Local photographers put Sheldon Museum treasures into focus

MIDDLEBURY — The Sheldon Museum of Vermont History is full of treasures, including centuries-old maps, Civil War memorabilia and antique furniture that could fetch a bundle were it ever (perish the thought) placed on the open market.
But sometimes, value and beauty are in the eye of the beholder. It’s an old adage that rings particularly true in a new exhibit titled, “Focus on the Sheldon: A Five-Point Perspective.” The exhibit showcases some of the museum’s most rudimentary and forgotten artifacts — such as random, wooden boxes of primitive, rusty screws; age- and child-worn porcelain dolls; and tiny toy soldiers that haven’t fired an imaginary shot since before World War I.
Amazingly, five local photographers have brought those objects to life using their creative eyes, minds and — in some cases — some modern photographic techniques that allow the Sheldon treasures to be seen in a new light.
“In all of the photographs, recognizable artifacts are altered through light, composition, color, viewpoint or post-processing,” said Sheldon Museum Executive Director William Brooks. “Paired with the actual relics, the photographs demonstrate the lure of the Sheldon’s remarkable collections and the transformative power of photography.”
The seed of the “Five-Point Perspective” exhibit was planted last spring by Brooks and Kirsten Hoving, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Art History at Middlebury College. The showcase is modeled after a Sheldon exhibit of a few years ago in which area poets provided writings inspired by objects culled from the museum’s vast collection. Brooks and Hoving agreed it would be a good idea to do something similar with local photographers. Each would be invited to the Sheldon and given carte blanche in hunting for items and selecting a handful to star in photos. The individual participants would be allowed to arrange their items individually or collectively on the backdrop of their choosing to maximize visual effect.   ONE OF LOCAL artist Kate Gridley’s doll photographs, left, in the new Sheldon Museum exhibit is of a doll, right, inspired by an historic painting, center, of Abby Painter.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Hoving, guest curator for the exhibit, is plugged into the local photography scene. She teaches courses on modern art and the history of photography. She has shown her own work in a variety of solo and group shows around the world. Hoving quickly found four other photographers keen on participating the Sheldon venture, including Suki Fredericks, Paul Gamba, Kate Gridley and Eric Nelson.
“I came up with a group that was committed to following through with the project,” Hoving said.
The photographers made appointments with Brooks to tour the entire museum and its barn, where some of the more rustic and larger items repose. They gravitated toward the items that spoke to them, rather than the glittery and the gold.
“The joy is, they selected things that in some cases I had never seen before,” Brooks said.
A swatch of white lace. Miniature croquet mallets. Some wooden toy blocks. A group of walking canes, each with a deep dark patina earned by years of heavy use. A pair of Victorian era pince-nez spectacles.
And a horse. Fredericks selected a life-size papier mâché horse that took three people to extricate from the Sheldon barn and parade to its temporary spot in the exhibit space. Horses and farm animals have long been favorites of Fredericks, a photographer, paintings conservator, and organic farmer who lives in Leicester.
“I like to capture found arrangements of people, objects and places that appeal to my fascination with light and color and touch on unexpected relationships and juxtapositions,” she said of her exhibit work. “Since my move to Vermont in 1986, one of my ongoing projects has been images taken on our farm. Thematically for this exhibition, I photographed some of the animals found residing at the Sheldon Museum.”
Hanging near each of the objects is the photographer’s two-dimensional depiction of his or her find.
Suddenly, a doll is more than an inanimate object, as captured in Gridley’s series of photos. They exude personality. Some of the dolls seem as innocent and child-like as the children who once toted them around. Others appear menacing, out of Central Casting for a horror film.
Gridley, who has painted full time since 1991, has become one of Vermont’s most celebrated portrait artists. Governors and federal judges are among those who have posed for her. Gridley didn’t have to caution her Sheldon subjects to sit still, nor did they request bathroom breaks.
She said she made portraits of the dolls as she would have with a living subject — posing them, looking to catch their inner feelings, in abstract patterns of light and dark.
“For me, objects have always been alive: a Victorian chair is a wide hipped woman on short legs, a stout pitcher is a broad breasted person holding secrets,” Gridley explained her narrative about her Sheldon photos.
“The Sheldon dolls, dusty, missing arms, some in faded clothes, hair worn off, may have been alive, real, to a child in the past,” she continued. “Holding dreams and thoughts, I imagine they may have spoken.”
Gamba’s photos zero in on fabric and lace patterns, drawing attention to the details of thread and stitching.
“I am fascinated by artistry done by hand, quite often overlooked as part of the whole,” Gamba writes in his narrative. “Sometimes it can be personally awkward to admire the ‘parts’ closely, to walk up close, to take time to study the elegance of movement and flow created by hand. In these glimpses I have given you just that: the moment for you to walk up close and take your time. These antique garments were created with black and white fabrics and ornaments, so I chose monochromatic prints to showcase the simple, yet elegant ‘parts.’”
Hoving leaned toward the basics when picking her photo subjects.
“What really caught my eye was a pile of wooden boxes, each filled with its own special still life of nuts and bolts, wire chains, screws, and other hardware objects,” she recounted in her narrative. “To monumentalize such humble, quiet items, I experimented with a variety of digital techniques, including negative reversal and color saturation.”
She also picked out a spindle, an architectural fragment, and a “mystery item” that she photographed against a wrinkled piece of yellowed paper, which she then digitally reversed to blue.
“It almost looks like (the objects) are under water,” she said of the resulting photos, which she dubbed, “Memory Ships on a Deep Blue Sea.”
Nelson taught sculpture and drawing at Middlebury College for 33 years prior to his retirement. He is an artist who works in the mediums of wood, steel, mixed media, watercolor and photography.
For the Sheldon exhibit, he took photos of small objects from the museum’s collection, arranging them in a symmetrical manner. One of the groupings features an assortment of old-school eyewear, appropriately titled, “All the better to see you with.” A novel grouping of canes is aptly titled, “When you walk.”
“My aim is to foster a connection between the objects and images that are drawn from the very institution in which you are viewing them,” Nelson said in his narrative.
The “Five-Point Perspective” exhibit debuted on March 7 and will run through May 13. All five photographers will participate in a panel discussion led Pieter Broucke, Middlebury College Professor of Art and Architecture, beginning at noon this Wednesday, March 22.
Photos in the exhibit will be for sale, with a portion of the proceeds given to the Sheldon Museum.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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