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‘For the Love of Vermont’, the Lyman Orton Collection opens in Bennington and Manchester

The show goes beyond pretty scenery. There are paintings of Vermonters making a living farming, logging, and sugaring, bidding for lots at country auctions, and getting together at county fairs and family restaurants.

Bennington/Manchester— As floods ravaged much of Vermont in July, anxious callers from out of state were getting in touch with their Vermont friends and relations to find out how things were in their neighborhoods. In most of Bennington County, we could say, “Plenty wet, all right, but no flooding” (the exception was a low-lying area on the Batten Kill in Manchester). The comment sections of articles on the floods in the New York Times were filled with expressions of sympathy for the people of the state, and commenters recalled their wonderful experiences here. It was clear to us who live here that there’s a lot of love for Vermont out there. 

For anyone with feelings for the Green Mountain State, there is now “For the Love of Vermont,” a major exhibition of paintings from the Lyman Orton Collection on view in two places: the Bennington Museum in Bennington (54 paintings), and the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester (180 paintings). The subject of all of the paintings in the two shows is Vermont, especially as depicted by the artists who came to southwestern Vermont to paint in the 1920s through the 60s and mounted annual exhibitions of their work in Manchester. Lyman Orton, proprietor with his three sons of the Vermont Country Store in Weston, has been collecting these and other paintings of Vermont scenes for the past forty years, often “re-patriating” the art to the state that inspired it. Works by living artists enliven both shows.

Most of the artists were not Vermonters themselves. Luigi Lucioni, for example, came to the U.S. from northern Italy at age 10 and didn’t see Vermont until he was 30. He lived in New York in the winter and Manchester in the summer, where he would capture the play of light and shade in a grove of white birches with astonishing clarity. The striking “Pillars of Vermont,” on view in Bennington, shows every stave and hoop of the sun-washed red silos on a South Burlington farm in vivid detail. Shelburne Bay and Lake Champlain lie in the luminous middle distance, and the Adirondacks disappear into the sky. Lucioni executed this painting for Susan Havemeyer Webb, founder of Shelburne Farms, and it shows off his pictorial wizardry.

Pillars of Vermont, 1937, (South Burlington), Luigi Lucioni (1900-1988). Oil on canvas, 20 x 31 ½ in. All images from “For the Love of Vermont, The Lyman Orton Collection”

Rockwell Kent is perhaps the painter with the greatest name recognition in the shows. He worked from a studio on Red Mountain in Arlington in the 1920s and is represented in both shows by visionary Vermont views.

Vermont Hills (Vermont Dawn) c.1923-1927, Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) Oil on canvas, 22 1/8 x 38 1/8 in. All images from “For the Love of Vermont, The Lyman Orton Collection”

My eye was drawn to a landscape on view in Bennington that turned out to be Dorset Hollow (everybody painted Dorset Hollow, it seems). The wall label informs us that Arthur Jones was born in Dorset and worked on his family’s farm. He liked to draw in his spare time and would help hang shows by the Southern Vermont Artists in Manchester. The artists encouraged his work, and soon he was exhibiting in the shows himself and earning a living as a painter. More of his works hang in Manchester, where they also stand out. 

Dorset Hollow, 1953, Arthur Jones (1928-2020). Oil on board, 30 x 40 in. All images from “For the Love of Vermont, The Lyman Orton Collection”.
North Shaftsbury Railroad Station,1944, John Atherton (1900-1952), 
Gouache on board, 27 ¾ x 21 ¼ in. ‘Saturday Evening Post’ Cover  December 2, 1944. All images from “For the Love of Vermont, The Lyman Orton Collection”.

The show goes beyond pretty scenery. There are paintings of Vermonters making a living farming, logging, and sugaring, bidding for lots at country auctions, and getting together at county fairs and family restaurants. One of the few interior views shows the stationmaster’s office of the North Shaftsbury railroad station with its pot-bellied stove just as it was in 1910. John Atherton executed the painting in 1944; it seems that the stationmaster who departed in 1910 had left instructions that nothing should be touched, and his successor left everything just so, creating a modest historical museum. Atherton’s painting includes clever trompe-l’oeil effects and was used as a Saturday Evening Post cover. Many artworks conjure up a time when life was simpler, often with acknowledgment that times are changing. Two ghostly white oxen walk above tractor tracks in the snow in an arresting work by Kyra Markham. 

Two White Oxen in Winter, c.1959, Kyra Markham (1891-1967), Oil on canvas, 23 ¾ x 29 ¾ in. All images from “For the Love of Vermont, The Lyman Orton Collection”.

One living artist has work in both show locations. Matthew Perry once lived in Weston and had a studio above Benson’s garage. In the Bennington work, he depicts the scene with wit and fondness in a folksy idiom, commenting, “I knew Benson’s was not always going to be around.”  For many years Perry has been working from studios in North Bennington, where he also directs the Vermont Arts Exchange.

Benson’s Garage, 1985 (Weston), Matthew Perry, Working Artist, Oil on canvas, collage, 19 x 24 in. All images from “For the Love of Vermont, The Lyman Orton Collection”.

One surprise in both shows is the inclusion of many wonderful works by GRACE artists. GRACE stands for Grassroots Art and Community Effort, an organization founded in in Hardwick in the Northeast Kingdom in 1975 that assists nursing home residents in making art, especially art made of memories. Dot Kibbee painted the charming “Vermont Clothes Dryer,” that is, clothes on an outdoor clothesline, in her 90s (as well she might: Vermont passed a “Right to Dry” law in 2009). Dot comments, “I don’t really know what I’m doing but I know it is good when my heart starts beating fast and my face gets all hot and red.” Dot Kibbee lived to be 100. Maybe you too should take up painting. 

Vermont Clothes Dryer, 2007, Dot Kibbee (1916-2016) GRACE artist, Acrylic, pen, and glitter on board, 8 x10 in. All images from “For the Love of Vermont, The Lyman Orton Collection”.
Horace Brown (1867-1949), Oil on board, 19 ½ x 23 ½ in. All images from “For the Love of Vermont, The Lyman Orton Collection”.

Horace Brown of Springfield, Vermont, was not only the painter of a shimmering landscape on view in Bennington, but a state legislator who was in part responsible for Vermont’s 1968 no-billboards law. The forces of modernity do gather at the state’s borders, however: that is the witty premise behind “The Great Wall of Vermont” (2008) by Phil Godenschwager of Randolph. He depicts the state as a verdant, walled sanctuary surrounded by the forces of our modern, corporate, consumer society greedily trying to get in. It’s great fun, if it doesn’t make you shudder, that is.

No walls could keep the rains of July out. The devastated towns in the worst-hit parts of the state are slowly recovering. “For the Love of Vermont” runs through November 5 in both Bennington and Manchester.

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