Bennington Museum holds unexpected discoveries — #berkshireweekend

The morning frost still shows a fringe of ice around the last of the strawberry leaves in the native wildflower garden. It lingers in the shade and melts into droplets where the sun comes through.

I’m walking the path up from Bennington Museum and soaking in the sunlight after days of cloud. Today finally feels like December, cold and clear, and the light seems to show textures clearly, and the underlying shapes — tree rings, seed pods.

Some still carry a froth of the floss that lets the seeds fly on the wind. In milkweed they’re called pappus, and the Merriam Webster definition unaccountably includes “time traveler,” giving me the image of a plant germinating across quantum time. And given how long a seed can lie dormant and still grow, maybe they do.

Some still carry a froth of the floss that lets the seeds fly on the wind. In milkweed they’re called pappus.

Maybe they can weave through years in a night, like ghosts in holiday stories — like the spirits in a Charles Dickens story, Christmas Present in his green robe. Holidays move in a different time from daily life, and we’re at the solstice, in the fluid time between the old year and the new.

I’ve come to the museum this morning looking for ghosts. I’m here to see the new show, In the Shadow of the Hills, just open now in time for the holidays. They have gathered 27 artists to explore the the psyche, the mysterious and the unknown — monsters, phantoms, other worlds.

Each work takes inspiration from the internationally known local author Shirley Jackson and her stories of ‘psychological suspense,’ the museum says, giving a glimpse into a larger exhibit they will open next summer and fall.

Frost shines on late strawberry leaves in the native wildflower garden at Bennington Museum,
Photo by Kate Abbott

Frost shines on late strawberry leaves in the native wildflower garden at Bennington Museum,

And maybe that theme sounds closer to Halloween, but in the solstice and the first snow, I’m finding resonances. Women move at the center of this time of year, though we don’t always consider them. Many of our winter holiday stories grow out of birth.

This is the the longest night, the first stirring and turning toward light. Mary is holding her newborn son, swaddling him and nursing him and pondering in her heart. The earth is waking to new life.

So I feel compelled and welcomed when Shanta Lee opens the way with her photographs. Here at the door, a woman kneels on a wooden bridge in the sun, reaching out one hand. She looks confident — she fills the center space in the image, close to the earth and beckoning me toward the way across the water.

A woman beckons on a wooden bridge in Shanta Lee's photograph — part of her series in ‘Dark Goddess: An Exploration of the Sacred Feminine.’ Press photo courtesy of Bennington Museum
Photograph by Shanta Lee

A woman beckons on a wooden bridge in Shanta Lee's photograph — part of her series in ‘Dark Goddess: An Exploration of the Sacred Feminine.’ Press photo courtesy of Bennington Museum

Lee says she has created her work in conversation and partnership with the women she photographs. I wonder what they both would tell me about their understanding of the mind and the mysterious, and about the story or the feeling they are creating between them, and the place, and the way the woman in the photograph moves, how she holds her body and looks out.

Meeting her eyes, I’m remembering a Celtic story I’ve read recently about women who guard the wells and rivers. They are the women who hold and renew a community’s connection to the land. Lee asks, “What is forgotten to human memory that should be reclaimed?”

And I think of all the generations of stories and storytellers we have lost or buried, and I wish I knew the whole cultural ecosystem that grew stories like this one, in their first languages.

Birch trees stand on a shadowed winter hill in Nate Massari's 'A Shadow over Raven Rocks,' invoking recollection and memory. Press photo courtesy of Bennington Museum
Nate Massari

Birch trees stand on a shadowed winter hill in Nate Massari's 'A Shadow over Raven Rocks,' invoking recollection and memory. Press photo courtesy of Bennington Museum

Caleb Portfolio creates an image like fire and sun glare from a tower that patients in the Vermont Asylum built in 1887, recognizing their struggle with mental illness and deep pain. On the same day, he says, he found a stone in an old patient cemetery ‘dedicated in memory of the men and women who found peace, caring and tenderness in their time of need.’

Sara Farell Okamura pays tribute to speculative fiction writer Shirley Jackson in an oil painting of vivid red-oranges and dark streaks, like a forest on fire. (Press photos appear here by permission of Bennington Museum.)

Nearby, Sara Farell Okamura has set a canvas alight with colors of flame. She says Jackson has a theme in many of her stories of lighting fire to burn away evil — though she recognizes that removing a structure does not remove injustice that has happened there.

Okamura admires her courage. She sees Jackson writing horror stories to expose cruelty and to question a world that often rejected her. Jackson’s mother coldly rebuffed her “highly intelligent, astoundingly talented daughter,” Okamura says, and later Jackson not only became nationally acclaimed as a writer, she defied anti-semitism and hosted Black writers including Ralph Waldo Emmerson at Bennington College.

And her visions are powerful. But I don’t want to stop there. I want to imagine the world that can be more, the world she longed for — the ecosystems of natural life and imagination where a highly intelligent and imaginative woman can stretch her wings.


Abenaki artists Francine Poitras Jones, Jeanne Morningstar Kent and Kerry Wood carve stories and weave black ash baskets and bark at the Bennington Museum.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Abenaki artists Francine Poitras Jones, Jeanne Morningstar Kent and Kerry Wood carve stories and weave black ash baskets and bark. Press photo here courtesy of Bennington Museum

Spirits of the past and future

Walking through the show, I’m thinking of the spirits Jackson wakes for me, and I carry them with me through the museum, through the rooms around me. Abenaki artists Francine Poitras Jones, Jeanne Morningstar Kent and Kerry Wood carve stories and weave black ash baskets and bark, and Miriam Kellogg Fredenthal weaves mountains from wool.

And the seed pods in the native garden still hold some of the floss that lifted up the seeds I can’t see — the ones that have already flown and touched down to wait for the earth to wake.

Events coming up …

Find more art and performance, outdoors and food in the BTW events calendar.

Notchview in Windsor grooms miles of trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Jan 30 2023 @ 8:30 am
Now that snow is falling, the cross-country ski and snowshoe trails are open at Notchview, up on the ridge in Windsor.
Notchview in Windsor grooms miles of trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Jan 31 2023 @ 8:30 am
Now that snow is falling, the cross-country ski and snowshoe trails are open at Notchview, up on the ridge in Windsor.
Notchview in Windsor grooms miles of trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Feb 1 2023 @ 8:30 am
Now that snow is falling, the cross-country ski and snowshoe trails are open at Notchview, up on the ridge in Windsor.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

If you’d like to see the website grow, you can join me for a few dollars a month, enough for a cup of coffee and a cider doughnut. Members get access to extra stories and multimedia, itineraries a bookmark tool. Let me know what you're looking for, and we’ll explore together.

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