoush. Being on the lookout for letter-like shapes in their surroundings has changed their way of seeing, made it more intentional, he said.

This interplay also gets at why he’s so taken with graphic autobiographical novels: They use language, but at their heart, they also convey the richness of life through fragmented images that, taken together, become a whole. The grid-like format of the Chaneys’ almanacs make them their own form of ongoing graphic autobiography, one that’s creating itself as it unfolds in real time.

As for Sara, she likes to think about the almanacs as experimental translations of personal experience. In literature, when you’re translating a complicated sentence that may be idiomatic or elevated in its language, “you have to break it down,” she said. “You have to make it more basic.”

The almanacs translate the Chaneys’ experiences of everyday life into a language that is at once simpler than the experience it’s based on — communicating through pictures, symbols, objects — but also, for the viewer, more enigmatic, drawing attention to the ways in which interpretation is an act of translation, too.

To learn more about Michael and Sara Biggs Chaney’s ongoing almanac project, go to

Openings and Receptions

ArtisTree Gallery, in South Pomfret, holds an opening reception Friday night at 5:30 for an art exhibit on April’s most seasonally appropriate theme: mud. Through May 5.

A reception for South Royalton artist John Duffy will take place at Tunbridge Public Library on Sunday afternoon, from 2 to 4. Sales from Duffy’s show of photographs, “Where We Live,” will go toward the library and Royalton Community Radio.

First Friday

In White River Junction

Long River Gallery: Rob Oxford plays live music from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Work by the Hartland photographer John Lehet remains up on the gallery’s Artist of the Month wall.

Newberry Market: Local artisans sell artwork, clothing, jewelry and other handmade items downtown from 5 to 8 p.m.

Scavenger Gallery: The Pennsylvania-based painter Dave Ohlerking shows work through April. A reception and wine tasting will take place Friday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio: A show by the Enfield artist Patty Castellini opens Friday with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Through April 30.

Zollikofer Gallery: A reception will take place 5 to 7 p.m. at Hotel Coolidge, for a show of photographs by Norwich resident Scott McClure Miller. Through June 20.

Of Note

The Dartmouth-Hitchcock Arts Program presents a free talk by watercolorist Carole-Anne Centre, of Langdon, N.H., and block-printer Nicole Chazaud Telaar, of Alstead, N.H., Friday morning from 10 to 11:30 in the Lebanon hospital’s Auditorium A. Both artists are inspired by the landscape of Monhegan Island, in Maine.

Free previews and early-bird bidding on the annual Silent Auction at AVA Gallery and Art Center, in Lebanon, continues through Saturday at 4 p.m. Donated works from artists, craftspeople and local businesses will include paintings, photographs, sculpture, mixed-media, jewelry and furniture. Final bidding will take place at the Silent Auction Party on Saturday evening from 5 to 8 p.m., for which the admission fee is $35 for members and $45 for non-members in advance, or $50 at the door. This price includes one drink ticket. Bidders can win items at anytime during the week by offering the “buy it now” amount. Proceeds from the auction support AVA’s art programming. For admission and more information, call AVA at (603) 448-3117 or purchase online at

Early-bird registration is open for this summer’s International Comics and Medicine Conference. The Aug. 16-18 event series, which explores the intersection between comics and health care discourse, will be hosted by the Center for Cartoon Studies, in White River Junction, with support from the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.

This year’s workshops, discussions, exhibits and lectures will explore the idea of “graphic medicine” through the theme of “The Ways We Work,” inspired by one of this year’s keynote speakers, Norwich resident David Macaulay, who is perhaps best known for his visual guides to machines and the human body in The Way Things Work and The Way We Work.

Early-bird registration is open until April 15, and costs $105. General registration is $125. To register and learn more, visit


Barrette Center for the Arts, White River Junction. “VoxSomnium,” an exhibition of mixed-media work by Norwich artist Laura Di Piazza, is presented in conjunction with the Vermont Pastel Society’s group exhibition and Northern Stage, the theater company that calls the Barrette Center home. Through May.

Center for the Arts, New London. Exhibits in micro-galleries at Lake Sunapee Bank, the New London Inn and Whipple Hall are on view through April.

Converse Free Library, Lyme. Kathy Swift, of Lyme, shows work in “Japanese Ink Paintings on Paper” through June 30. Ten percent of sales will go toward Friends of Lyme Library.

Gifford Gallery, Randolph. Watercolors by Killington artist Maurie Harrington are on display through May 2.

Hopkins Center for the Arts, Hanover. The installation artist Natalie Jeremijenko, who is artist-in-residence in Dartmouth College’s Studio Art Department, shows work in the Jaffe-Friede Gallery through April 29.

Howe Library, Hanover. Lebanon artist Sue Wheeler’s show of abstract work, “Immersive Tactiles,” is on view in the Ledyard Gallery through May 2.

Kilton Public Library, West Lebanon. Artwork by Mount Lebanon Elementary School students will be shown from today through May.

Norwich Public Library. “Spring Around the Upper Valley,” a show by the Odanaksis artist group, shows through April 27.

Orford Social Library. “Made in Orford,” an exhibition of work by Orford artists and artisans, shows through April 19.

Osher at Dartmouth, Hanover. “Pilgrims, Parades and Politics,” a show of photographs of Ireland and Northern Ireland by Herb Swanson, of Lyndonville, Vt., continues through April 26.

Taylor Gallery, Kimball Union Academy, Meriden. “The Golden Age of Haitian Art: Late ’80s and Early ’90s,” through Saturday.

White River Gallery at BALE, South Royalton. “Petroglyphs, Flora and Frenzied Encounters: The Hand-Pulled Prints of Betsey Garand” features a variety of printmaking techniques by Garand, who lives in Hancock, N.H. There will be a reception and artist talk May 5, from 4 to 6 p.m. Through June 15.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at or 603-727-3216.

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