Art Notes: Artist’s Images Animate Eccentric Objects from the 18th and 19th Centuries

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    Rosamond Purcell's "Norfolk Island Kereru Leiden" is part of her Big Town Gallery show "An Art That Nature Makes" in Rochester, Vt., until July 23, 2017. courtesy photograph

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    Rosamond Purcell's "Book-nest, Found Object" is part of her Big Town Gallery show "An Art That Nature Makes" in Rochester, Vt., until July 23, 2017.

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    Rosamond Purcell's "Reddish Egret egg collected by John James Audubon in Florida" is part of her Big Town Gallery show "An Art That Nature Makes" in Rochester, Vt., until July 23, 2017.

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    Rosamond Purcell's "The Great Egret" is part of her Big Town Gallery show "An Art That Nature Makes" in Rochester, Vt., until July 23, 2017. courtesy photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/6/2017 12:05:20 AM
Modified: 7/6/2017 12:25:27 AM

In the documentaryAn Art that Nature Makes, which screens on Sunday, July 16, at the Hopkins Center, the photographer Rosamond Purcell, whose work is also on view at BigTown Gallery in Rochester, Vt., talks about the “dark box that is the imagination.”

If the imagination is a box, she says, then she is the one who is “always trying to pick the lock.”

Purcell, who lives in Boston, takes photographs of the objects and natural curiosities that most of us ignore or find too odd, eccentric, decayed, worthless or distasteful to contemplate for long. She scours junkyards and natural history and science museums for the objects she eventually makes portraits of.

They are windows into worlds that have long vanished, creatures now extinct, books and authors no longer read, or even remembered. Over the years she has collaborated with the noted Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould and magician Ricky Jay, among others.

But her photographs are more than elegies for what is gone: they also animate the 18th and 19th century mind in a way that reading a text alone can’t always accomplish.

Here are the objects that were sought out, collected and gawked at, with sensibilities quite different than our own. The public might call some of the photographs, and the objects they celebrate, morbid. But that overlooks their delicacy and intricacy, and the life she gives them.

There was in these 18th and 19th century temperaments a willingness to forthrightly acknowledge death and decay, because they were omnipresent and unavoidable.

By contrast, the 21st century American mind is obsessed with preserving youth and reluctant to confront disease and death, which have been, in a sense, removed from public view. We might learn something from the earlier generations Purcell honors in her work.

Purcell’s cataloguing itself seems emblematic of the 19th century eagerness to learn and study everything, to understand the microscopic within the macroscopic.

The 15 digital archival prints on view at BigTown include photographs of a book with a rodent’s nest embedded in its pages, an album of 19th century fern specimens, Australian, Pacific and American stuffed birds, African gorilla skulls and birds’ eggs.

The 2008 photograph of 24 murre (also called the guillemot) eggs nestled in a collecting case is remarkably arresting.

The eggs, which seem to have been placed in egg cups, are arranged symmetrically in a box swaddled with what looks like lamb’s wool. The eggs themselves are white, ivory, pale blue and gray, and bear speckles and lines of every imaginable pattern.

If Jackson Pollock had decided to use the drip method on eggs, they might have come out like this.

But that’s the point: no human engineered these eggs. Nature has randomly designed each egg within the set parameter of what murre eggs will look like. Purcell has photographed them from overhead so that, in their egg cups, they look like little globes, or self-contained universes.

Equally striking is a photograph of an enormous elephant bird egg resting on its side, while next to it Purcell has placed a hummingbird egg so tiny that the contrast between them elicits both awe and amusement. The elephant bird, which lived on Madagascar and was roughly the size of the ostrich, is extinct. The hummingbird, of course, is still here.

Which begs a question: what wrinkles of evolution and environment permitted the hummingbird to outlast the elephant bird?

We tend to think of small as vulnerable and easily stamped out, while we assume that larger is stronger and more durable. Not true, but it’s a misguided human assumption, which Purcell calls into question by her juxtaposition of the two eggs.

Awe was a word that I came back to when looking at Purcell’s photographs in the BigTown show. The gorilla skulls that are so close to our own in structure, the graceful outstretched snowy white plumage of an egret, the dense patterning and spiraling architecture of a sea snail shell.

At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old neighbor out on a lawn shaking her fist, it sometimes feels as though awe, or the sublime, is being stripped away from 21st century daily life — at least in the West.

The daily media barrage (which, true, one doesn’t have to participate in) overwhelms. We know so much, or think we know so much — and yet we know so little at the same time. Human nature is too curious and indefatigable to be reduced to tweets, lists and aggregated news, of course. But a rough, unfiltered current is there, sweeping us all with it.

Purcell’s work is a kind of antidote to all that. It’s not as though she is assuaging our anxieties with pretty pabulum.

Everything we see in her photographs calls human and animal existence into question. We regret the loss of the extinct creatures she catalogues. But she also puts them in a context and gives us license to admire their singular design.

Also on view at BigTown is an exhibition of marvelously carved wooden sculpture by the late Hugh Townley, and collages by Marcus Ratliff. Purcell’s show runs through July 23.

For information on the BigTown exhibition, go to or call 802-767-9670. The Purcell documentary An Art that Nature Makes will screen at 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 16, at the Loew Auditorium in the Black Family Visual Arts Center at Dartmouth College. Go to for information and tickets, or call the Hopkins Center Box Office at 603-646-2422.

Openings and Receptions

Long River Gallery and Gifts at 49 South Main Street in White River Junction, now permanently relocated from its Lyme location, hosts a public reception Friday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. for Londonderry, Vt., artist Martha Stevenson, who draws on the American folk art tradition for her work. She also calls on the mural tradition of famed 19th century painter Rufus Porter, who traveled throughout New England installing murals in public houses and private homes.

An exhibition of work by Claremont artists Sue Lawrence and Andrew Williams (who are married) titled “Together, Captured Moments in Realism,” curated by Kristin Stein Saroyan, opens at the Norwich Public Library Friday with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. The show closes August 26.

Norman Williams Public Library in Woodstock will hold an opening reception for photographer Joanna Garbisch, who helped develop early color Polaroids in the 1960s, Friday from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Garbisch’s exhibit is on view through Aug. 14.

The Converse Library in Lyme will be showing in its Betty Grant Gallery an exhibition of work by an informal group of artists who come together under the name Odanaksis, the Abenaki word for “little village.”

The theme for this show is “Summer Time in Lyme.” They have previously exhibited at other venues in the Upper Valley. Artists include: Anne Rose, Jonathan Rose, Anne Webster Grant, Gail M. Barton, Helen Elder, Susan Rump, Linda Laundry, Jo Tate, Becky Cook, Karen Chalom and Rebecca Bense. The show opens on Monday; a public reception will be held Wednesday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The show runs all summer and ends Sept. 30.

Osher at Dartmouth in Hanover will exhibit “The Outsiders,” a show of work by Anne Hartmann, Judith Pettingell, and Ann Semprebon. There will be a public reception today from 4 to 6 p.m. The exhibition runs through Aug. 24. Hours are: Monday through Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.


BigTown Gallery, Rochester, Vt. An exhibition of photographs by Rosamond Purcell, the Boston writer and photographer, runs through July 23. Prints and sculpture by the late Hugh Townley are on view 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 of paintings by the Chelsea artist and dancer Hannah Dennison, is up through August.

Center for the Arts, Lake Sunapee. The CFA sponsors three exhibitions throughout the Lake Sunapee region. An exhibition of landscape photography by James Mudie and photographs of flowers by Richard Gulezian is on view in the Lake Sunapee Bank’s micro gallery. Mary Beth Westward exhibits landscapes at Whipple Hall in New London. The second annual Center for the Arts exhibition, featuring oil, watercolor and acrylic paintings, as well as drawings and mixed media, is on view at the New London Inn. All three shows end July 29.

Cider Hill Art Gallery, Windsor. Cider Hill is open for the season with exhibitions of sculpture, painting and environmental installations by Steven Proctor, Herb Ferris, Gary Haven Smith, the Mythmakers and Gary Milek.

Aidron Duckworth Museum, Meriden. Laura Moriarty exhibits works on paper and Claremont sculptor Ernest Montenegro exhibits “flatmensquared” through July 23.

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.

Howe Library, Hanover. The work of Stephanie Gordon, who teaches art at Hanover High School, is featured in the exhibition “80 Degrees: Encaustic Paintings.” The show runs through Aug. 2.

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

Library Arts Center, Newport. Carmela Azzaro, Christine R. Hawkins, Ali Keller, Susan Lawrence, Laura Morrison, Richard Stockwell, Patricia Sweet-MacDonald and Tara Van Meter show their work in the annual “Selections” exhibition, culled from the best of the 2016 Regional Juried show. The show is up through July 28.

Royalton Memorial Library, South Royalton. “Frances & Friends,” an exhibition of fiber crafts, paintings, photographs, and drawings by six South Royalton-area artists is up through July 14.

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 jewelry of Stacy Hopkins.

Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish. An exhibit of large-scale, multi-media constructions by Brooklyn artist Katie Bell, who was a 2016 Saint-Gaudens Fellow, is in the Picture Gallery through July 16.

SculptureFest, Woodstock. The annual celebration of three-dimensional art generally ends when foliage season does, but 80 percent of the show is still on view. “Grounding,” a show of site-specific work curated by sculptors Jay Mead and Edythe Wright, is on view at the King Farm. For more information, go to

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio, White River Junction. Elizabeth Mayor, one of the founders of AVA Gallery and Art Center and a well-known printmaker, shows work. There will be a reception Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. The show runs through July 31.

Zollikofer Gallery, Hotel Coolidge, White River Junction. The “God & Pony Show” brings together prints by Underhill, Vt., artist W. David Powell and the mixed-media collages of Deluxe Unlimited, the nom d’art of Corinth native Ben Peberdy.

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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