A new exhibit turns everyday objects into valuable ‘ArtiFacts’

MIDDLEBURY — At first glance, most of the items being collected for the latest exhibit at Town Hall Theater’s Jackson Gallery look quite pedestrian.
A bottle of water.
An inexpensive Chinese lantern.
An old leather vest.
A small, crocheted angel.
A far cry from the distinguished portraits, vivid watercolors and delicate craftwork often on display at the Jackson Gallery.
But each of these simple items features a backstory that makes them all priceless to their respective owners, and highly interesting to those who will visit the “ArtiFacts of Life” exhibit during its very limited run, this Thursday and Friday.
“Let’s explore how we can do interesting things with the community, make them feel a part of the process,” THT Operations Manager Haley Rice said of the motivation behind the new exhibit.
“The thing about museums is, they tell you what’s valuable,” she added, “but in this case it’s the people who own the objects telling us what’s valuable.”
Rice got the exhibit idea from a national arts marketing conference she attended a couple of years ago in Charlotte, N.C. The keynote speaker, Nina Simon, extolled the advantages of having an interactive museum.
“She was absolutely fascinating,” Rice recalled. “She talked about how museums could open up their doors to be more of a community presence.”
Rice thought that same concept cold be applied to the THT’s Jackson Gallery, in terms of it becoming a reflection of the greater Middlebury community. With that in mind, she imagined a showcase made up of objects loaned by folks from all over town. The common directive for the loaned items: That they were obtained serendipitously, as in “luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for.”
Each object therefore comes with a compelling individual story that creates a grander prism through which to view what on the surface is a very “vanilla” exhibit.
Rice and her colleagues asked around a dozen people for donations of their favorite “ArtiFacts.” The solicitation was also extended to some young parents at the Parent-Child Center of Addison County, who came through with a combined four objects, each accompanied by a descriptive poem.
Other donors were instructed to write a brief description of their item and what makes it serendipitous and special.
Rice said the artifacts harvest also includes a blanket, a photo of a Syrian girl, a unicorn bracelet, Liberian weaponry, a perfume bottle and a Panamanian shirt.
Some of the stories behind the loaned items are touching; others are informative, humorous and awe-inspiring.
Take, for example, the inexpensive Chinese lantern loaned by THT Executive Director Douglas Anderson.
It was 1978, and Anderson was teaching theater at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. One of his students, an aspiring filmmaker, had just arrived from Taiwan and possessed little command of the English language.
Anderson spent several weeks helping the student brush up the English in his term papers.
“He was genial and shy,” Anderson recalled.
At the conclusion of the semester, the student gave Anderson a rudimentary Chinese lantern, a gesture of gratitude for the help he had been given.
That student, Ang Lee, would later go on to make such acclaimed films as “Life of Pi” and “Sense and Sensibility.” He would win Academy Awards for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain.”
“Not a single houseguest has ever asked about the cheap lantern dangling above our sink,” Anderson said of the prized artifact. “No one has ever asked me why it’s there, or who it came from.”
Also in the exhibit is a plastic bottle of water, donated by Ashley Laux of Middlebury.
Laux’s story involves a Memorial Day family trip that she, her husband and stepson took to Waitsfield. Laux was pregnant at the time with her daughter, Althea.
But the family trip spontaneously escalated from a planned lunch in Waitsfield to an overnight stay at Popham Beach, north of Portland, Maine.
“My stepson felt like it was an adventure because we didn’t even have toothbrushes or other clothes with us and I remember feeling like we were a bold and reckless family getting ready for our big adventure welcoming a new baby,” Laux recounted. “My husband collected the water to try to capture the moment.”
The bottle of water now sits on her laundry room shelf.
Ellie Steele Friml, director of the Jackson Gallery, provided a crocheted angel.
She harkened back to an ill-fated trip on Route 7, during which her vehicle — containing herself and her two young children — was rear-ended by a large truck. The distracted truck driver had veered into Friml’s vehicle, but had been able to spin his wheel at the last moment to reduce the impact. Friml’s vehicle was still totaled, but she and her children emerged uninjured.
She found on the ground, at the scene of the accident, a simple crocheted angel that she now refers to as a “guardian angel” that was symbolically looking out for the family that day.
Keisha Thompson, a Parent-Child Center client, donated a black leather vest that her dad wore while driving his motorcycle. Thompson wrote a poem about how the vest evoked warm memories of her dad and their motorcycle rides together.
My father’s black leather vest takes me to a time
of my childhood adventure,
riding the motorcycle known as a rat bike,
the tank on the front, stained with gas.
I see his braid whipping in the wind
smacking the patches on the back
of his vest and flying up to my cheeks.
I’ve stared at the patches on the back
of his vest for hours at a time.
Tucking my arms into his side
and laying my head on the words,
I fall asleep to the vibrations and rumble of the motorcycle.
An old leather vest sits in a box;
The crevices chalked with oil, dirt and memories.
Dusted by time, this vest lives forever.
Those who want to see the exhibit will have limited opportunities, as it’s going to be a “pop-up” exhibit, according to Rice.
It will be on view at the Jackson Gallery this Thursday, May 12, and Friday, May 13, from noon to 5 p.m. An artists’ reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday.
“I like the brevity of it,” she said. “You don’t stay too long at the fair. It stays very fresh; it doesn’t get old.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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