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Painting earns a posthumous prize for a Vermont artist

  • Reginald Vessey in an undated photograph. (Courtesy photograph)



Valley News Correspondent
Wednesday, July 17, 2019

In the days and weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, one of the gathering points for New Yorkers who lived and worked near the World Trade Center was St. Paul’s Chapel, built in 1766 and the oldest church still extant in Manhattan.

The chapel, an elegant Georgian-era stone edifice, stood in the shadow of the two steel towers. Remarkably, it withstood the explosions and the billowing toxic clouds, and became an impromptu shrine to the dead and the missing.

On Sept. 11, Reginald Vessey, an artist and Broadway stagehand, and his wife Dorothy Stanley, an actor, were living on the Upper West Side, seven miles uptown. But Vessey and Stanley made a pilgrimage two weeks later to look at St. Paul’s, which had become the nexus for tributes and memorials, a place where rescue workers and fire fighters searching the rubble came to rest, eat and sleep. People called it an “oasis of heaven in the midst of hell.”

Greatly moved by the scene, Vessey worked assiduously for 15 years on his own tribute to the fallen, a painting in egg tempera he called 911 on Vesey Street, which refers to the chapel’s location on Broadway between Fulton and Vesey streets.

Although he was gravely ill this spring, Vessey had always intended to submit 911 on Vesey Street to the 2019 Summer Juried Exhibition at AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, his wife, Dorothy Stanley, said in a phone interview this week from their home in Mount Holly, Vt. She and a friend had brought the canvas over to the gallery during the submission process.

Unfortunately, Vessey did not live long enough to see his work installed, or to learn that he had earned a special Juror Recognition Award in the exhibition, which opened last week and runs through Aug. 21. He died June 12 at age 68 from a cancerous brain tumor.

The AVA exhibition features 88 works by 70 artists from 57 towns in Vermont and New Hampshire, culled from 189 entries by 108 artists. Vessey’s painting was one of four recognition awards given out by Alan Chong, director of the Currier Museum in Manchester and the exhibition juror.

Chong also gave Juror’s Recognition Awards to Barbara Bartlett, of Woodstock, Vermont for her eucalyptus eco-dyed paper,  seed pod, palm material and thread assemblage, Eulogy for Eucalyp; and to Elizabeth D’Amico of Springfield, N.H., for her mixed media box assemblage, Ring of Fire. He awarded this year’s Cornelia M. Rahmelow Photography Prize to Jon Gilbert Fox of Hanover, for his digital photograph print, A Different Kind of Game.

While Chong praised the high level of work in the exhibition “(911 on Vesey Street) really stood out for me for a number of reasons,” he said in a phone interview this week from Manchester.

“The technique is fantastic, the use of tempera, the skill involved in creating a work of so much detail. It’s very impressive,” Chong said.

Vessey’s work strikes a distinct chord of emotional and psychological resonance in a show notable, Chong said, for the seriousness of its themes addressing environmental destruction and loss, and political turmoil.

Stanley, who is familiar to theater and opera audiences in the Upper Valley from her work with Shaker Bridge Theatre, Northern Stage and Opera North, was on hand at the AVA opening to honor her husband. She has seen the painting’s effect on viewers.

“There’s so much in this painting,” she said. “They just stand there and stare at it.”

Two children sit on the sidewalk, their faces reflective and somber. They are surrounded by the kinds of objects that have become symbols of national mourning in the face of calamity: layer upon layer of American flags, stuffed dogs and teddy bears, postcards of the city, nameplates, badges, replicas of the Statue of Liberty, toy firetrucks, baseball caps, flowers, handwritten messages, “Missing” flyers.

Vessey, whose earlier egg tempera work Carousel Horse had been part of the biennial 2017 AVA juried exhibition, achieved in 911 on Vesey Street a heightened magic realism: It’s not the world as you see it through photographs or with the naked eye, there is no attempt at verisimilitude. But the scrupulousness of the details and its melancholy aura take you into Vessey’s world, and into the national mood. 

The painting has a luminous, delicate sheen and a level of fine detail that is characteristic of egg tempera, in which powdered pigment, egg yolk and water are mixed together. Such Renaissance masters as Raphael and Botticelli were renowned for their use of egg tempera, and in the 20th century painters Paul Cadmus and George Tooker (who lived in Hartland) used the centuries-old technique in the service of social realism and religious art.

Stanley watched her late husband work over his paintings, always refining and improving. “He would paint something and erase it and he would paint something and erase it.”

A test that Chong sets himself when he looks at art, he said, is “What would I understand from this work if I knew nothing” about the context in which it was made, or the artist, or the era. In his portrait of the two children, Vessey has achieved a “sense of inner absorption which is very difficult to capture and render,” Chong added.

There’s something else at work, too, Chong said. While it is about 9/11, it is also, he said, about “lost childhood,” the feeling that emerges when we realize that something has been taken from us, that we’ve lost something significant and there’s no going back.

Stanley and Vessey married in 1999. She describes Vessey as a kind of Renaissance man, a person who could do almost anything and was interested in everything. Her 16-year-old dog Millie also died recently. “I’m kind of lost without them,” she said.

Vessey, who hailed originally from Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, had a “really, really droll, dry sense of humor,” Stanley said. She feels his presence around her in the Mount Holly house.

She isn’t sure what she will do with 911 on Vesey Street, whether it belongs with her or in a museum. Currently, it is not for sale.

“I want it to be someplace where it’s going to be appreciated,” she said.

The AVA Gallery 2019 Summer Juried Exhibition runs through Aug. 21.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.