Boats, B&W photos and beautiful Vt. landscapes: Museum exhibits all link to Middlebury College grads

MIDDLEBURY — What do a boat, “LIFE” magazine, and the landscapes of Vermont have in common? They’re all part of a trio of summer exhibitions on display at the Middlebury College Museum of Art until Aug. 13.
In what Museum Director Richard Saunders described as “total serendipity,” all three exhibitions are also tied to alumni of the college.
“This is the first time we’ve ever had three different alums connected to the world of art have shows simultaneously,” he said. “It’s been great fun and it’s been very popular.”
   Middlebury College of Art Museum Director Richard Saunders stands in an America’s cup exhibit he curated. The centerpiece of the exhibit, which runs through Aug. 13, is a boat designed by Roy Lichtenstein.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
If one were to make their way through the museum, the first of the three exhibitions they would see is “Young America: Roy Lichtenstein and the America’s Cup.” As the title suggests, it features the work of Roy Lichtenstein, the American pop artist known for his paintings mimicking comic strips and advertisements. In 1994, a syndicate preparing to compete in the America’s Cup yachting trials commissioned Lichtenstein to create a graphic design for the hull and spinnaker of their boat.
The skipper of that syndicate was Kevin Mahaney, a 1984 graduate of Middlebury who won a silver medal in sailing at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. In 2008, Mahaney, president and CEO of the Olympia Companies real estate firm, endowed the Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts, which houses the museum.
The 77-foot vessel that Lichtenstein adorned, displayed above a pond adjacent to the museum, is the most striking part of the “Young America” exhibition. It is here on loan from Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, N.Y.
Lichtenstein’s design depicts a mermaid gliding through the waves, and stretches from the bow to the stern, covering the entire hull of the boat. The spinnaker sail is on display inside the museum. It features rays of sunshine that, when sailed, shine down on the boat. The exhibit also features Lichtenstein’s early sketchings of the design, as well as several 19th century paintings that help contextualize his work within the history of the America’s Cup race.
“If you look at a 19th century cargo ship or naval vessel, they will have a figurehead, and sometimes they are gods and goddess, but for a long time a figurehead of a mermaid had been used,” Saunders said. “The mermaid was seen as a protectress of a boat.”
The exhibit opened in late May to coincide with this year’s America’s Cup trials. Saunders said that Lichtenstein’s design is particularly unique because it is a departure from what is typically found on the hulls of America’s Cup vessels.
“What’s happened now is (boats have) all become vehicles for advertising. The competitors get sponsors to cover the cost,” he said. “This is the only America’s Cup yacht that’s ever had a graphic design applied to it, so it is unique.”
Just up the stairs from the Lichtenstein exhibition is one featuring the work of Vermont artist Sabra Field, who graduated from Middlebury 60 years ago this year.
The exhibition, titled “Sabra Field, Now and Then: A Retrospective,” features 70 prints that span her six decades-long career. Since graduating, Field has had a significant relationship with the college, having donated her complete archive to Middlebury. According to Saunders, the museum has an artist proof or print for virtually every piece she has ever created. With few exceptions, the exhibition is comprised of the college’s repository of Field’s work.
Named an “Extraordinary Vermonter” by then-Gov. Madeleine Kunin in 1990, Field is best known for her depictions of rural Vermont, including her most recent work, “Cloud Way.”
“I think people like those because they’re very comforting and reassuring,” Saunders said. “If you think about what you put on your wall, it’s usually not something you want to antagonize you or make you upset, it’s something that you identify with and is restorative.”
Though her rural subjects are what she may be most identified with, Field has produced work that is wide-ranging, as evidenced by the exhibit.
“In the last decade or so, she’s really stretched her interests and range,” Saunders said.
The final exhibition on display at the museum is “The Lovings, An Intimate Portrait: Photographs by Grey Villet.”
It is comprised of 21 photographs that depict Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple who were legally married in Washington, D.C., in 1958. When they returned home to Virginia, they were arrested for violating the state’s anti-miscegenation statute. The Lovings sued the state of Virginia, and in 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court exonerated them and abolished laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
The photographs were taken by Grey Villet as part of his 1965 “Life” magazine photo essay on the Loving family. The title of the exhibition is the same as a recently published book of Villet’s photographs. The book is a collaboration between Villet’s colleague and widow, Barbara Villet, and his daughter, Ann Villet. The mother and daughter both graduated from Middlebury — in 1952 and 1987, respectively.
A press release announcing the exhibition said that “these images, the results of Villet’s patient style and preference for using only available light, bear a softness and an intimacy that transport the viewer directly into the heart of the scene.”
   GREY VILLET CAPTURES Mildred Loving, left, and her husband Richard, an interracial couple whose landmark Supreme Court case ended the prohibition on interracial marriages. An exhibition of Villet’s photos, originally taken for “Life” magazine, are on display at the Middlebury College Museum of Art this summer. 
Saunders said he was eager to have this exhibition come to Middlebury because the story continues to be discussed nationally. It is the subject of the 2016 Academy-Award nominated film “Loving.”
“It’s an important story. I think I’ve counted at least three photographs in The New York Times about this interracial marriage making connections to today,” he said. “Because race is such a polarizing issue even today, (the exhibition) is timely.”
The Middlebury College Museum of Art in the Mahaney Center for the Arts off West Main Street is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, noon–5 p.m. It is closed Mondays. The current exhibitions run through Aug. 13.

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