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‘Transient Beauty’ at the Bennington Museum

“Snowflake” Bentley inspires this year’s closed-bid art auction.

Bennington, Vt. — One of the Bennington Museum’s most popular annual exhibitions is December’s just-opened, closed-bid auction of work by artists from the Bennington region and beyond. Here’s how it works: the Museum chooses a theme as a prompt; Curator Jamie Franklin invites 25 artists to create new work or to choose a piece from their stores in response to the prompt. The artworks are mounted in the Museum’s main exhibition gallery, each with an artist’s statement and a dollar amount that establishes the minimum bid.

Anyone wishing to bid on the work writes a number on a simple form and drops it in the lockbox (you can also do it online), by 4 p.m. on December 20. On December 21 the bids are opened by Museum staff and winners are notified; they can claim (and pay for) their piece or pieces as of the 22nd. Half of the purchase price goes to the artist, half to the Museum. Now in its 7th year, the exhibit has found a formula that seems to work for everyone, not least the covetous (and generous) public. The minimum bids for pieces in the current auction range from $95 to $16,000, with most somewhere in the hundreds.

The begetter of this year’s theme is a figure well known to Vermonters: Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley, the subject of a Caldecott-winning book by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Mary Azarian (illustrator) that is read in every elementary school in the state. Bentley was a farm boy from Jericho, a small town east of Burlington that gets about ten feet of snow in an average winter – or did when Bentley lived the 66 years of his life there (1865-1931). He was in his teens when he developed an interest in snowflakes. He tried sketching their delicate forms, but they melted (or sublimated) before he could reproduce their intricate symmetries.

The acquisition of a microscope and a bellows camera – and two years of persistent tinkering – enabled the then 19-year-old Bentley to make his first (and the first) photomicrograph of a snow crystal, in 1885. He made the forms – and science – of snowflakes the study of his life. His more than 5,000 images of individual snow crystals – no two alike – delight the eye and mind. One of his prints, from the Museum’s collection, opens the exhibition like a portal.

Snowflakes come to us, moralized Bentley, “to teach us that all earthly beauty is transient and must soon fade away.” When a snowflake melted, he said, a unique masterpiece of design was forever lost. It became his urgent ambition to capture with his camera as many of the finest crystals as he could:

“Quick, the first flakes are falling, the couriers of the coming snowstorm; open the skylight, and directly under it place the carefully prepared black board, on whose ebony surface the most minute form of frozen beauty may be welcomed from cloudland. The mysteries of the upper air are about to reveal themselves, if our hands are deft and our eyes quick enough.”

 Bentley used a different voice to record detailed observations of weather and for the article “Snow” in the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Farmer – inventor – artist – scientist – and lover of Vermont snow, Bentley is an inspiring figure whose example made for a powerful prompt for the Museum’s exhibit.

Each contributor has responded to Bentley in a wonderfully different way.

Cambridge, N.Y., artist Leslie Parke took advantage of some single-paned windows to photograph patterns created by frost and condensation; she then rendered the same effect on canvas. Observing frost and images of frost for endless hours, says Parke, she became lost in nature’s “infinite variety and ultimate order.” No wonder that the images she selected cast a spell.

“Sky-frost” by Leslie Parke

How do you translate Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” into a language that has no word for snow and where the word for “forest” means “jungle”? Urdu, for example. That is the question Daisy Rockwell, a North Bennington-based painter and a translator of Hindi and Urdu literature, asked herself when Franklin called. She turned to her friend and collaborator Aftab Ahmad for help and rendered the result in swirling calligraphy against a blue background.

“Snowy Evening” by Daisy Rockwell

Master metalsmith Katie Cleaver of Bennington contributed a pendant made of dendritic quartz, silver, white gold, and topaz beads. She was drawn to Bentley’s close-ups of dew and frost, she says, which depart from the strict symmetries of his snowflakes. She isn’t the first jeweler to find inspiration in Bentley’s work: Tiffany’s bought a set of crystals from Bentley more than a century ago.

“Untitled” by Katie Cleaver

Anima Katz has drawn patterns that reply to Bentley’s straight-laced hexagons with spirals and other shapes in fanciful and energetic arrangements. Joanna Gabler created a square of square panels showing water droplets photoshopped into symmatrical patterns. Tom Fels captured light through leaves en plein air as they brushed against photographic paper, printing the result as a cyanotype. Corwin Levi’s extraordinary freehand pencil-on-paper “Mandala” incorporates cityscapes and motifs from Islamic art.

“Transient Captured” by Joanna Gabler

Multidisciplinary artist Shanta Lee Gander supplied a striking sepia-toned photograph of a discarded – or perhaps lost or forgotten – doll that is returning to nature on the forest floor: an emblem of human transience, to be sure, and perhaps of the passing of a whites-only ideal of beauty, as the artist’s note suggests. Angus McCullough, meanwhile, rescued a mossy, multicolored baseball glove from a similar fate and gave it a riddling title: “Catch.” Moss will cover us all someday; perhaps that’s the catch.

“Untitled” by Shanta Lee Gander

Halifax, Vermont-based artist Michaela Harlow contributed three charcoal and pastel evocations of phases of the snow season. Fortunately for Bentley and other Vermont artists, winter can be long here. “Winter has always been a time of observation, contemplation and intense creative focus for me,” says Harlow. “During the pandemic, this pattern was magnified by limited contact with the outside world and few distractions.” When you’re an artist, even Covid has a silver lining.

“Spring Snow, 2020” by Michaela Harlow

And that’s not even half of a highly creative exhibition. Catch it before – like all things – it passes.

https://benningtonmuseum.org/transient-beauty-online/

Writer Phil Holland lives in Pownal, Vt.

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