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Art Notes: A painter’s work comes home for Strafford Historical Society art sale

  • From left, Strafford Historical Society board members Gil Robertson, David Webb, Kate Siepmann, Stefanie Johnston and Roberta Robinson work to arrange a show of the late Harlow Lent's work for a weekend fundraiser in the Strafford Town House in Strafford, Vt., on June 30, 2021. Proceeds from the sale of nearly 80 paintings will benefit the historical society. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

  • Strafford Historical Society board members Kate Siepmann, left, and Roberta Robinson sort unframed canvases by the late artist Harlow Lent for a fundraising show at the Strafford Town House in Strafford, Vt., on June 30, 2021. Robinson was Lent's neighbor on Lent Road in South Strafford. She said his studio was in a barn on his family's property. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Geoff Hansen

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    David Webb, of South Strafford, Vt., places the late Harlow Lent's painting "Daddy-Oh" on a chair in the Strafford Town House while Webb and other board members from the Strafford Historical Society prepare a show of nearly 80 pieces of Lent's work for a fundraiser for the organization. Lent moved to South Strafford with his family in 1947, where he also painted. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/30/2021 9:52:56 PM
Modified: 6/30/2021 9:52:59 PM

STRAFFORD — Artists often lead more than one life. The poet Robert Graves, who titled his memoir, written when he was in the first half of his 30s, Good-Bye to All That, is maybe the bluntest example of a man who split his career into distinct parts.

Harlow Lent, a painter who lived in South Strafford for most of his life, also fits that description. As a young artist during the Great Depression, he made etchings for the Works Progress Administration, work that focused on the human form and on the struggles of the 1930s. One of his most collected etchings from that era is Placing the Girders, a title that speaks to a rebuilding nation.

But after World War II, Lent, who grew up near Boston, moved to South Strafford, and his second act as an artist was nothing like the first. Lent, by his own account, became uncategorizable, making abstract works that defied the tidy genre tags that 20th-century art seemed to create almost weekly.

He also became a local artist, showing work mainly in Vermont and New Hampshire, when he showed it at all. What’s being billed as “The Last Show” of Lent’s work is scheduled for this weekend in his adopted hometown’s grandest venue, the Strafford Town House.

“Harlow’s home, for good,” said Kate Siepmann, curator of the Strafford Historical Society, which is holding the show as a benefit for its eventual renovation of the former Masonic Lodge in South Strafford. The sale is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. both days.

Lent’s daughters, Nancy Lent Lanoue and Isabel Lent Sainz, donated the paintings and priced them to sell, Siepmann said. There are nearly 80 works up for sale, most of them made in the 1970s and 1980s.

In addition to raising a few bucks for the historical society, the aim of the sale is to put these works into Upper Valley homes, Siepmann said.

Born in 1907, Lent was 40 when he moved to South Strafford. He grew up in Everett, Mass., and his father wanted him to work as a cotton broker; textiles were one of New England’s chief industries at the time. But he showed artistic talent from an early age and he studied at the Massachusetts College of Art for four years. In addition to working for the WPA, he taught art and worked as a commercial artist, then transferred his talents to working as a design engineer for Pratt & Whitney, the aircraft engine-maker, during the war.

After he and his family, his wife, Caroline, and the two girls, moved to South Strafford, he supported himself as a manual laborer, both at the Elizabeth Mine, which yielded copper until its closure in 1958, and on major construction projects, including the interstates, the Wilder Dam and the Hopkins Center. When construction stopped for the winter, he painted.

These details come from a brief biography put together by Nancy Lanoue, who’s also a painter. In it, she cites an interview he gave to Upper Valley Magazine in 1991 that accounts for the unclassifiable nature of his work.

“The act of creating is spontaneous,” Lent said. “I start with a shape, or a squiggle, or a line. ... If it begins to look like a head, then I turn it into a head. If it suggests a cat or a chair, I go with that. I never push to exact recognition, but create a suggestion of the object. Sometimes it’s left abstract, as long as the abstraction suggests a mood. ... It’s hard to explain or analyze something that just happens, and if a person thinks they have the answer, they’re off the mark. It would be like analyzing God. Because art is each man’s vision.”

If there’s a school of artmaking in there, it might be abstract expressionism, but Lent wasn’t interested in those labels. He worked to his own standards and interests, something living in Vermont and working to support his family allowed him to do.

Lent died in 1993, and AVA Gallery held a retrospective show the following year. Since then, there have been a couple of shows, including one at his home, on what’s now known as Lent Road, in 2005.

Nancy Lanoue contacted the historical society to see if it would be interested in Lent’s remaining work, Siepmann said. Lent’s early WPA work is in the collections of major museums, including the Met, MoMA and the National Gallery of Art. Private collectors, mainly in New England, bought work he made after 1947, Siepmann said.

The proceeds of the sale will help the historical society with the renovation of the Masonic Lodge, which it purchased for $1 in December after the society had to move out of its previous quarters in Strafford village. The estimates for shoring up the building, which dates to around 1900, are becoming daunting, Siepmann said, hundreds of thousands of dollars for an organization with “a low four-digit bank account.”

“I suggested at the last meeting that we give Melvin Coburn back his dollar,” Siepmann said, referring to the treasurer of the Strafford Masonic Lodge and owner of Coburns’ General Store.

Spare a thought for Siepmann, who had a long career as a graphic designer for Upper Valley nonprofits and took the curator’s job, a volunteer position, last summer. So far, she’s packed up the historical society’s collection, and packed up Lent’s work to bring to Strafford. Like Lent, she’s part artist, part laborer, which helps explain her wry take on the historical society’s challenge.

But also like Lent, the historical society is putting one foot in front of the other. The sale is the society’s first fundraising effort for its new home, and it won’t be the last.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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