100 years of Mystic as muse

Karen Barthelson, executive director of the Mystic Arts Center, stands in the permanent collection gallery on Dec. 27.
Karen Barthelson, executive director of the Mystic Arts Center, stands in the permanent collection gallery on Dec. 27.

The riverside nook the Mystic Arts Center overlooks seems indelible to those who know Mystic. This venerable organization gives off an air of elegance, history and unruffled permanence.

And while this is all true - the Mystic Arts Center turns 100 this year - its beginnings didn't seem so auspicious.

First, the site was purchased during the Depression by a group of artists who were undeterred by the economic grimness and the industrial surroundings of the site.

The artists prevailed to erect a building that was proportional and pleasing.

When the doors opened in 1931, the artists were just finishing the last details before their first exhibit in their own gallery, and they frantically pulled plants from their own gardens, with one rolling up his entire lawn to make the grounds more aesthetic.

"The history of the people is one of great passion and vision and generous spirit," said Noelle King, the centennial curator for the Mystic Arts Center. "That has kept it going, and Mystic has managed to keep it going - that creative spirit and generosity."

The Mystic Arts Center first formed as an artists' colony of Impressionists. During its history, the Mystic Arts Center, formerly known as the Mystic Art Association, can count some noted painters among them, such as J. Alden Weir, Henry Ward Ranger and Robert Brackman.

In King's mind, the Mystic Arts Center can trace its inception from a cascade of unusual attributes: the talent of a young artist, a poet who believed in him, and the singular act of faith and benevolence from a well-to-do manufacturer of carriages.

King, an artist and art historian, is working on a book for the centennial and is serving as curator for an exhibit in June that will include borrowed works from well-known Impressionists who were all associated with the Mystic Arts Center.

The story involves the founder of the Mystic Art Colony: Charles H. Davis of Amesbury, Mass. At 15 years old, Davis, from a family of modest means, left school and went to work for a carriage maker, Jacob Huntington. To keep Davis occupied during a period of illness, his mother bought him a set of watercolors. Taken with painting, Davis took classes at the Boston Museum School. Observing his talent, family friend and Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier convinced Huntington to send Davis to France to study, with the deal that Davis would repay him with paintings from France.

"It was an act of extreme generosity and faith," said King, who noted that, at the time, almost all American artists went to France to study.

Eventually, returning 10 years later with a French wife, Davis looked for a place to settle between New York and Boston, and he chose Mystic in 1890. That he did not set down roots in Old Lyme or Cos Cob can be seen as a boon for Mystic. It was Davis' personality and talent that attracted other artists to study and settle here. At least 34 artists signed on to stay at the Palmer House between 1900 and 1914. And it was the formation of this colony of artists, called the Society of Mystic Artists, that can be credited with inspiring what is now the MAC. They held their first exhibit in 1913 at the old Broadway School and spurred the first incarnation of what is now the famous outdoor Mystic Art Festival.

"Many artists knew and loved Davis," said King, "and they flocked here because of him. It wasn't a question of one beauty spot."

Impressionist artists sought places that reminded them of France, with bountiful light, charming inlets and cloud formations billowing from shoreline conditions, so the Connecticut shore was a desirable location.

"The Mystic Arts Center is kind of unique because it didn't turn into a museum. It has galleries, it offers education and has a permanent collection, so it's sort of a hybrid creature and seems to be able to change itself to what is current and needed," said King.

Staying current is very much a mission of Mystic Arts Center Executive Director Karen Barthelson.

"This is a community organization, it's free to get into, and it isn't a club or private organization. We do all kinds of things for all interests and skills," she said.

Which is why the Mystic Arts Center has "arts" in its name - dance, poetry slams and musical events take place at the MAC, which has helped sustain itself by aligning with other non-profits.

But its main focus will always be the fine arts. That doesn't mean it is a bastion of representational art or Impressionism. Viewers can find that in shows, but they can also find abstract art and everything in between. Even in its early years, diversity was highlighted by reviewers from national publications. While it's true that artists channeling the likes of Jackson Pollock, such as the local legendary Fuller Potter, did turn a few heads back in the day, MAC avoided organizational upheaval from dueling genres.

Today, viewers can expect a range of styles and media at shows.

"We don't limit the type of art," said Barthelson. "We do have physical restrictions. We can't do installations, although we want to figure out how to do that. We don't practice censorship, although we do reserve the right to say no to something that is very offensive, but I have to say we have never had to do that. We've never said, 'No, we can't exhibit that.' I think that's important because art is personal; it's subjective and evolving."

Davis' birthday is in January, and the Mystic Arts Center will kick off the centennial at its yearly joint venture with the Courtyard Gallery. Titled "Centennial Kickoff: Members/Elected Artists Exhibit," this also will be a party of sorts, with plenty of cake to go around at the opening. The exhibit opens Jan. 11 and closes Feb. 9.

The organization will continue to work in the winter months on the centennial celebration in June, as well as a centennial exhibit, "Mystic as Muse: 100 Years of Inspiration." The exhibit, which will be up until September, features work from prominent artists - a quest that has kept both King and Barthelson busy as they find jewels from both private and public collections that will be on loan to MAC. Artists included are J. Alden Weir, Childe Hassam, Henry Ward Ranger, Charles Davis, Guy Wiggins and Robert Brackman, among others. The exhibit will include a historical overview with photos, as well as narratives, of the MAC's history.

Board Vice President Cindy Palmer views the longevity of MAC as integral to its ongoing community spirit.

"The early artists created a community and the Mystic Art Association, and now, 100 years later, we continue to be part of that community," she said. "It's pretty amazing."

The Mystic Arts Center before it opened in 1931.
The Mystic Arts Center before it opened in 1931.

Mystic Arts Center centennial events

Jan. 11 through Feb. 9: "Centennial Kickoff: Members/Elected Artists Exhibit," this also will be a party of sorts, with plenty of cake to go around at the opening. Held at the Mystic Arts Center, 9 Water St., and the Courtyard Gallery, 12 Water St. For more information, call MAC at (860) 536-7601, www.mysticarts.org.

May 10 - June 22: Solo exhibit by East Lyme artist Lynn Walker, as well as the 57th regional; theme: Mystic as Muse 2012.

June 15: MAC100 Centennial Celebration. A party and fundraiser that features an auction and food from Thyme to Cook. Held outside in a tent, there will be a dance floor and music. Cocktails will be served in the gallery.

June 28-Sept. 28: Centennial Exhibition: Mystic as Muse: 100 Years of Inspiration; opening reception Saturday, July 12, at 5:30 p.m.

Oct. 4 through Nov. 9, photo show 35, "100 Years of Photography."


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