Where Art Meets History

By Doug Pifer

Can you imagine being able to do what you liked best, in just the right place, with no limitations on size or space? That describes my experience this past winter with the Clermont Farm Art Forum II project.

This interpretation of history through art will be open to the public at Clermont Farm in Berryville from April 12 to May 31 this year. Fourteen artists from all over the country will be participating. The exhibit will include a wide range of the arts: sculpture, painting, fabric, ceramic, music, writing, and video.

Foremost is the deeply historic atmosphere of the place. Clermont has been a working farm for over 250 years. Its 360 acres lie where East Main Street, Berryville, joins VA Route 7. On the farm stand many well-preserved historic buildings. Besides an intact main house, there are a slave quarters, a smokehouse, a huge bank barn, and a family cemetery.

Here is where the Clermont Foundation, the Va. Department of Historic Resources and the Rotating History Project are partnering for a unique opportunity to interpret history through art.

On a recent Sunday Bob Stieg, CEO of Clermont Farm, hosted a lunchtime meeting where I met with three of my co-exhibitors to discuss our work on the project thus far. The exhibit curators Teddy Johnson and Heather Rounds, from Baltimore, Md., joined us.

Local artist Sally Myers is in the midst of creating an outdoor metal sculpture for the exhibit with a Native American theme. Long before the English colonists settled here, original people revered it as a special place to hunt and propagate game animals. To honor the memory of native inhabitants, Sally is creating a series of welded columns suggesting trees. On the steel framework will appear leaves, vines and birds of forged copper and iron. The columns are to be organically decorated with actual bones from game animals. This walk-through sculpture will appear somewhere alongside the farm road for visitors to see as they enter the farm grounds. She passed around intricately worked leaves and birds for us to examine.

I helped Baltimore fiber artist Melissa Webb carry dress forms and boxes of vintage clothing from her car upstairs to the 1756 bedroom in the main house, where her exhibit is to take place. Melissa’s exhibit will feature two composite historic dresses, a magnificent wedding gown and a funerary garment (also called a mourning dress or widow’s weeds), restored from a collection of garments found at Clermont farm. The wedding dress with a 9-foot train showed alterations made for the wedding ceremonies of several generations of Clermont women. Melissa wants her display to be interactive, so visitors can touch the fabric and ask questions.

Andrew Shenker, along with fellow Baltimore artist Michael Benevento, is responsible for the monumental outdoor “highway” sculpture alongside Route 7 coming into Berryville. Featuring huge wooden timbers and stacked round hay bales, this collaborative sculpture mimics the entryway of the main house at Clermont, specially built to admit visitors but also to preserve the privacy of the inhabitants. Hay bales came from Clermont, and the wooden beams were salvaged from local barns that have been demolished. Andrew explained how the severe winter weather caused the round bales to deteriorate and collapse just after the final design was completed. Undaunted, the two artists still have a master design which can be reconfigured with new hay bales in time for the show’s opening. Bob Stieg says this highway sculpture has attracted lots of local interest.

I’ve been painting a series of life-sized farm animals on location inside the enormous 1917 bank barn. So far I’ve done a family of chickens and a pair of turkeys.  A full-sized draft horse is nearly completed. Despite severe weather, I plan to create a life-sized pig, a sheep with twin lambs, a cow and calf, and a pair of peacocks before the show opens. These animals were raised at some time on the farm. All the required research, measuring and study has been pure fun for me.

Clearly, we artists of Clermont Forum II have been having a ball. And there’s so much more art and history to see and experience for adults and kids alike.

See you there this spring!