In another life, Vermont artist Molly Davies says, she could have been a painter of Italian frescoes. There was one big problem: “I couldn’t paint,” she says. “I cared about it too much. I couldn’t bear to do it poorly.”
So Davies taught herself to “paint” with a movie camera, creating abstractions in motion from the shapes, colors and textures of the world around her. A few of her meditative video installations are on view at Burlington’s Amy E. Tarrant Gallery through the end of the year.
Davies, 68, has collaborated with some of her generation’s artistic superstars, including the composers David Tudor and John Cage and choreographers Steve Paxton and William Forsythe, as well as her partner, the choreographer Polly Motley — Davies contributed video components to Motley’s “Critical State,” the multimedia performance event that has filled Morrisville’s River Arts the last two Septembers.
Davies’ Tarrant Gallery exhibit, which features stacked video monitors, kite tails and a projected waterfall installation, marks the first time gallery manager Nancy Abbott-Hourigan has shown three-dimensional work. “It’s sensational,” she says of the show. Still, despite the videos’ painterly quality, they’re best to take in as you would a short film. Abbott-Hourigan encourages people to take a seat in front of “Swimming,” a video from 1999 featuring Motley dancing underwater in a sheer, brown jumpsuit. “You stand here and, after two minutes, you want to leave,” she says. “And then you sit and you go into the zone. You can’t stop watching.”
She’s right. The longer you watch, the more it begins to look as if Motley were in the midst of a painting made up of subtly shifting purples, greens, blues and whites. As Davies changes perspective, the light swoops and flares around the dancer, who seems as if she never has to breathe, thanks to Davies’ artful angles. Motley keeps her eyes open, and when the camera catches her head-on, she smiles, the sun on fire behind her.
In “Blue Sonnambula,” which unfolds to an aria from Vincenzo Bellini’s La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker), Davies points her camera through the underwater viewing window of a public pool. A girl in a floral tankini is spinning, oblivious to everyone around her. When a boy doing a cannonball crashes through the water beside her, the girl keeps spinning. When another boy, wearing goggles and a Speedo, swims right up to her and punches her in the gut, she regains her balance and keeps on spinning.
“There was just something about those kids,” Davies says. They didn’t know she was filming them, and Davies wasn’t sure exactly what she was looking for, content-wise, she explains. The challenge she set out for herself? Resist the urge to move the camera, and see what happens within the frame. She was delighted to catch this “gorgeous, long-legged girl who was completely lost in that moment of childish self-absorption,” she says. “The tender human qualities are what make that piece.”
On a recent afternoon, Davies is hiking up a steep, wooded path on her 600-acre Northeast Kingdom farm. Wearing a vest over a plaid flannel shirt and a worn-in blue bandana knotted around her neck, she looks a little more farmer than filmmaker. These days, in addition to her artistic projects, Davies is engaged in a different kind of collaboration: She’s been working with a young couple to transform what was once a conventional dairy into a sustainable organic farm.
Davies, who lives in Stowe, bought Chandler Pond Farm in South Wheelock 10 years ago planning to go into business with the farmers who would live there and work the land. She found Rob and Tamara Martin a couple of years ago.
“The two things that interest me are making art and making food,” says Davies. She didn’t grow up on a farm — she spent her childhood in the New York City area — but her mother came from a family of Missouri dairy farmers.
Davies was in sixth grade when she decided she wanted to be a painter, during her first trip to Europe with her parents. She was enthralled with Botticelli’s “Primavera” and “The Birth of Venus,” and stunned by Michelangelo’s “David.”
Back home, Davies made regular visits to the art museums in New York City. “If anyone wanted to know how the modern wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was hung in the 1960s, they should come to me,” she says. “I could rehang the whole floor.”
When Davies was 16, she traveled to an artist colony on Spain’s Costa Brava to babysit for her parents’ friends. That’s where she met Jackie Matisse, the granddaughter of Henri Matisse and stepdaughter of Marcel Duchamp. “Here’s this fabulous woman with long red hair,” says Davies of Jackie Matisse, who was in her late twenties at the time. “She spoke every European language perfectly.” And she was an artist in her own right.
They became good friends, and Matisse introduced Davies to Tudor, Cage and other artists with whom she would later collaborate. But by the time Davies was 21, she had given up on painting. Her dad had given her a Super 8 camera, and she swiftly fell in love with it.
In the early ’80s, Davies, Matisse and Tudor traveled together to the Bahamas, where they collaborated on a piece they called “Sea Tails.” Davies filmed Matisse’s brightly colored kite tails underwater, while Tudor collected sounds to compose the score. The resulting installation, which features three different videos on six screens, is part of the Tarrant Gallery show — as are the original kites, now suspended from the ceiling and hanging in the windows.
The footage is mesmerizing … if you’re patient. Some kites look like tangled neckties, others like serpents or octopus tentacles: twisting, braiding and bunching in the sunlit water. Occasionally, a wide, dark tail passes over the screen like an oil spill.
Tudor’s score is made up of rattling and gurgling sounds. Davies says the composer put little microphones in baby-food jars, which he lowered into the water. That subtle crunching sound? It’s shrimp nibbling on the side of the boat.
Above all, Davies believes in collaboration. In two big placards at the exhibit, she doesn’t just acknowledge the other artists; she gives a shout-out to Stefan Jacobs for his lighting and Philip Roy for the installation of the work. “Filmmaking is collaborative by nature,” declares Davies. But even painters “have an interior collaboration with the people they admire,” she says. “Nobody does it alone.”
Molly Davies’ video installations are at the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery, Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, in Burlington, through December 31. flynncenter.org