Gridley spotlights Sheldon Museum doll collection

MIDDLEBURY — Kate Gridley is one of five featured artists in the Sheldon Museum’s Five-Point Perspective exhibit
The exhibit “Focus on the Sheldon: A Five-Point Perspective” includes the captivating, somewhat eerie photographs of dolls in the Sheldon Museum’s collection by Middlebury artist Kate Gridley.
In researching other doll collections, Sheldon Museum’s Executive Director Bill Brooks learned that American males were often the leading doll collectors and doll makers. Henry Sheldon founded his museum in 1882, which now maintains a modest collection of three dozen dolls, seven of which were chosen for representation in the current exhibit by Gridley.
A premier collector was Samuel F. Pryor, Jr. of Greenwich, Connecticut (1898-1985) who amassed a collection, known as the International Doll Library Foundation, which at its peak, numbered 8,000 dolls. A December 1964, Reader’s Digest article described dolls being “everywhere, all sizes and ages, from every country under the sun, from every period in history, for the last 3,500 years.” Pryor’s doll collection attracted thousands of visitors each year. “Why do I call it a library?” Pryor explained, “I call it a library because every doll tells a story just like a book.” The collection was auctioned in 1982 and those stories now live in other repositories.
Another New Englander, Morton Bartlett, following his death in 1992 was discovered to be an accomplished maker of dolls. Born in 1909, Barrett attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard College (class of 1932). Known professionally as a Boston graphic designer and photographer, it was not until after his death that an antiques dealer discovered Bartlett’s collection of hand-made dolls and photographs of them. Bartlett is now considered “an outsider artist.” His dolls and photographs can be found in leading outsider art galleries and art fairs. Brooks’ father was in the same Exeter and Harvard classes as Bartlett, but Brooks was never able to determine from his father, who also died in 1992, if they were acquainted.
Brooks discovered a local story ? Samuel F. Pryor, Jr.’s grandson, Samuel F. Pryor IV, was the recent owner/president of Connor Homes of Middlebury.
Into this mix of guys ? Henry Sheldon, Sam Pryor and Morton Bartlett ? enters Middlebury artist Gridley. Known primarily for her portraits ? most recently for those of Governor Jim Douglas, Federal Judge William Sessions, and local students ? Gridley spent many days viewing the three dozen dolls in the Henry Sheldon Museum collection. All packed away in archival paper and boxes in the storage shelves devoted to toys, she chose seven to photograph. All seven dolls and her photographs are on view in the “Focus on the Sheldon” exhibit.
Both her choice of dolls and her resulting photographs bring multiple artistic and viewer interpretations. In reflecting on her process, Gridley wrote:
“The Sheldon dolls, dusty, missing arms, some in faded clothes, hair worn off, may have been alive, real, to a child in the past. Holding dreams and thoughts, I imagine they may have spoken.
“I made portraits of the dolls as I would a living subject, posing them, looking to catch their inner feelings, in abstract patterns of light and dark. We know nothing of the children who held them, nor what they were called, but I have named the portraits.”
“Hans,” a blond, blue-eyed German doll, circa 1950, wears a blue outfit and is captured in an upright position, from the waist up. He is a reminder of one of the Von Trapp sons escaping Austria and made famous in the Sound of Music. The original is located in a nearby case where his brown shoes are evident.
Another doll, with red shoes, is Abby Victoria Painter (1796-1818), joined in the exhibit by the Museum’s full-length, oil portrait of her, circa 1805, by Ralph E. W. Earl (1788-1838). The doll, the portrait, and Gridley’s photo, show Abby grasping a small Abenaki basket in one hand and an open rose with rosebuds in the other. “Abby” was the daughter of prominent Middlebury College founder and benefactor Gamaliel Painter (1742-1819). She attended the celebrated Emma Willard’s seminary in Middlebury. Abby died at age 22 from consumption. Gridley’s photographic interpretation depicts a wind-swept youngster intent on her destination with tokens of gifts or remembrances in hand.
Three rooms are devoted to the exhibit. In the upstairs Cerf Gallery six of Gridley’s seven photographs are on display, along with three of the featured dolls. One with Asian traits, titled “What John Singer Sargent Saw,” is pictured from a side view in a subtle joyous facial countenance with hands outstretched. Like the original, the doll has minimum hair in clumps, stationary black eyes, and is attired in petticoat and dress with lace trim at the hems. A second doll, named “After,” is photographed from the waist up, against a white sheet with a satin ribbon dancing about her head. Her rosy facial cheeks, pearl choker necklace, and pillbox hat are all highlighted. Not pictured is the doll’s missing left arm.
Gridley brings new interpretations to the doll collection of the Henry Sheldon Museum. While many “guys” have been instrumental and dedicated to collecting dolls, the Sheldon has found a talented “doll” photographer to bring new meaning to the beloved toys of prior generations. On April 19 at noon, Gridley will present a gallery talk; the exhibit closes on May 13.
The Henry Sheldon Museum is located at 1 Park Street in Middlebury. Admission to the museum is $5 adults; $3 youth (6-18); $4.50 seniors; $12 family; $5 research center. For more info visit (802) 388-2117 or visit www.HenrySheldonMuseum.org.
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