October 28, 2004

Before Bohemia

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“A life lived apart from the real world, surrounded by beauty and useful work in the arts … ”

With these words, the Johnson Museum welcomed its visitors to the multi-media exhibit from Byrdcliffe, a distinctly American arts and crafts colony located just outside the hamlet of Woodstock, New York.

Founders Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, his wife Jane Byrd McCall, Hervey White (associated with Jane Addams’s Hull House) and painter Bolton Brown conceived Byrdcliffe under the precept most passionately set forth by John Ruskin and William Morris: a movement resistant to the rapid urbanization and industrialization during the latter part of the nineteenth century. They had the vision of developing a utopian community that would foster the education and collaboration of like-minded artists; the mission: producing handmade objects to finance the colony and concurrently holding classes to bequeath its aesthetic traditions to future generations.

The exhibit embodies the same nostalgic longing shared by the founders and the artists that have helped the colony thrive until today.

Most of the pieces in the exhibit are from the first generation of artists that inhabited the colony: grand, magnificent-to-the-point-of-daunting furniture designs by Dawson Dawson-Watson, copper tableware by H. Stewart Michie, tin creations and a chandelier piece by Edward Thatcher, pottery by Elizabeth Hardenbergh and Edith Penman, textiles from the campus weaver, Mary Little, ceramic tiles by Halsey Ricardo and block prints by Vivian Evans. The landscape paintings — oil and watercolor — showed Byrdcliffe’s surrounding environment in the Catskill Mountains. Calm and undisturbed, images of streams and poplars were, as one museum visitor noted, a “work of perfection.”

Exemplifying the “process as important as product” ideology behind the early 20th Century arts and crafts movement, the exhibit allows its viewers to witness the procedure behind the production of the objects displayed. In addition to the art objects themselves (oak furniture, copper plates, and stoneware pottery) the collection includes drafts and blueprints that the artists drew in preparation for construction.

The exhibit is reminiscent of and holds onto an era where creating and manufacturing took time, when books came in hand-made binding as opposed to mass-market paperbacks (though admittedly and gratefully cheaper), and when chest panels were hand-painted with design.

Museum visitors were not only treated to the goods produced in Byrdcliffe but also the lifestyle it fostered. One may witness the nurturing and utopian environment of Byrdcliffe by reading passages from the diaries of its inhabitants or looking Eva Watson-Schutze’s photographs. The men and women along with their families were involved in metalwork, weaving, pottery making, painting, furniture and architectural design. Many collaborated in the designing and the creation of their pieces.

Since then, many artists, including sculptor Eva Hesse, poet Wallace Stevens, painter Milton Avery, dancer Isadora Duncan and writers Charlotte Perkins Gilman and John Burroughs have been residents of Byrdcliffe. Some visited and stayed only during the summers, while others built permanent dwellings in the area.

Since the founding of Byrdcliffe, the colony has gone through many changes yet the original intention of aesthetic cultivation and camaraderie still remains. Today, the campus (ran by the Woodstock Guild) still offers art classes. Those interested in the apple cider warmth of Byrdcliffe may visit and take a tour or attend performances and exhibits hosted by the Kleinert/James Arts Gallery.

The exhibit, Byrdcliffe: An American Arts and Crafts Colony, will run through December 5. In celebration of the textiles in the Byrdcliffe exhibition, artist and weaver June Szabo will teach this beginning weaving course. More information is available on the webpage museum.cornell.edu.

For the Love of Style: British Arts and Crafts at the Turn of the Century

If you haven’t been to a museum opening reception, you should jump at the next opportunity and see the Johnson Museum at its best. Lit up and buzzing with a mixed crowd of true enthusiasts and the merely curious, the Johnson had a great showing for its late fall exhibit opening reception on Saturday. It was wonderful to see so many people come together to enjoy an evening of music, food and, of course, art.

And even amid the steady hum of conversation and music, a nook on the first floor housing a new exhibit entitled For the Love of Beauty: British Arts & Crafts at the Turn of the Century was a relaxing refuge.

The simple exhibit is comprised mostly of handcrafted silver pieces like candlesticks and bejeweled goblets, woodcuts and intricately illustrated books from Cornell’s rare manuscript collection. Short and sweet, this exhibit won’t take much of your concentration or effort — a complete contradiction to what it took to create the objects. But you’ll put in your time reflecting afterwards once you learn about the more complex mentality behind the works. The Arts and Crafts movement as we know it in the United States was based on a late 19th century British school of thought that idealized the life of the craftsman. John Ruskin and William Morris are considered founding fathers of this concept, which pushed for the return to a time when work was done by hand, not mass-produced by machines.

Ruskin led the way by establishing an organization, the Guild of St. George, to facilitate the building of a community filled with workers who would adapt the philosophies and educate others. The educational aspects of the Guild still exist today, along with Ruskin’s work featured in this display.

Morris created a firm of workmen to create actual arts and crafts objects like fabric, paintings, furniture and metalwork. When he established the Kelmscott Press, he was also able to create some of the first fine art books, which feature detailed illustrations that could keep you mesmerized for hours.

Ruskin and Morris’ teachings continued into following generations, where artists like C.R. Ashbee produced beautifully handcrafted furniture, metal works, books and interior designs. Many of these works traveled the world as a recognized art form, and lecture tours were started.

Some of the most captivating pieces in the exhibition come from a late 19th century trend in woodcutting. The book illustrations from the beginning of the movement were done in this way, but the newer version adopt a Japanese style, producing landscapes and other illustrations; they have such beautiful color, depth and detail that it is hard to believe they were produced by carving and carefully aligning layers of wood, one for each color, to produce a stamp of sorts. It is a very labor-intensive craft that produces a very striking result.

While there has been a lapse in art and crafts appreciation since World War I, it is starting to make a comeback, and rightfully so. Arts and crafts are something we often equate with childhood memories of pasting macaroni on paper and having mom hang it on the refrigerator. But some graduate from this school of thought and recognize that craftsmen painstakingly produce some of the most elaborate works of art in existence.

Archived article by Whine Del Rosario and Laura Borden
Sun Staff Writers