Art Notes: Pale Branches Play on Light and Shadow in Cornish

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    "Ghost Ship," a 2016 sculpture by Nanzy Azara, is on view at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. Courtesy photograph

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    "Tuscan Leaves in Red and Blue," a 2013 mixed media work by Nancy Azara, is on view at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. Courtesy photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/3/2017 12:05:25 AM
Modified: 8/3/2017 12:05:31 AM

What is it about trees that makes them such a prevalent metaphor, and across so many genres? There’s the Tree of Life motif that’s found in creation myths the world over; there are the family trees by which we construct and conceive of our own histories; The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, anyone?

One haunting iteration of the tree as metaphor occurs in Mary Oliver’s poem, In Blackwater Woods: “Look, the trees/are turning/their own bodies/into pillars of/light.”

To picture this image is to picture something akin to what the New York City-based sculptor Nancy Azara has done in “Passage of the Ghost Ship: Trees and Vines,” her exhibition at the Picture Gallery at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish. With white paint and iridescent aluminum gilding, Azara has transformed the once-earthbound bodies of trees and vines into pillars — and tangles, and tendrils, and bundles — of light.

Situated as they are against white walls and on white floors, with pale rays of sunlight streaming in through white translucent shades, the shimmering, textured surfaces of Azara’s trees are ethereal and unrooted, as if free-floating bodies in space. The strongest proof of the pieces’ corporeality — short of reaching out and touching them — is the shadows they cast across the gallery’s walls and floors, creating a visual dialogue between light and dark.

“I think there a few elements of (the exhibition) that lend themselves to the use of shadow,” wrote Meghan Gallagher, the exhibitions coordinator at Saint-Gaudens, in a recent email exchange. “One is the starkness of the color palette Nancy uses in this body of work; it is almost entirely white, and so the interplay of the shadows with the ghostliness of the pieces is quite moving, but also spooky and elegant in a really wonderful way.”

Whereas lighting is often the final step in preparing an art installation, and often aims to minimize shadow, this was not the case in “Passage of the Ghost Ship.” Azara worked with Gallagher to light each piece as it went up, a deliberation that speaks to the pieces’ shadows as “extensions of the pieces themselves,” Gallagher wrote.

In Ghost Ship, the titular and most striking piece in the exhibition, Azara has repurposed a dead wisteria, a plant that twines itself around anything it can find. A tangled mass of its vines hangs, suspended, between two rough-hewn, white-painted pillars of wood. The way the tendrils spill down to the floor, blending into their own intricate shadows, made me think of a moon-colored net trawling the bottom of the sea, or the tentacles of some enormous and convoluted jellyfish. Though the sculpture itself is static, it seems to capture a moment of slow, graceful movement, like that of a ship on which I wouldn’t mind being rocked to sleep.

Less tranquil, and somewhat more abstruse, is the Tuscan Leaves collage series. Azara has arranged leaf tracings, which are either left blank or colored in with white pencil, against the black textured background of a bark rubbing; all of this sits under mylar, a transparent plastic film. Interestingly, each white leaf bears the same minor asymmetries, suggesting they are all traced from the same original leaf. This makes each collage’s singular slap of leaf in red or blue stand out all the more, a vibrant if unpolished oddity amidst the colorless replicas.

To Azara, trees are not only visually pleasing, but also symbolic of the human experience, she said in a phone interview last week. But not just any human’s experience. The way she sees it, a tree has a gender, and that gender is female.

“Women over centuries have worked with trees as representations of the self,” she said. “There’s something about a tree that connects to the self, and especially to women. I just felt that that particular vine and tree was, or is, something that’s much more human-feeling than many other things.”

The way Azara’s feminism manifests in her Saint-Gaudens exhibition is subtle at best, and so it helps to know about her long career in feminist art prior to visiting the space.

She began making art in the late 1960s, when the art world was even more of a boys’ club than it is now. “Fifty years ago, being a woman artist, and a woman sculptor, was kind of rare,” she said. “People didn’t expect that, and a lot of people didn’t like it.”

But she continued to use art to push through the patriarchy. In 1979, she co-founded a school called the New York Feminist Art Institute to train women in the arts, and “to explore whether there is indeed a particular way of seeing the world” that is unique to women, she said. She taught at the school until its closing in 1990.

Color has always been a major part of how Azara expresses her experience of womanhood, she said, noting her particular fondness for bold purples, pinks and reds. But white, which is both the visible absence of color and the amalgam of all colors, is consistent with the themes she has been grappling with lately.

“Once I began listening to the vine and the tree, I began to see something about it that spoke to me. It spoke to me about my life, and going toward the last chapter of my life,” said Azara, who is 77. “And since this show is also about the absence of being, I decided it would be an all-white show. There are touches of color here and there, but by and large I wanted whiteness.”

But even absence — of light, of life and of hue — has its own kind of presence in the exhibition.

Sweet Pea, for example, features a small, delicate tree, which died when some creature ate away all its roots, Azara said. It appears to have been a maple tree, based on what remains of its life: Some wing-shaped seed pods, now brown and desiccated, still cling to the tips of its branches, though only just. They flutter slightly in the gentle wafting of the gallery’s dehumidifier, instilling a sense that even this now-inanimate object, which Azara has fixed between the stages of death and decay, is subject to change over time.

Nancy Azara’s exhibition, “Passage of the Ghost Ship: Trees and Vines,” is up at the Picture Gallery at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish through Sept. 10. Admission is included in the $10 entry fee to the park.

Openings and Receptions

Zollikofer Gallery in White River Junction will hold a reception for “Up Close in White River Junction” this First Friday from 5 to 7 p.m. The show, a tribute by members of the White River Junction branch of the Vermont Watercolor Society to the wealth of historic architecture in the town, is up through August.

The White River Gallery at BALE in South Royalton will host an opening reception and artist talk for Patrick Dunfey, a Hartford-based painter and photographer, Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m. Dunfey’s large-scale painting exhibition is on view through Sept. 30.

The Boston- and Vermont-based photographer Erik Baier traveled to communes across the country to capture the simplistic, often unconventional homes that people build in these spaces. He presents this work in a black and white show, “Commune,” which opens Wednesday at BigTown Gallery in Rochester, Vt. A reception and artist talk will take place Sunday, Aug. 13 at 4 p.m. The exhibition is up through Sept. 9.

Of Note

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio in White River Junction holds a “Demo Day” on Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., an opportunity for the public to see the studio’s artist members demonstrate a wide variety of printmaking techniques. Free and open to the public.


Aidron Duckworth Art Museum, Meriden. “Pride of Plainfield,” a community exhibition celebrating the town’s rich agricultural presence through photographs, articles and audio, is up through Sept. 29. Featured businesses include Edgewater Farm, Garfield’s Smokehouse, Hall Apiaries, McNamara Dairy, Noda Farm, Riverview Farm and Taylor Brothers Farm.

Also up at the museum is “Bartelli Murals Remembered,” which looks back on the past of Route 120 in Lebanon through a 1990 mural by the late Plainfield painter Aidron Duckworth. Through Sept. 10.

AVA Gallery and Art Center, Lebanon. The 103 works of art in the Juried Summer Exhibition, selected by Hood Museum of Art director John Stomberg, are on view through Sept. 23. In Kira’s Garden, an outdoor sculpture installation, is on view through Aug. 23. Featured Upper Valley sculptors include: Scott Gordon of Norwich, Lela Jaacks of Brownsville, Michael Kraatz and Susan Russell of Canaan, John Kemp Lee of White River Junction, John Matusz of Waitsfield and Abraham Oort of Hartland.

BigTown Gallery, Rochester, Vt. “Walk Into My Heart,” a multi-media installation by Deborah Bohnert, continues through Saturday. The exhibition blends such mediums as sculpture, paintings, sketches and found objects. There is also an exhibit featuring work by Hugh Townley, the late sculptor and printmaker, through Sept. 10.

Chandler Gallery, Randolph. “Scale: Models to Monuments” explores the history and impact of public art through sculpture and photography. Randolph sculptor Jim Sardonis curated the exhibit. On view through Sept. 2.

Chelsea Public Library. “Moving Paint, Moving Bodies,” an exhibit by the longtime Chelsea dance artist Hannah Dennison, highlights the relationship between Dennison’s dance career and her paintings. Through August.

Cider Hill Art Gallery, Windsor. The gallery and garden center exhibits sculpture, painting and installations by Steven Proctor, Herb Ferris, Gary Haven Smith, the Mythmakers and Gary Milek.

Converse Free Library, Lyme. Members of the artists’ group Odankansis show their work in the exhibition “Summer Time in Lyme.” Through Sept. 30.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon. The hospital’s summer art exhibit includes the work of seven New England artists: Mark Bolton, Carol Keiser, Alison Palizzolo, Richard Perry, Sheryl Trainor and Robin Weisburger. It also features masks created by patients in the psychiatric unit as part of the project “The Faces of Mental Illness and Healing.” Through September.

Hall Art Foundation, Reading, Vt. There are three shows currently on view: “Hope and Hazard: A Comedy of Eros,” a show of more than 80 paintings on the subject of romantic and sexual love; “Ready. Fire! Aim,” a collaboration between the foundation and Burlington City Arts; and a solo show by David Shrigley. All run through Nov. 26.

Hood Downtown, Hanover. “The Everyday Fantastic,” an exhibition of photographs by Missouri photographer Julie Blackmon, is on view through Aug. 27.

Kilton Public Library, West Lebanon. Susan Pearson, a pastel artist from Canaan, exhibits her work during regular library hours through Sept. 30.

Norman Williams Public Library, Woodstock. The photos of Joanna Garbisch, who helped develop color Polaroids in the 1960s, are on view through Aug. 14.

Norwich Public Library. An exhibition of work by Claremont artists (and husband and wife) Sue Lawrence and Andrew Williams titled “Together, Captured Moments in Realism” closes Aug. 26.

Osher at Dartmouth, Hanover. “The Outsiders,” a show of work by Anne Hartmann, Judith Pettingell, and Ann Semprebon, runs through Aug. 24.

Royalton Memorial Library, South Royalton. Lindsey Cole, a seventh-generation Vermonter and South Royalton native with a master’s degree in environmental law from Vermont Law School, shows paintings, drawings and photographs through Sept. 29.

Scavenger Gallery, White River Junction. Black-and-white woodcuts, and handmade wooden serving spoons made by Norwich farmer, writer and artist Suzanne Lupien, are on view, in addition to the nature-inspired jewelry of Stacy Hopkins.

SculptureFest, Woodstock. The annual sculpture exhibition at 304 Prosper Road features work by Judith Wrend and Joseph Chirchirillo, with Murray Dewart as a special guest artist. Other sculptors showing new work are: Brooks Baird, Charlet Davenport, Herb Ferris, Liz Fletcher, Roger Goldenberg, Bruce Hathaway, John Hikory, Lela Keen Jaacks, Justin Kenney, Robert Markey, Jay Mead, Leah Woods and Zoe Frie.

Tunbridge Public Library. The group show “Connecting Fibers” features fiber art by Susan Cain, Judy Cayer, Louise Clark, Carrie Cooker, Christina Duffy, Betty LaWhite, Karyn Lord, Caitlyn Macglaflin, Katrina Mojzesz, Fern Strong and Belinda Whipple Worth. Through Aug. 26.

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

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