Curtains up

For Main Street Arts, raising funds for a $1 million building upgrade means bringing together multiple talents

SAXTONS RIVER — When Main Street Arts (MSA) charted its course towards a $1 million renovation project to make its 1850s Odd Fellows building accessible to everyone, the leaders of the nonprofit never expected the arts community to respond so enthusiastically.

Sparked by the inspiration of artists from different disciplines, MSA is collaborating, in a true community effort, on the Five Seasons Project, a fundraising and creative undertaking involving music, poetry, performance, and visual art.

The whole project draws on all the arts and uses the arts organization's famed collection of theater curtains - the largest in the state with 10 historic pieces still used in theater productions today - as the backdrop for fundraising.

The project's musical chorale, “The Saxtons River Suite,” composed by resident Carol Wood, provides the soundtrack to five poems in the five seasons: autumn, winter, spring, and summer - and mud.

All five poems are written by Vermonters: three by poets of yore, and the other two by her husband, John Wood.

The performance will need backdrops, and so five painters were asked, in the tradition of the organization's famed collection of theater curtains, to create scenes to correspond to the seasons.Charlie Hunter recently completed the first backdrop, celebrating mud season, which was unveiled on March 13 at his Bellows Falls studio. Other artists include Eric Aho (winter), Michele Ratté (autumn), Donald Saaf (summer), and Julia Zanes (spring).

Wood credits her friend, Saxtons River landscape architect and author Julie Moir Messervy, with the idea for the far-reaching project.

“We have this marvelous collection at MSA of historic painted theater curtains, and we have these fabulous visual artists in the area,” Wood said. “She said, why don't we plan this project to combine all of them?”

“So we did.”

Wood said of Messervy, “She is one of the most amazing supporters of artists in the area that I know. She will do anything she can to help her friends and their art in any way she can.”

“Julie really is the instigator [behind the Five Seasons Project],” Wood recalled. “It's really her dream.”


MSA's class offerings say that “there is something for everyone.” Yet the building is not accessible to everyone who wishes to participate in a class or attend an event, explained Kathleen Bryar, chair of the organization's first capital campaign committee, formed by unanimous board vote in 2010.

Bryar said, “The Main Street Arts board attacked this problem by thinking outside the box-literally. Adjacent to Main Street Arts was an abandoned, condemned building at 33 Main known as the old pizza parlor. Historic preservation experts determined that the building was not salvageable. Using dogged Yankee determination, MSA acquired the building and through skillful negotiations, stakeholders including the town, state and federal government forgave outstanding debts.”

MSA demolished the building in October 2012 and began to clean up the environmental brownfield on the site. Now all traces of the condemned building are gone. This site now provides space to incorporate a new accessible entrance and an elevator without impacting necessary interior space.

The Moving Up, Moving Forward campaign, formally launched in the spring of 2013 on the heels of MSA's 25th anniversary, will address several priorities, including adding an elevator and accessible bathroom, and giving the building a facelift to make it more welcoming.

MSA has raised 75 percent of its $875,000 goal.

So far, Bryar said, “We have raised $740,000 and still need to raise $260,000.”

To that end, the community support campaign has budgeted a goal of $175,000.

And a good part of that final pot of money will come from the $150,000 expected from the curtain project.

Each artist was asked to do a maquette, a smaller, proportional, fully realized painting to represent the final theater curtains.

And MSA was able to gain a sponsor for the paints used on the curtains (not the maquettes) and have been generously provided by Hamelin Brands - Royal Talens, thanks to their North American agent Kyle Richardson, according to Peter Stolley, MSA trustee chair.

The maquettes will be given to anyone wishing to sponsor a curtain at $25,000, which includes a $5,000 honorarium for the artist. The remaining $20,000 goes to the capital campaign.

“To date, we have three sponsors and need three more,” Bryar said.

From Yo-Yo Ma to Saxtons River by way of Toronto

From an office on Main Street in Saxtons River, Messervy has worked for clients from all over the world, collaborating across disciplines with planners, artists, architects, and engineers to design landscapes, gardens, and parks.

One project in particular is behind Five Seasons Project, which everyone involved credits as “Julie's idea.”

In 1995, Messervy received a package with a CD and a note from Yo-Yo Ma.

Yes, that Yo-Yo Ma.

Ma said he had an “idea about combining music and the growth of a garden.” The musical piece was his 1990 recordings of “Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello” by J.S. Bach.

After she listened, Messervy said, she was “all in.”

What resulted was the Toronto Music Garden, designed in collaboration with landscape architects from the city's parks and recreation department, with contributions from an architectural blacksmith and an architectural designer.

The project, completed in 1999, is described on the nonprofit Harbourfront Centre's website as “a reflection in landscape of 'Bach's Suite No. 1 in G Major for unaccompanied cello, BWV 1007.'”

That collaboration, Messervy says, sparked the idea about doing something similar for MSA.

She served on the MSA board at the time with Wood, who has published several dozen collections of music for voice, harp, and other instruments. Wood has given recitals in Paris, across the Southern states, and more recently, here in Vermont.

Wood said, “I think she thought it up partly because she wanted to encourage me to write some more music. So she said, 'Why don't we plan a project that brings together music and art?' So she had this idea.”

As a result of the suggestion, Wood wrote the Saxtons River Suite several years ago, taking elements from a previously written original harp piece and enlarging the work.

At that point, another creative element came into the mix: poetry.

Setting poetry to music

“When I see a book of poetry, I look through it and think about what might make a good song to be set to music,” said Wood, noting that poetry is a constant source of inspiration for her compositions.

She knew as they decided the Saxtons River Suite would evoke the four seasons - mud season would come later - that she was going to compose a winter piece based on her husband's poem “Big Wind in Rockingham.”

Wood said a neighbor, hearing about the project, gave her a copy of Green Mountain Verse, published in 1943.

Reading it, “a couple [of poems] leaped out at me.” She found “October” by Ruth T. Grandin and “Sonnet for Easter,” by Lillian M. Ainsworth.

She later discovered Helen Underwood Hoyt's poem “Green Shadows” as a reflection of summer.

Messervy's intention all along had been to have theater curtains against which the final chorale piece would be performed, and she wanted local artists to do them. Saaf, Zanes, Ratté, and Aho all enthusiastically agreed, and each was given a composition based on the Vermont poems to listen to and inspire them.

With the completed piece now in four parts, a last-minute change was in order.

“We decided we wanted a fifth piece because we wanted Charlie Hunter to be a part of the project,” Wood recalled.

And based on Vermont seasons, one season was clearly left out: mud season.

So at Messervy's request, John Wood wrote “Mud and Maple.” Carol Wood composed one last suite, setting the poem to music.

The painters

Sprinkled throughout the language of all the artists who spoke about this project is a poignancy having to do with their love of Vermont, the historical legacy of MSA's theater curtain collection, and the fact that all five are creating works that are likely to be seen by generations not yet born in Saxtons River.

Hunter said that he was not sure about participating until he sat in the room and listened. Like sap rising in the spring, the inspiration grew on him.

Hunter's settled on the Hall Covered Bridge off Route 121 on the way to Saxtons River, set in front of his friends' the Bart McGrath's home, and including the sugarhouse (“We had take artist's license and move it to include it” on the curtain, Hunter said), inserting maple trees that do not actually exist tapped with sap buckets, creating a wonderful nine foot by eighteen foot curtain, painted in a sort of muddy, drippy, burnt umber.

But Hunter said it was intimidating, as an artist, to take on a project on the scale of these theater curtains. He knew he would face technical challenges that he had not come across before in his own work with paintings.

“I like having the drips in the painting. They're are suggestive of the time of year, and they also emphatically say this is a painting, not an attempt to mimic a painting. However, I would much rather they were over [to the right] under the trees (rather dripping from the supports of the bridge). So trying to get a particular effect in the right place is an ongoing challenge,” Hunter said.

And there's the matter of perspective and scale: “You spend all your time making a stroke and then have to come back here and sit and look at it awhile,” Hunter said.

Despite the challenges, “It immediately makes me want to make another enormous painting,” he said.

Adding to an artistic legacy

Itinerant artists painted theater curtains in Grange halls and town halls throughout Vermont in the 19th century, and 185 of these historic works survive today.

Main Street Arts raised money in 2004 to get their ten curtains and 24 accompanying pieces (grand drapes, blocks, panels) restored by Curtains Without Borders (CWB), which began in 1996 as a project of the Vermont Museum & Gallery Alliance. CWB has restored 160 of the backdrops statewide.

On its website, CWB describes Charles Washington Henry as “the most accomplished and prolific scenic artist in Vermont,” with Saxtons River's curtains representing a great deal of his living legacy. MSA uses several of the curtains regularly, and others much less so. They are stored in rigging behind and above the stage; while other pieces are stored up in the rafters. MSA plans include improving curtain and pieces mobility, accessibility and ongoing maintenance for preservation.

A playwright and actor, Henry would paint a theater curtain for the performance as well for an extra fee.

As Hunter participated in the project, he learned about Henry and his works, which are “really treasured by towns that have them,” he said.

“That guy, at least in this area, achieved a little bit of immortality,” Hunter said.

He doesn't think of his curtain work yet as a legacy - “I'm not ready to check out yet,” he said.

But with this connection of adding to the MSA's theater curtain collection, combined with another recent painting, of the Hall Covered Bridge on Route 121, which is “very recognizably Saxtons River, this will be lasting for a while even after when I shuffle off to the next realm, and it makes me want to do a better job.”

Ratté, the artist painting the autumn curtain, said she had talked about the idea with Messervy a few years ago, and after the music was recorded last year, “I listened to the cassette over and over and over, and it has been an inspiration.”

“But the words to the poem have also been trigger points for lots of thoughts,” she said.

When Ratté learned she would be providing the autumn curtain, “I was thinking about fall on our property. It has this incredible expansive field which turns these amazing colors of russet. We have had cows in our meadow many years in a row. So that is one of the things that I wanted to put in the curtain.”

She said that when the cows walk away, toward the back of the field in the evening, it reminds her of fall, and of poignant endings. The cows' journey also reminds her of the Grandin poem - of moving away into winter and moving indoors.

“There's melancholy in a way with that time of change,” she said, but “there is also a lightness to it.” So she included “chickens on a bank in a spot of sunlight. And the beautiful trees that are all over New England in the fall and the colors of the leaves.”

As for Zanes' involvement in the project, “It's really poignant to be doing it, personally,” she said. “I like theater, and I like the whole idea - and I love Carol Wood's music.”

“Also, I am 'spring' and I am really happy about that,” she added, with a warmth in her voice. “Spring is my favorite season, and I love to paint flowers.”

Of her piece, she said, “I am trying to pay tribute to the historical curtains [by] framing it with the [grand] draperies on either side.”

CWB, the conservation group, describes this design as “the illusion of elegant, painted drapery that is pulled aside to reveal a scene within a decorative frame.”

“It's just a tiny homage to the historical part of it. A very tiny part.”

Saaf, a painter, sculptor, musician, and children's books illustrator, will paint the summer curtain. Saaf's wife, Zanes, also a professional artist, according to a brochure for the project, “is a great fan of Sienese art, Indian miniatures, Islamic art, much decorative and textile art, as well as many self-taught and anonymous artists, children's art, and all great colorists.”

Creating the winter panel is Eric Aho, a painter who lives and works in Saxtons River who has often explored the visuals of ice and winter as themes in his work.

“I think it magically all fell into place that everybody got the seasons they wanted. [] Even Eric doing winter,” Ratté said.

MSA plans to unveil each of the curtains as it is completed as a way to acknowledge the artists' participation, and to generate an understanding of the community working to support the project.

No firm date is set for the premiere of the Saxtons River Suite before the new painted curtains, which will take place when the campaign is complete.

“Everything is fluid,” Messervy said. “Perhaps in August.”

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