Last spring, Middlebury artist and former gallerist Doug Lazarus cooked up an ambitious idea in conjunction with the Lake Champlain quadricentennial: a juried exhibit of 50 lake-inspired works by Vermont artists that would tour to several venues around the state, as well as in Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C. His intention, Lazarus told Seven Days last June, was “to announce to the rest of the country that Vermont has a disproportionate number of artists living here.” He was convinced, furthermore, that regional art is making a comeback, and that the landscape genre is having a resurgence owing in part to “the rising, new environmental consciousness, and a frustration with the rootlessness of late 20th-century life.” The works chosen for his show, Lazarus declared, would reflect all those values.
Since then, he’s been hard at work pulling it together. “The project has gone very nicely,” says a frazzled but gratified Lazarus, who operated the Great Falls Fine Art Center in Middlebury until its recent closure. “But I’ve never worn so many hats!”
Next month, “Champlain’s Lake Rediscovered” finally opens at the Shelburne Farms Coach Barn, the first stop on a tour that will be slightly shorter than originally planned — “We were not able to raise enough money to do D.C.,” Lazarus says. (As it is, the project has benefited from the generosity of venues such as the National Arts Club in New York, which waived its $4000 rental fee.) “Champlain’s Lake Rediscovered” will close instead at the Vermont Statehouse in October, which is “more appropriate anyway,” according to Statehouse Curator David Schutz. “It gives us a chance to participate in the quad celebrations.”
The exhibit, too, is somewhat smaller than Lazarus had hoped for — 39 pieces, to be exact. The jurors were Schutz, collector and Art Hop chair Mark Waskow and Stephan Jost of the Shelburne Museum; Lazarus himself stepped in, in a few instances, to override or augment their decisions. The works, which Jost describes as “solid,” are two-dimensional and use a variety of media. All can be seen in slideshow form on the project’s website, as well as in a handsome catalogue published by the sponsoring nonprofit, Monkton’s Willowell Foundation.
The catalogue’s cover photograph, taken by Gary Hall, reflects a bit of happy serendipity: Hall was out shooting images of Lake Champlain, Lazarus explains, and snapped painter Brian Sweetland working a canvas en plein air. In the pic, Sweetland has his back to the camera as he faces his subject, a verdant patchwork of fields and trees sloping down to Lake Champlain. Turns out Sweetland was working on the painting he would later submit to “Champlain’s Lake Rediscovered” — to the jurors’ approval. Lazarus put it all together when he saw Hall’s shot.
Viewed from the perspective of art history, the works in the exhibit can’t exactly be considered “rediscoveries”; artists have been inspired by the landscape for millennia. Some viewers may be stunned, though, to find a weaving — Brenda Lea Brown’s “Moon Glow” — that duplicates light reflected on water as surely as a photograph.
Regardless of artistic traditions and tastes, viewers who love Lake Champlain are unlikely ever to tire of its likenesses, especially those that have what Willowell founder Matt Schlein calls a “certain playful magic.” He adds, “What’s been missing in the environmental movement is the role of art. For us this [project] was the perfect fit.” Sales of the show’s artworks, he notes, will go toward a Willowell endowment for arts education.