Artist Matthew Geller transforms a Flo Gris tree

Artist Matthew Geller, left, of New York works with Ted Gaffney, center, facilities manager at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, and Andy Clifford, an art handler from New Haven, right, while installing his temporary outdoor sculpture on May 20.
Artist Matthew Geller, left, of New York works with Ted Gaffney, center, facilities manager at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, and Andy Clifford, an art handler from New Haven, right, while installing his temporary outdoor sculpture on May 20. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

The tree was planted by Miss Florence Griswold herself in the 1920s, back when Impressionists were roaming her Old Lyme property and painting iconic versions of the lush landscape.

Less than a century later, the tree began to rot and was cut down. But it is living a second, vibrant life as part of a new outdoor sculpture.

Last week, artist Matthew Geller turned a remaining piece of that Star Magnolia into the basis for a work of art, attaching steel branches. Even more intriguing, those perforated branches, complete with blossoms on top, will emanate mist and beam lights.

The Florence Griswold Museum will unveil the sculpture - titled "Anticipator" - on June 8.

The New York City-based Geller is a 1972 Connecticut College graduate, and he is widely known for his public art sculptures. His other projects have included creating a floating sidewalk for the Myrtle Avenue Plaza in Brooklyn and multi-sensory artwork for the New Mexico School for the Blind.

This is the second recent outdoor installation at the Flo Gris. From the summer of 2009 to March 2012, the museum grounds were home to Patrick Dougherty's "Stickwork: The Rambles" installation.

After that, museum staff began thinking about potential future outdoor sculptures. Florence Griswold Museum Curator Amy Kurtz Lansing says they were "keeping an eye out for people whose work we thought would strike the right balance between art and nature because that's something that works well for our site and our core story."

She learned about Geller when the Katonah Museum of Art in New York sent out information about a misting tree he created for that site. Kurtz Lansing thought that type of work could have real potential for the Flo Gris.

The whole idea behind "Anticipator" ties nicely, too, into the museum's current Agora Project. Funded via a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the project is about connecting what the Florence Griswold does inside its buildings - dealing with the story of the museum and the Lyme Art Colony - with the way its landscape is used. That means emphasizing the outdoor parts of the site as a community gathering place.

"Matthew's art just really seemed like the obvious choice because he really plans works that will induce a kind of community interaction by doing surprising things like putting out mist ..." Kurtz Lansing says. "He thinks of art as being a conversation starter, so he tries to create this moment where people will be forced to talk to each other to sort of figure out what's happening."

"Anticipator" will be far from a static work. The mist, Geller says, is affected by the humidity, wind and temperature. When the humidity is higher and the temperature is lower, for instance, more mist will be produced. He says the mist will cool the air about 20 degrees.

It's a concept that engages viewers. Geller has done other pieces with mist and recalls seeing how, at one at an El Paso, Texas, public park, children chased around the mist.

The sculpture will be operating throughout the winter - even when the temperature dips below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. When the water is off, a heater cable will keep it from freezing.

Geller was still determining what he would do with the LED lights that are part of "Anticipator." There are multiple options: they could, for instance, be in many colors or just one color; they could change seasonally; they could change in intensity.

One other aspect that will shift: The look of the Corten steel will morph over the course of the sculpture's existence, as the surface rusts.

According to a Flo Gris release, the sculpture "transforms the environment, influencing how visitors perceive light and air against the backdrop of the Lieutenant River, a subject of interest to the generations of artists who painted in and around the Florence Griswold House."

"Anticipator" references the Lyme Art Colony in another way, too. Geller notes that, before the Industrial Revolution, people tended to see nature as a place to get their food or their building material. It wasn't until after the Industrial Revolution that they began to romanticize nature. Artists came to Lyme and began to paint the landscape, seeing nature as "something beautiful, something to be appreciated," he says.

Those painters idealized nature, and Geller is, in a way, riffing on the notion of trying to improve on nature. And the mix of metal and wood branches plays off how the Industrial Revolution changed the way people view landscapes.

Flo Gris might do more outdoor installations in the future - but only when it's the right fit, says Kurtz Lansing. The museum isn't turning itself into a sculpture park. Visitors should be able to enjoy the beauty of nature but also appreciate occasional exterior art - art that reflects the Flo Gris site and incorporates the use of the landscape.

IF YOU GO

What: “Anticipator,” a temporary
outdoor sculpture by Matthew Geller
Where: Florence Griswold Museum
grounds, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme
When: June 8 through, probably,
summer or late 2014; 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Tues.-Sat. and 1-3 p.m. Sun.
For more details: (860) 434-5542,
flogris.org

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