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From CIA to the ‘Davis Sky’: A look at the artists and works featured in the Mystic Museum of Art's permanent collection

Some things have changed at the Mystic Museum of Art since it closed in March as part of the state’s COVID-19 shutdown. A visitors’ service window has been created, for instance, and the galleries have new air purification systems. Everyone wears a mask and social distances.

And now, after the museum reopened in late September, it is showcasing one of its great assets: its permanent collection.

The “Reintroducing the Permanent Collection” exhibition, in fact, boasts the largest number of pieces the museum has ever displayed from its collection at one time — 141 works in all.

(There are nearly 250 pieces in the collection, but there wasn’t room to include every one in the current show.)

The works run through three galleries, and the galleries are categorized by time period, showing the evolution of art styles in general — and the evolution within the careers of individual artists as well.

The museum was founded as the Mystic Art Association in 1913, and “Reintroducing the Permanent Collection” includes art that dates back to the mid-1800s and continues to the current day.

Amelia Onorato, the Mystic Museum of Art’s exhibitions manager, says that one of the benefits of having the COVID-dictated downtime was museum staff could pull out the collection items and spend time assessing what needs to be conserved, what is in exhibition-quality shape, and so on. They also, she says, found some mystery works that don’t have paperwork associated with them.

Many of the amazing pieces in the collection are done by local artists that area residents might not be aware of.

“Even before there was a (Mystic) Seaport, even before there was an aquarium, since the early 1900s, Mystic has been an art colony,” Onorato says. “… This (exhibition) is a little bit of celebrating the artistic heritage.”

The stories behind the artists

Onorato has a background in history and art history and consequently finds that some of the stories about the artists and about the scenes depicted are as intriguing as the artistic merits of the pieces themselves. She shared facts that aren’t included in the exhibition’s wall text.

Such as: Artist Lars Thorsen, who was born in Norway, worked on tall ships as everything from a mess boy to a rigger in his younger years; before he was 20, he had rounded Cape Horn four times.

Two of Thorsen’s works are featured in the museum’s Davis Gallery: an oil painting and a pastel.

“One of the things we were exploring (in the exhibition) was the evolution of art styles throughout time, and he was definitely very inspired by Impressionism,” Onorato says. “We included a little painting of Chesebro’s Wharf in Noank, where he lived, which has very thick dabs of paint — if you stand far away, you can tell what it is, but if you get up close, you’re (not sure). That is very indicative of what he was doing. We have about nine pieces (of his) in the permanent collection, and most of them are Impressionistic-style oil paintings.”

Onorato also mentions Flora Fairchild, whose work is featured in the museum’s Halsey Gallery. Fairchild’s is the smallest painting in the museum’s collection — a still-life of pears that measures 3-by-4 inches.

Fairchild wasn’t just an artist. She was also in the CIA for a couple of years. After graduating from Vassar in 1945, Fairchild — who was fluent in French and German — was recruited by the CIA and worked in the organization’s covert section for 2-1/2 years. The reasons she left, according to the obituary that Onorato cites, is that she talked in her sleep. She went on to work at Mystic Seaport for years as a development officer. 

‘The Davis Sky’

One of the best examples of influential artists featured in “Reintroducing the Permanent Collection,” Onorato says, is Charles Harold Davis. He was one of the Mystic Art Association’s founders, and the museum’s Davis Gallery is named for him. He was among the leading artists in the Tonalist school, a style that favored romantic, idyllic landscapes with dramatic skies and expressive brushwork. Some of the Tonalist artists, such as Davis, ended up evolving into the American Impressionist movement, expanding their limited, “tonal” palettes to include more color varieties.

Davis became so highly regarded for his way of painting sky that a term developed: “The Davis Sky.” What that term indicated: the sky would take up most of the canvas and feature big, dramatic clouds. That type of cloud, Onorato notes, is something “this section of Connecticut is known for, which is why Old Lyme and Mystic were big gathering points for artists. There was a lot of really weird tension being expressed in the sky and the clouds.”

A Davis painting that boasts a characteristic sky is in the museum’s “Adopt-a-Painting Gallery,” where art that needs conservation work is displayed and members of the public can volunteer to help fund those repairs.

But “Summer,” the Davis painting included in “Reintroducing the Permanent Collection,” was created toward the end of his life and was a departure from what he was known for; it’s closer in appearance to Post-Impressionism than Tonalism. Onorato notes that it’s a great example of the exhibit’s curatorial thesis, exploring the evolution of artists through the artistic periods in which they lived.

Mystic scenes

Among the other artists featured in “Reintroducing the Permanent Collection” is Lorinda Dudley, a founding member of the Mystic Art Association. Dudley, who was born in 1845, went from Mystic to Europe as a girl to study how to paint porcelain. When she returned here, she used to sit in her bay window on New London Road in Mystic and create paintings of the area.

The museum has seven of Dudley’s works, both oil paintings and watercolors.

One of Onorato’s responsibilities as exhibitions manager is to hang and install the shows, and, she says, “A lot of thought process goes into the visual flow of the room. I try to pick pieces (with) not too many of the same size next to each other, not too many of the same subject matter (next to each other), and one of the quick and dirty cheats that I use is trying to tie colors together.”

The Dudley piece they chose for the exhibition is an undated scene from New London Road, and Onorato placed it next a piece by another of her favorites, David Birdsey Walkley. It’s a landscape he did of Mason’s Island, and the two paintings look nice next to each other, she said.

Art transitions

In discussing the evolution of styles reflected in the exhibition, Onorato says, “The Halsey Gallery is a really interesting place of transition because there are a lot of folks who definitely had exposure to the neoclassical, academy-driven art style, which is very much what Impressionism was rebelling against.”

That meant reacting against very realistic works and the academy-driven hierarchy, in which an historical painting was more important than a landscape, which was more important than a portrait. What Impressionists found so interesting, on the other hand, was light.

And then, in the early 1900s, abstract art and also art deco and art nouveau began their rise.

The Liebig Gallery, meanwhile, reflects different stylistic evolutions. Some of the artists in this gallery are current MMoA artist members, and a few have gone through an experiment with abstraction before returning to more representational work. 

Beauty and local history

Focusing an exhibition on the permanent collection, Onorato said, was “kind of a practical solution to the current times that we’re living in. We did have a whole schedule set for 2020, which unfortunately has fallen by the wayside, like everything else that happened this year. Right now, there should have been a photography exhibit and also an open juried exhibition, but we were worried about trying to organize artists safely with how everything’s going on right now.”

The answer: celebrate the museum’s permanent collection.

Onorato says it’s important to her to raise awareness in the area of “this amazing cultural resource” that is the Mystic Museum of Art.

She hopes, too, that this exhibition will provide a pleasant distraction for people, “just like a little breath of fresh air, a little bit of relaxation. We’re in a quiet space — enjoy a little bit of beauty, a little bit of local history.”

 

If you go

What: "Reintroducing the Permanent Collection"

Where: Mystic Museum of Art, 9 Water St., Mystic

When: Through Dec. 19; hours 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday

Admission: Free

Contact: (860) 536-7601, www.mysticmuseumofart.org

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