BRATTLEBORO — A black box is hidden deep in the woods in Putney.
"Black Box" is the name of a museum built by artist Christopher Sproat. The museum contains his work, and a neighbor of his invited me. The idea of a real museum sitting in the woods - a museum that I had never heard of all the years I lived in Vermont - seemed absurd.
"Surely, it could not be a real museum," I thought. "The artist must have a big ego and calls it a museum when it was probably a shack."
I could not have been more wrong.
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We walked on a narrow path cut through the woods, then uphill, until we reached a flat surface on which sat the building which was modern and black and glistened in the rain.
Sproat designed the building in every detail and selected all the materials.
The surface of the entire structural insulated panel building is covered in Grand Rib roofing that is screwed in place. Solar panels on its roof provide the electricity at Sproat's home. The Black Box is so well insulated that it does not need to be heated in winter.
My friend had refused to tell me anything about what I would see because she wanted it to be a surprise. It was more of a shock.
I favor clean lines and modern design, and as soon as I stepped into the entrance of the museum and Sproat flicked on the lights, I was startled to see an enormous room with white walls and high ceilings from which hung giant abstract metal sculptures with mostly red, blue, and white lights. It felt as if I had stepped into a sci-fi movie.
When my eyes adjusted to the space, I was immediately drawn to one of the sculptures on the left-hand-side wall.
Sproat, whose studio is in his home on the property, said it was part of a series that reminded him of being pinned to a cross and that he loved to use shapes that were common to provide a different way of seeing.
One shape was a copper wok with a long metal spoon. Above that, another sculpture, "The Rape of Europa," caught my eye, a figure with fluttering arms and the weight pinning her down.
The wall surfaces were filled with wood sculptures that looked as though they were metal, with huge ones suspended by wire overhead. I normally walk quickly through art exhibits. I stopped at each one and asked Sproat what it meant.
He graciously explained the process by which he constructed each piece and revealed what was happening in his life at that time or the story behind it. His favorite color is black. The sculptures were all painted black, with some featuring contrasting parts of natural wood.
In materials for a retrospective exhibit, Sproat suggests viewing his work "as artifacts that are not literal or abstract."
"Most of these objects are a hybrid of biology and human geometry. Many tell a story about the plight of living things. What humans have discovered. And done to them."
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Christopher Sproat has lived in Vermont since 1983, but previously spent 30 years in Boston. Then he and his wife, Mary Bachmann, also had a loft in Soho. He has also designed lighting, furniture, and huge public art projects.
After Sproat found himself without a studio after he lost his work and archives in a 1976 fire in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, he started using black shapes painted on walls to give his work physicality.
When I asked him if he was good in math, he admitted that he was lousy but seemed to have a natural geometric ability, since his three-dimensional pieces are so complicated with so many angles.
Two huge - and funny - black-and-white geometric drawings of him and Bachmann hang on an end wall. A gray whale hung overhead. In the center of the room were a few pieces of furniture he designed for millionaires: a white table and chairs, whose forms melded into one another smoothly with an incredible sense of peace and harmony and a bench, which reminded me of a Viking ship with a bird at its prow.
At the end of our private tour, Sproat led us into a smaller room that held Bachmann's photographs of women deaconesses, then up a thick carpeted flight of stairs to see her photos of nature.
* * *
Chris Sproat was born with a heart problem and was a blue baby. Perhaps he was even dyslexic, he says. He was a slender, quiet, artistic child.
His parents could not have been more loving and protective. They watched each of his interests as they developed and always provided just what he needed, he remembers.
His grandfather bought him sets of blocks, and he built high towers with lights inside. The young Sproat used to lie in bed watching the lights, then adjusting them to the precise angles to illuminate each tower.
As a small child, he was once knocked straight across his bedroom when he stuck a knife into a wall socket. He became fascinated with the power of electricity.
His sculptures did not always contain light, but hearing him describe that experience made me wonder if his sculptures needed that kind of power - if they needed light and not just form.
* * *
Sproat showed me a sculpture of a fire fish, now considered an invasive species due to climate change. His recent work is an expression of his grief over the extent of climate change and how we are destroying the Earth by the continued use of gas and oil.
He has a deep love of animals and nature and reads articles in Discover and other science magazines. He is always amazed at the complexity and beauty of nature and how it always takes care of itself. He goes out each night to feed scraps to the fox and other critters, including bears and hedgehogs, summoning them by banging on a tin can.
Sproat fears for the end of humans as a species. He says he thought the insects would survive longer than the human species, but observes that they are dying, too.
I wondered if he might wish to open his museum to the public for a fee. He prefers to live quietly and do his work, he says, but anyone is welcome to visit the Black Box.
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"Unlocking the Black Box," a retrospective of Christopher Sproat's work, opens Friday, Nov. 10 and will run until March 11, 2024 at the C.X. Silver Gallery, owned by husband-and-wife team Adam Silver and Cai Xi, at 814 Western Ave. in West Brattleboro. The exhibit, presented in partnership with the Black Box Museum, will be on film. An opening reception takes place Saturday, Nov. 11, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the gallery.
The Black Box, at 475 Holland Hill Rd. in Putney, is open by appointment. Contact Sproat at 212-966-4917 or [email protected].
Toni Ortner is a poet, writer, and teacher.
This The Arts column was submitted to The Commons.