BRATTLEBORO—This weekend, Whetstone Studio will the mark anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene with open studios and music, celebrating survival and the turning around of what could have been a tragedy. The three-story building of artists’ galleries is better than ever.
But amidst all the hubbub and happenings there will be a quieter, more contemplative draw: The gathering of a lifetime of art of Stacy Morse, a longtime resident of Brattleboro and Guilford who died on New Year’s Day.
An exhibit collects the prodigious childhood drawings and paintings from the scenic backdrops, to the portrait paintings and sculpted Big Heads.
“There are people that know her for her costumes and scenic designs, others know her as a painter of portraits, and still others know her for her Big Heads,” said her brother, Eric Morse, of Guilford. “This is the first time all has been brought together.”
The depth and breadth of his sister’s talent is breathtaking.
Encouraged by Mara Williams, chief curator of the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center, to share Stacy Morse’s work with the public, he will do just that this weekend at a studio in the Whetstone building, donated by building owner/builder David Parker.
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This exhibit is the perfect arrangement for someone who was both a very public and very private person. From the many self-portraits included in the show, people will know Stacy Morse — if not by name, then as the slender (or at times in the last decade of her life, when liver disease had taken its toll, gaunt) woman who could be seen walking about downtown with her beloved poodle, Babette.
She lived on a lower floor of the Hooker-Dunham Building (and had her studio there for a time) and would wander into performances in the theater a floor above her as if it were her living room — indeed, often wearing bedroom slippers and, as always, carrying Babette.
The management there made all kinds of exceptions for Stacy, an incredibly talented woman of quixotic temperament who gave tenfold more than she received.
When Eric Morse first moved to Guilford, among the first of the wave of young people escaping from the cities and suburbs to become homesteaders, live the “good life,” and pursue ideals, Stacy Morse was living out on a commune in Ohio.
He visited her and found her making deerskin boots and carving utensils. She’d been receiving accolades since childhood for her art, and Morse saw that “at Packers Corners, there was a community that would be receptive to an artistic person like Stacy.” In 1972, at his urging, she joined him in Guilford.
And they were receptive. Though she never lived there, Stacy Morse became one of the close-knit creative family at “P.C.,” helping on theater productions, a task that became a lifelong love.
Costumes, scenery, and stage props became her metier (she acted as well). With sculptor Mark Fenwick, director John Carroll, and a host of helpers, she lent her talents to make these productions delightfully inventive.
This aspect of the pooled talents of several communes in Guilford became known as the “Monteverdi Players.”
The Stuff of Dreams, one of the first films by two longtime Windham County filmmakers, Alan Dater and John Scagliotti, documents the players’ production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and features Stacy Morse creating the papier-mâché dog heads that have been kept all these years and are at the Whetstone exhibit. The video will run on a loop while the studio is open.
During the 1970s, when Brattleboro’s arts community was coming to life, she also worked on productions for Sam Pilo’s Actors Theatre of Brattleboro and the Brattleboro Center for the Performing Arts (BCPA), performed in the Elliot Street building that now houses the Hotel Pharmacy.
In this era, the born portrait painter also seems to have been everywhere and painted everyone, from street urchins to communards to the local lights of Brattleboro.
Two accomplished paintings from her childhood are in the Whetstone exhibit. Several others, including one of local author, columnist, and activist Marty Jezer, will be at the Whetstone. An oil painting portrait of Hannah Cosman, a long-time Selectboard member, hangs at the Municipal Center in the room that bears her name.
Another one of Stacy Morse’s rare public art pieces to have been installed in Brattleboro is a three-dimensional portrait of Jim Latchis, long the manager at the Latchis Theatre, dispensing tickets at the ticket counter. This piece has been shown at, of course, the Latchis Theatre, as well as other sites about town.
The Latchis piece, and another, larger than life size, of Edgar Sather, made for “The Men Who Cook,” are relatively recent and grew out of Morse’s other oeuvre for which she was known: the Big Heads.
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Stacy Morse spent some of her years growing up in New York City where, while in her teens, she worked as a douser –– the person who extinguishes the lights — for an off-Broadway production of the opera Mahagony, whose cast included Dave Van Ronk and other notables.
In the 1980s, the artist returned to see if she could make a living at what she loved most: making scenery and costumes for theater productions.
This decision turned into a very eclectic — and, ultimately, lucrative — endeavor.
While there, Morse worked on scenery and costumes for Off-Broadway productions and the New York City Ballet.
She made an inflated figure for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, worked on department store windows, was hired to paint a blocks-long trompe-l’oeil cityscape so a city construction site would be made almost invisible. For a time, she went to Florida to work on giant animatronic dinosaurs for the Disney-MGM Studios theme park.
Back in New York, Morse hooked up with Le Clique, a company that produced entertainment for publicity events and celebrity parties.
There, she created her first Big Head sculpture for Bob Hope’s 80th birthday party — of Bob Hope. An actor donned the head, got on stage with Hope, and interacted with him.
It was a huge success, her brother said, and the sculpture led to many more commissions. She created more than 60 Big Heads in all, 10 to 12 of which will be shown at Whetstone. Among those on display will be Elvis, George Burns, and the Reagans. But some of the fun of the Big Heads is the jolt of recognition, so I will not disclose all.
Once established with Le Clique, Stacy returned to Vermont, reasoning that she could just as easily make the heads here. She had a studio in several locations on Main Street.
Eventually, the income from the Big Heads, which sold for thousands of dollars each, enabled her to buy property in Guilford just down the road from her brother and his family on Belden Hill. She set up a studio there as well.
For many years she wintered in town and summered in Guilford, where she tended her beloved vegetable gardens.
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Stacy Morse’s last decade was a difficult one, a roller-coaster of illness that took its toll emotionally and physically as stability proved elusive.
But, her brother said, “Stacy was fiercely independent. She knew how to live the lifestyle she wanted to live, financially and health-wise –– she figured out how to do it.”
The work assembled at Whetstone is a testament to Stacy Morse’s raw talent.
It underscores her ability to apply it to all sorts of materials, and her mastery of playing with style. (Her scenic backdrops, in particular, deliciously mimic the techniques and styles of historic periods in art.)
And it shows the affection that she had for her adopted hometown.