For Ted Muehling, it was the duck decoys that proved an irresistible lure.
“They’re very clever abstractions,” Muehling, a Manhattan jewelry designer, said during a private tour of the Shelburne Museum last weekend. “They’re tender and graceful and beautifully carved, but at the same time there’s something sinister about them.”
Muehling’s bemused response to the hundreds of decoys displayed in the museum’s Dorset House was shared by some of the seven other artists invited to browse the Shelburne’s collections in the company of Associate Curator Kory Rogers. It was the sort of serendipity Rogers had been hoping for. “I was pleasantly shocked,” he said. The artists “saw the decoys as ironic in that they pull real ducks to their death. I guess it shows that beauty can be dangerous.”
In a first-of-a-kind venture that Rogers now wants to arrange annually, a group of artists prominent in diverse fields were invited to glean inspiration from the museum’s vast stash of objects. This initial field trip was organized in collaboration with Antiques magazine, whose editors plan to publish a feature on the artists’ experiences in their August issue.
Ideally, in 2010, the museum will present a show of works created by the eight artists in response to what they saw during their two-day tour. But producing something for display wasn’t a precondition of the visit. The main aim of both the museum and the magazine, Rogers said, was “to bring our respective audiences into the contemporary world.”
The Shelburne has been striving in recent years to slough off its fusty image. Its directors don’t want their institution to be seen as an eccentric’s attic, stuffed with curios from long ago, but as a relevant, even hip cabinet of wonders. “We’d love to do a show about what the present can learn from the past,” says Leslie Wright, the museum’s publicist. “It’s wonderful to see that the museum is still full of life, still giving people creative ideas.”
At the end of their first day, many of the artists were as overwhelmed as they were bedazzled. “There’s too much here that I’m interested in,” exclaimed Hudson Valley furniture maker Chris Lehrecke. “There’s just so much color, pattern, form,” added Michelle Erickson, a ceramics virtuoso from Virginia. Muehling summed up the general amazement by observing, “This place is a fabulous hodge-podge of everything imaginable.”
The artists were still clicking their cameras enthusiastically as they toured the Shaker Shed after viewing sleighs, toys, circus posters, paintings, quilts and, of course, the steamboat Ticonderoga. Some were just becoming acquainted with Vermont as well as with the museum. Erickson, for one, had visited the state only once before, and was wowed by all the sunshine and mud.
Toots Zynsky, by contrast, lived near Middlebury as a communard in the 1970s and in southern Vermont as an emerging glass artist in the early ’80s. Though she had visited the museum before, she found herself seeing its collections as though for the first time. “It’s interesting that, the older you get, you tend to look at things differently,” said the redheaded glass threader, who’s 58.
Zynsky, who now lives in Rhode Island, appeared to be fulfilling Rogers’ hope that the artists will “let what they’ve seen marinate in their brains for a while.” Time is needed, Zynsky said, for her imagination to take wing. “I try to let the creative process be unconscious,” she added. “For me, it’s always an experience of revealing and learning.”