Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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Road trip? ‘Guide to Historic Artists’ Homes & Studios’ is the perfect companion

We are all creative when we are young, whether we dance or we finger paint. A visit to these homes and studios, some right in our back yard, might just get those creative juices flowing again.

STOCKBRIDGE—Author Valerie A. Balint was 11 years old when she first visited Chesterwood—the Berkshire County summer home and studio of sculptor Daniel Chester French—with an elementary school art class. The experience, which she soaked up with a mixture of awe and wonder, left an indelible mark on her life.

“Many years later, the name was mentioned to me in passing, and powerful images of the studio—with its models for the Lincoln Memorial, the smell of the autumn Berkshire leaves, and the sound of the garden fountain—flooded back to me in an instant,” Balint writes in the introduction to her newest book, “Guide to Historic Artists’ Homes & Studios,” a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The book, published last June to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Historic Artists’ Homes & Studios (HAHS) program, which Balint helms, is the first guidebook to the 44 sites in the network, which are located across all regions of the United States, are open to the public, and include two right here in the Berkshires. The guide conveys each artist’s visual legacy and then sets each site—including French’s Chesterwood and the Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio in Lenox—in the context of its architecture and landscape. Far-flung locales, ranging from the desert vistas of Georgia O’Keeffe’s New Mexico ranch to Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner’s Hamptons cottage, allow visitors (and readers) to step into the homes and studios of illustrious American artists and witness creativity in the making.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Balint, whose extensive experience in curatorial projects includes tenures at Olana (the Hudson Valley home of Frederic Church), the Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio, and Chesterwood (the current home of HAHS). Her mission since arriving at HAHS in April 2017, is to enhance the relevance and reputation of member sites in their communities in order to contribute to a national conversation on the arts in American public life. (This conversation was edited for length and clarity.)

Hannah Van Sickle: How would you encourage locals—who see these sites as tourist destinations—to get out and explore their environs?

Valerie Balint. Photo courtesy Historic Artists’ Homes & Studios

Valerie Balint: It begins with channeling back to the artists themselves who chose to live in—and often played very active roles in—these communities that were wonderful cultural hubs and offered exquisite natural beauty, plus the ability not only for respite and renewal but inspiration for their art practice. I think if local communities start to think about the fact that these people were actually members of their communities—albeit maybe 100+ years ago, or 50 some odd years ago—then these places become equally about the art and the lives the artists lived. We do put them on pedestals, and we do remove them from us as the “other.”

Although we are all creative when we start off—whether we dance or we finger paint—most of it, for many of us, falls away. If we are not going to be the great concert cellist, we sort of put the cello in the attic. What happens when you go to someone’s home and where they worked, it breaks down this distance. And what that allows for is then, when you go see the work in a more traditional museum or gallery setting—or the Lincoln Memorial, let’s say—it means something else to you and you can interface with that art in a new and more approachable way. These sites, in their own right, have amazing pieces of art that you can’t see anywhere else.

HVS: You talk, at length, about the power of place. What does that mean in the context of this book?

VB: As people who live in the Berkshires and have chosen to stay here, there are reasons why you love it and are inspired to live here as opposed to somewhere else. And so, too, for artists. To go to these [historic homes and studios], even if they are in your own neighborhood, is to reaffirm in some kind of interesting way why you’ve chosen to be part of the community. Then, at the same time—through the lens of these incredibly talented people—to discover new ways in which you can tap into what you love about this particular part of the world. [These artists] are not like us, and they are us: they could choose where they wanted to be but for them, very often, it was important to choose a place that could be inspiring, that they could then put their imprint on (in terms of their own artistic creativity). In experiencing that combination—of both being in a place that has that bedrock of inspiration built in, but also to see then how artists expanded upon that—can maybe spark people’s own creative juices. Also, these places are always doing new things; even if you’ve been before, I would argue you need to go again. These [sites] were places of creativity, so people drawn to work there are very creative; it’s sort of baked right in. Innovation is always happening at these places.


The studio, in the main house at Olana in Hudson, New York. Photo Andy Wainwright, 2004

HVS: I loved your anecdote about first visiting Chesterwood when you were school-aged. What is your connection to the Berkshires, and how has it evolved over the years?

VB: This is my fourth stint at Chesterwood. Plus I got married [there]! I was young and wide-eyed when I first visited, and this place is very potent for me. It would be easy to think that, as one’s experiences in the world  widens, one may begin to [equate the initial] wonderment with that of a child, or an emerging professional. What actually happens is you come to understand, in ways you couldn’t before, how beautifully complex and rich and enriching the Berkshires are. This wonderment circle increases . . . and I’ve come to understand that you carry those experiences through life, and see things through a new lens.

I live in a really beautiful part of the country—the Hudson River Valley is an incredible cultural mecca—but I am always struck when I cross the border [to Massachusetts]; it’s a different topography, it’s a different elevation, it’s a different set of smells, and therefore the cultural institutions (and what people create) are different. So it always has a special place in my heart and, while it’s only 45 – 60 minutes away, I feel like I’m crossing into a complementary and equally magical world. That’s how I know, after all this time, that the Berkshires are really special. I know that Chesterwood and Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio are incredibly important pieces, and the larger creative ethos that has existed there for more than a century continues to exist today. These artistic enclaves don’t exist everywhere.


The foyer of the Frelinghuysen Morris House in Lenox. Photo Geoffrey Gross

HVS: Can you speak to the importance of tangible, immersive experience, considering the increasingly virtual world in which we live?

VB: Creative people don’t stop being creative when they close their studio door at the end of the day—they do things to their environment [as a whole]. In the Chesterwood studio, looking at the Lincoln models and other amazing preparatory works there, is in itself immersive. But then, when you go outside, you begin to understand that [French] designed that landscape. He collaborated and made particular, what I would call curatorial choices, choosing very adeptly what he put in his home. Everything around you becomes an immersion into that creative process. You begin to understand things in a different way that images [and virtual tours] cannot replicate. There is something different about seeing paint on a floor, because paint on a floor is a 3-D experience, and the image of paint on a floor is not. And certainly, when you extend this out to artwork or flowers or a building [and] when you stand in them, around them, walk through them . . . it is multi-sensory. When you “walk” through a virtual tour, there is no sound, there is no smell. When you are immersed in the tangible, you make choices, and different [details] catch your eye, or ear, or nose, simultaneously. That, to me, is the difference. The digital world is extraordinary in terms of access and reaching more people, but when you occupy a space, you bring your experiences and your body, quite literally, into a space. The [two worlds] are complementary, [but] you can’t replicate [the physical].

HVS: What surprised you most when writing this book?

VB: I have travelled pretty extensively. What I think is really amazing is to have that perspective of just how incredibly beautiful and inspiring and varied this country is, in terms of its natural beauty, in terms of its built environments, and in terms of the places that attract talented and vibrant people. They form sort of this web across the country. Loving Great Falls, Montana [C.M. Russell Museum] and being completely woken up to the fantasticalness of Boise, Idaho [James Castle House], that—in terms of this project—allows me to go to places I would not necessarily have thought to go. These travels have reinforced my love for the Berkshires and my pot has kept getting fuller. I feel really blessed to be able to have that opportunity


Photo courtesy James Castle House, Boise City Department of Arts & History

HVS: Might you speak to the spot-on, if not a bit ironic, timing of this book, “enticing us to travel—both virtually and physically—to the homes and studios that were carefully crafted reflections of the painters, sculptors, and designers who occupied them” as Thayer Tolles said. How are sites preparing as the world begins to flow again and what can visitors expect?

VB: We [at HAHS] wanted a guidebook that would entice you to go [and explore the 44 sites] but that would sweep you away if you [simply] read it. We wanted people to be able to pick and choose; you could read it cover to cover, or you could just read one chapter, you could know nothing of art before, or you could be a devotee of Georgia O’Keeffe (and my hope would be that I put a fun fact in there that you didn’t know before).

Of course, we did not anticipate the pandemic. [During] the months prior to the book’s release, it became clear that people were not going to get to visit [these sites in person]. It has been an incredibly challenging year; the safety protocols in place are very dependent upon state and local legislation and also the physicality of each place. Olana is a huge manse, with 250 acres; the Pollock-Krasner site has smaller rooms. Every site is having to assess. What you are going to see is a continued commitment to virtual programming, while also—on a simultaneous track—finding new ways to activate sites in a way that is fluid.


Inside the studio, Pollock’s paint-covered floor illustrates his innovative pouring technique. The walls are spattered with Krasner’s lively gestures.

There is a great excitement and energy; sites and site staff want to engage with an audience. They are so excited to be able to share the treasures that are the places they steward, with the public again. It’s what makes our work so fulfilling. Perhaps you are someone still testing the waters [as the world begins to reopen]? Start increasing your orbit, but start with the sites in your own back yard, because they are part of your community and they need you.


The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.

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Editor's Note: This Resource Guide is a companion to our article "The Thrill of the HUNT", from the August-October, 2022, issue of Out & About with The Berkshire Edge magazine. Hard copies of the magazine are available for free...

The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.