Art and river converge in New Haven

NEW HAVEN — The New Haven River at Golden Well Sanctuary seemed to smolder with the rich green hues of dusk on Wednesday as a small group of county residents gathered on the stony shore, slipped a large sheet of paper beneath the water’s surface and pinned it down with rocks. What light remained in the sky cast just enough shadow for them to trace onto the paper with lithographic crayons the current’s flow patterns and the ripples of raindrops.
Guiding them in this experiment, which was organized by the New Haven Conservation Commission as part of its Armchair Naturalists Series, was an artist who has created an entire body of work around this process — Janet Fredericks, who lives upriver in Lincoln.
“I see the various marks as a kind of lexicon of the language of the river,” Fredericks explained during a slide show presentation of her work earlier that evening. It’s a language, she suggested, “that can be read by people who spend time in the river — fishermen, kayakers, canoeists.”
From 2000 to 2002 Fredericks collaborated with Maine artist Dona Seegers on a project they called “Being in Water.”
“I would make the markings of the flow with my crayon, put the date on it and some other notations, roll it up wet, carry it back to my studio up the hill and then unroll it in my studio and let it dry,” Fredericks recalled. “Then I would send it to (Seegers) in a big tube.”
The Maine artist would paint into the drawings or otherwise add color to them (she marked one with muddy snowballs), then send them back.
“This probably went back and forth three or four times,” Fredericks said.
Collaborating this way they created 24 works, some of which can be viewed on the artist’s website, janetfredericksstudio.com.
Wednesday evening, as she and others stood in the river, tracing blue and green swirls onto the paper, Fredericks reflected on her experiences of seeing.
“When you’re really observing something and paying attention to it, you can’t help but fall in love with it,” she said. “Or at least have respect for it, appreciate it and want to care for it.”
Intrigued by Fredericks and Seeger’s 2002 gallery show, Canadian poet Guy Jean wondered what would happen to his writing if he, himself, worked in or by the water.
Thus began Fredericks’s next collaboration, “Et l’eau repondit” (And the Water Answered), which lasted from 2002 to 2006.
Dividing their time between the New Haven River in Vermont and the Gatineau River in Quebec, which flows through a more urban landscape, painter and poet explored the mysterious sensory qualities of water, creating works that might be interpreted as both maps and prayers.
All the while, Fredericks maintained a deep level of attention to the natural world around her, an attention she developed as a child growing up in Essex Junction.
“I loved my family outings to streams and waterfalls and lakes around the state,” she told her audience on Wednesday. “My parents loved to be around water, too. When I left Burlington for Lincoln in 2000, the first thing I wanted to do was find out where the water was, and what the plants were and what’s out in those woods. So I went out there with David Brynn, the forester, and found out what trees we had and started to study medicinal herbs and plants and then I started drawing them.”
THIS VIDEO WAS produced in a collaboration between Fredericks and Canadian poet Guy Jean. Their work together, which they call “Et l’eau repondit… (And Water Answered)”, celebrates water through image, word, and music. While Janet paints underwater twinkling of light on her canvas, Guy reads into the river’s voice and re-plays it in poetic onomatopeia.
Filmed and directed by Julie Huard, edited by Edmond Michaud
Working with other artists had helped push her to explore even further.
“The wonderful thing about doing collaborations on these projects is that it’s really like a journey because it takes you to places you don’t plan or expect to go, learning about the history of the place and meeting people,” she said. “It’s always a learning experience, and that’s when I’m happiest — when I’m learning and it’s an adventure.”
Video presentations of “Et l’eau repondit” can also be found on the artist’s website.
New Haven Conservation Commission member Cheryl Mitchell helped organize the event.
“I loved it,” she told the Independent the next morning. “I was taken by how deep Janet took us into the world of water. It was an inspiring presentation about our human connections with non-human things.”
The Armchair Naturalists Series sponsors monthly events at which various experts address issues relative to the natural environment. Events are free and open to the public.
It was Mitchell’s NHCC colleague Mark Krawczyk who suggested the series depart from its regular town office venue and hold the event at Golden Well Sanctuary, an organic farm, healing center and event space on the New Haven River.
Golden Well’s Nicole Burke was happy to oblige, she said.
Drawing materials were provided through a grant from the 5-Town Friends of the Arts.
NICOLE BURKE DRAWS on a sheet of paper pinned under the New Haven River. On Wednesday evening Burke’s family hosted a presentation of Janet Fredericks’s artwork in their home at Golden Well Sanctuary, which was followed by collaborative artwork created by the audience.
Independent photo/Christopher Ross
Fredericks’s more recent work has moved ashore, somewhat, with a focus on images of mounds, including anthills. Of particular interest to her has been “the angle of repose,” which is the steepest angle that materials can be piled up without slumping or crashing over.
“I think it has to do with civilization being on the edge of something,” Fredericks told the Independent Thursday morning.
Along that edge is the evolving climate crisis, which Fredericks has at times struggled to process.
“I’ve had bouts of depression,” she said. “I talk about it with my fellow artists, who are also heartsick. I have to check in with myself pretty regularly. ‘Should I be in my studio, making art?’ ”
Yes, she’s decided.
“The image is a powerful thing,” she said. “And someone has got to be finding the beauty in the environment.”
And at 70 she still feels nature’s call with the same intensity she did as a young child.
“It’s always amazing to me when Vermont comes back to life every spring,” she said. “Such fecundity and intelligence. If you can hold onto that, you can be hopeful.”
For more information about the artist, the venue or the series, visit janetfredericksstudio.com, goldenwellsanctuary.com and vermontconservation.com.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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