Summer guide: A Middlebury sculpture tour

MIDDLEBURY — Summer is a great time to be outside in Vermont. You can ride a bike on a grand tour, hike to a mountain summit or swim halfway across a lake and back. But, honestly, we don’t want to be engaged in strenuous physical activity every time we get out the front door.
Fortunately, in Middlebury there is a great way to spend an hour or two out walking around town, soaking up some sun, taking in some fresh air and enjoying some really terrific public art. The county’s shire town is home to so many sculptures that it is well worth your time to stroll around and see a half dozen or more. They are made in many different kinds of materials, were produced with different audiences in mind, and provoke a wide variety of emotions.
They are presented with a mix of reasons: artistic, educational, expressions of civic pride and remembrance and even as a venue to relax and contemplate life.
Here is a suggested route you can walk through town. Move at whatever pace you find comfortable. Take time to follow diversions and see what happens to be around the sculptures you see. Wonder about how they fit into the landscape. Gaze at the sculptures from many different perspectives and consider their artistic merit. Recognize the way they make you feel.
A good place to start is behind the Mahaney Arts Center (MAC) on the Middlebury College campus off South Main Street.
The college campus features at least 26 pieces of public art by 26 different artists, many of them nationally or internationally known. You can find the full list of sculptures online at middlebury.edu, but for this tour we will just hit a handful of them, because we want to get further into the heart of town, as well.
Head to the parking lot and you’ll see a pond between the MAC and the college track. There are two interesting pieces — both made of painted aluminum and erected here in 2000 — installed around the pond. The first one you’ll come to is “Around and About” by the Australian-born American artist. Clement Meadmore. The 7-foot-tall, 11-foot-long piece sits like a huge metal twist in the landscape. It was made in 1971.
Nearby is a sculpture of quite a different style, though, designed in 1973 it is from the same era. Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” is another painted aluminum sculpture, this one 6 feet high and 6 feet wide. It uses bold graphic design popular in the early ’70s, and is widely known in America.
Walk northwest across South Main Street to the center of campus. In the main quad, in front of Munroe Hall you’ll find a bronze dog, 5 feet, 8 inches tall, leaping to grab a flying disk in his moth. Unlike the first two sculptures, “Frisbee Dog” by the American Patrick Villiers Farrow is more representational. It looks like a dog, but an examination will yield ways in which this beast could not be a real hound. Created and installed in 1989, this is a popular piece in a relatively prominent, though inconspicuous, spot.
Continue north across College Street and Battell Beach (the quad on the north side of campus) and toward McCardell Bicentennial Hall. On the lawn in front of the southeast corner of the science building you will find you are back in the world of the abstract, but this painted aluminum sculpture is different again. Tony Smith’s “Smog” was designed in 1969-1970 and fabricated and erected here in 2000. At 80 feet long and 60 feet wide it has a big footprint — so big that it’s 7-foot-tall lattice of geometric forms seem rather small until you stand right next to the piece.
When you look up or across and through the repeating octahedrons you may think of crystals; or you may think of other natural forms. Let your mind wander.
The last sculpture you will see on campus on this walk (unless you wander around and check out the 20-odd other public sculptures at Middlebury College) is installed in the woods. Head east from “Smog” and behind the building known as Le Chateau toward the Atwater Dining Hall. Behind Atwater, take the path to the left of the tennis courts and proceed down the hill. A sculpture from a different era, in a different style with different materials emerges. British artist Kate Owen’s 1997 work “Hieroglyphics for the Ear”, which is five pieces of slate sitting atop five steel stands spaced out along the path to Nicholas House on Weybridge Street. Each slate has a word carved into it — an onomatopoetic word, one that makes a sound — “HISS” and “RATTLE,” for instance.
Look at the words, hear them in your head of say them out loud in this quiet wooded setting. Why did she put them here in 2001, and in this order?
Turn right on Weybridge Street, back toward town; take the first left onto Mill Street. Down the hill and just a little ways back up, you’ll pass the Old Stone Mill. In the courtyard in front of the Edgewater at the Falls gallery, you’ll find another curious-looking animal made of metal. “Lion,” by Jonathan D. Ebinger, portrays the king of the jungle 6 feet tall and nearly 10 feet long; it is made entirely of stainless steel washers and nuts. Constructed in 2017-2018, the artist captured personality in the animal’s face and tension in his muscles.
Other pieces of Ebinger’s work can be seen at the Edgewater Gallery.
‘BIG FISH,’ A sculpture by Martin McGowan, at Sheldon Museum in Middlebury. Photo by Ethan Bond-Watts
Next are three outdoor sculptures in one place. Go across Mill Street and up a few concrete stops onto Park Street; continue up the little hill to the old, red brick building with the inviting porch. This is the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History. You must spend some time inside the museum to discover all the magic housed inside, but for now linger in the garden observing the sculptures.
Last summer, the Sheldon installed “Big Fish” by Martin McGowan and “Anyman” (also known as “The Head”) by John Matusz. Both artists are accomplished sculptors and their work brings an added dimension to the Museum’s founding mission as an art museum highlighting Vermonters. The sculptures were installed in mid-July 2018 and continue until at least year-end 2018.
“Big Fish” is a hand-carved core of cedar covered with pieces of copper bathtubs, buckets, and old stainless steel water tanks. For stability, the stand is a table leg welded to a truck rim base filled with cement.
“Anyman” departs from Matusz’s normal welded steel, stone and wood sculptures. A bust profile, it is fashioned from Ferro cement with a bronze metallic finish, accentuating the subject’s profile and contemplative, ethereal demeanor. And it is over 5 feet tall.
A new piece just installed this spring is “Pipe Eagle,” the 2016 work by Addison County artist Eben Markowski. This life-size bird made of steel is perched on a cedar wood post that serves as a reminder of nature’s fragility, but also its durability when legislators and the citizens heed the warnings of naturalists. Made almost completely from sections of varying sizes of steel pipe, the artist said his goal was to see how much expression he could tease out of these materials while working with their manufactured curves.
If you haven’t had your fill of Markowski then you are in luck. Head across Main Street to the Middlebury Town Office building and you will find an almost 10-foot-tall elephant that is spending this year guarding the small plaza fronting the municipal building at 77 Main St. This particular pachyderm is like none other: It’s another mesmerizing metallic sculpture created by Markowski.
She’s called “Gravity,” and is a creative representation of an Asian elephant (pictured, right). The sculpture beguiled folks for more than a year at her most recent preserve at the Burlington International Airport before being set up in Middlebury this past April.
The sculpture has inspired many reactions: fascination, for how the artist transformed salvaged steel into the skeletal foundation and plated hide of one of the great animals still walking the Earth; sadness, for seeing the network of chains that give the animal dimension, but also illustrates the servitude to which many elephants are condemned; and hope, for knowing that “Gravity” might inspire new generations to keep elephants from becoming abused and/or eradicated for their hides, tusks and bones.
Markowski’s elephant and eagle sculptures stare at one another across the sidewalks and roadways of Park and Main streets.
Now, from contemporary sculpture to one that is a little more classical — at least by Vermont standards. Walk north on Main Street across the Battell Bridge and turn right on Merchants Row. Up at the top of Merchants Row, in front of Town Hall Theater, you’ll see a huge granite sculpture that is a little over 32 feet tall and about 17 feet square at the base. It portrays soldiers in Civil War uniforms. At the four corners are a cavalryman, infantryman, marine and an artillery gunner.
Commissioned by Silas A. Ilsley (you saw his name atop the front door of the public library a few blocks back), “Middlebury to Her Soldiers” as it is formally known, was designed by Marshall Jones and Seward Jones and dedicated in 1905. This piece of public art, if you can call it that, is from a somewhat different world from the one we live in now. How does it fit in with the other pieces you have seen? How differently is the artists’ society portrayed?
Finally, stroll back down Merchants Row and across Main Street; take jog to the right and continue down Printer’s Alley into an open space between the Marble Works complex and the Otter Creek Falls basin. Five years ago the Town Hall Theater held a fundraiser that netted a bunch of art that was displayed in public — five over-sized chairs.
In the “Big Chair Project,” five local woodworkers crafted Gulliver-sized seats to draw attention to the nonprofit organization’s annual membership drive. One of the artists was Nancy Malcolm, a woodworking hobbyist. She had worked on various furniture projects — including the occasional Adirondack chair — and was intrigued by the super-sized chair assignment. She used poplar wood to create a really big Adirondack chair, which is painted yellow. It is now placed in the park at the Marble Works overlooking the Otter Creek Falls.
This sculpture beckons viewers not only to touch it, but to sit in it, which results in some comical photo ops. Some art lovers may ask if the Big Yellow Chair belongs on this sculpture tour. The chair offers a good space to sit and discuss the question; and it is big enough to accommodate at least two people to argue the point.

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