William Shevis, “Foggy Day Along the Shore,” four-color woodcut. Photo by Bruce Schwarz/Courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

It’s easy to understand why Haystack became a center for craft in America, thanks to the summer blockbuster at the Portland Museum of Art, “In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969.”

This exhibition is a blockbuster because it sets the Haystack story in the context of both mid-century American art and mid-century American life, and how the two intersected around a not-quite Utopian lifestyle vision that encouraged invention, creativity and a free exchange of ideas. Co-curated by the PMA’s Diana Greenwold and art historian Rachael Arauz, “In the Vanguard” also presents the first major research and scholarship related to Haystack’s early years, first in Montville and then on Deer Isle on the campus designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, which opened in 1961.

Architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, from left, trustees Bill Muir and Jack Larsen, and Bill Donovan at the site of the new Haystack campus in Deer Isle in 1961. Image courtesy of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts

Most of what we know about Haystack begins on Deer Isle. This exhibition takes us back to the early days, when the post-war optimism that gave rise to an era of new possibilities across American culture dovetailed with an emerging counterculture that was based at least partly on the ideals of simple living and a symbiotic relationship with the landscape espoused by Henry David Thoreau. Greenwold and Arauz interviewed dozens of artists from the early years in Montville and assembled a range of work across media by the artists who set the early tone at Haystack and established it from the outset as an inventive center for craft and art education in America.

“I think most people see the Haystack story beginning in 1961, but the first decade was a pivotal moment,” Greenwold said, “and that story hadn’t been told in any way. It just simply hadn’t been told.”

“In the Vanguard” also makes the case that the early campus is overlooked in the discussion about important Maine art colonies. The Montville campus, which was often referred to as Liberty because of its mailing address, existed only for a decade and had to be relocated to accommodate Route 3. But it was there where Haystack visionary and founding director Francis Merritt set its roots as a school with an experimental aesthetic and became what Greenwold calls “a vital force of American modernism” and a place that changed American art, craft and design.

Instructor Bill Brown and director Fran Merritt at Haystack Mountain in August 1957. Image courtesy of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts

Merritt presented his vision for what Haystack would become in 1952, writing that Haystack’s “only dogma” is to encourage creative thinking and personal expression and foster an environment conducive to “the benefits of group living in an informal, rural atmosphere.” Merritt, a painter and printmaker, was more interested in finding new techniques and processes than perfecting existing ones.

He blended media, ideas and artists. That tenet has been central to Haystack’s philosophy from the outset, Arauz said. “The spirit of the campus was always, and still is, to bring all the materials and artists together,” she said. “It has became this wonderful confluence of people for whom anything actually goes.”

Arline Fisch, “Portable Shrine,” 1968, made of sterling silver and Egyptian mummy beads. Photo by Bruce Schwartzc/Courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

The exhibition tells the story with jewelry, ceramics, glass, fabric, wood and a variety of other material, including videos and early photos that Greenwold and Arauz uncovered digging through archival material on the Deer Isle campus and in the attics of artists across the country. In the process, they digitized thousands of slides, creating “an unbelievable digital record of this amazing group of artists in their 20s at this wonderful place to experiment,” Greenwold said.

They’ve been working on the project for about four years.

Paul Sacaridiz, Haystack’s director since 2016, said the exhibition represents a milestone for the school because it offers the first deep look into the early days and because Greenwold and Arauz spoke directly with many early artists. In many ways, he said, the exhibition is a byproduct of the original research of the curators. “No one else has ever done it,” he said. “Haystack will always be profoundly grateful to the PMA for trusting in this exhibition. It’s easy to say, ‘This is a story we should tell because we are in Maine,’ but it takes tremendous time and resources to make it happen.”

Among the artists whose work is highlighted in the exhibition are Anni Albers, Dale Chihuly, Robert Ebendorf and Jack Lenor Larsen, all of whom contributed to the international dialogue about art and culture and did much of their formative thinking in Maine. The curators  interviewed many of the early artists, preserving memories and stories in a catalog that accompanies the exhibition and also tells the larger historical story.

They have borrowed from the artists, private collectors and institutions across the country, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and Museum of Art and Design in New York. The Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, loaned Anni Albers’ “Play of Squares,” an understated wool wall hanging. There’s a silver brooch from Ebendorf, stoneware from William Wyman and a mixed-media tribute to John F. Kennedy, titled “Nov. 22, 1962, 12:30 p.m.” by J. Fred Woell, made in 1967.

Nearly all the work on view was made at Haystack or directly before or after an artist’s experience at Haystack, Arauz said.

In the larger picture, the art in this show represents a transition between the Bauhaus arts and crafts movement of the early century and what developed into the American craft movement, and is a statement of Merritt’s broad vision of craft and what it could include, Arauz said. “Fran wasn’t afraid of the debate between art and craft,” she said.

Thomas Gentille, an art jeweler who helped established Haystack’s first jewelry shop, has a piece in the show that he made in the woodworking studio. It’s a small box that he made by chance. “I just roamed into the wood room, I saw the wood, it smelled great and I said I wanted to make something in wood,” Gentille said by phone.

His Haystack experience “broadened my horizons. One of the great things about Haystack, whatever class you were assigned in you were allowed to go around to other classes,” he said. That idea stemmed directly from Merritt, whom Gentille remembered as “very open-minded and kind of quiet. Not terribly tall. I wouldn’t call him a short man, but I was taller than he was, and I was 5′ 11″. He had a protruding lower lip that he often pulled on while he was thinking. He was very charming.”

And demanding.

Gentille was a student at Cleveland Institute of Art in 1956 and heard about Haystack from a friend, who had already enrolled and encouraged Gentile to come along. He and his buddy arrived in Maine first by train, then by bus. “When we got to Liberty, we had no idea where Haystack was. We must have passed through the town four or fives times because we couldn’t find the downtown. But it turns out, there were only four or five houses there. We didn’t don’t know we were there. There was no downtown,” Gentille said, laughing at the memory.

They stayed overnight in a rented room, then set out for Haystack the next morning by foot. Gentile recalled it as a long walk down a path off the main highway. They arrived a day before classes began, so Merritt put them to work building wooden framework to surround a fireplace as a divider between the dining room and living room. Later, Gentile became a kitchen assistant to Priscilla Merritt, Fran’s wife.

Gentille was a student twice at the old campus and an instructor twice on Deer Isle. He can’t remember the last time he was there, “but I have fantastic memories. It was a great school and a great place.”

Among his takeaways from Haystack was a sense of adventure. Everything about it was exciting, including arriving in a remote, rural area after a long journey, without any real sense of where you were going and or what would await. “To this day, I don’t carry a cellphone,” Gentile said. “I’ve always enjoyed the adventure of getting lost.”

That’s been the Haystack credo in art and life for many years, he said.

Emily Mason’s first trip to the old Montville campus was a different kind of adventure. She was among the first scholarship students at Haystack, coming over from Bennington College in Vermont with an interest in textiles. She recalled meeting her ride in Boston and driving by car deep into the Maine woods. “I kept thinking, ‘I could be getting kidnapped.’ I had no idea.”

Jack Lenor Larsen teaches weaving in the 1950s. Image courtesy of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts

In a sense, she had been kidnapped. Haystack changed how Mason saw the world. Specifically, a lecture by the weaver Larsen, who used dyed skeins of wool to illustrate his talk about color, directly influenced her becoming an abstract painter. “I really understood color for the first time,” she said. “What I liked about Haystack, it opened me up to experimenting. I remember stupidly putting seaweed in my weaving. It was great for a while, but then it crumbled. But I like experimenting.”

“In the Vanguard” includes Mason’s painting “Practice Winter,” an abstract oil from 1962 bursting with vibrant patches of yellow and white.

Sacaridiz choked up when he saw the exhibition. He found it moving to see tangible evidence that “this truly radical idea” that became Haystack has been rooted in Maine for nearly 70 years. “What we do is extraordinary in so many ways, and the early days of the school and the way the exhibition centers around experimentation and risk-taking underscores everything we do today,” he said.

Most important, “In the Vanguard” has given him a sense of purpose, clarity and confidence, because he knows that what matters now at Haystack is also what mattered then.

 

Robert Ebendorf, “Cast Rock Brooches,” 1969, made with bronze, silver and copper. Photo by Rick Rhodes/Courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

 


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