‘Snowflake Bentley’ inspires contemporary makers

Ice crystals form like stars in fractal patterns. They take shape too small for human eyes to see, repeating smaller and smaller until they vanish. And here in a museum gallery on a winter night they catch echoes in translucent glazes, quartz and silver, abstraction and calligraphy. Snowflakes are translated into contemporary art in Transient Beauty, the new winter show at the Bennington Museum.

The show centers around a Vermont artist known across the world. On a farm about a hundred miles north of here in 1885, Wilson Bentley became the first person to successfully photograph a single snowflake, close enough to see the patterns the ice crystals form. He showed the light crystal structure against a dark background in more detail anyone had seen before.

It wasn’t easy, focusing in closely enough and taking the photo before it melted. The process took him years to develop. He has written that his mother gave him the tools and the fascination. She had been a teacher, and she had a small microscope that she had used in her classroom before he was born.

“I was absorbed in studying things under this microscope,” he wrote: “drops of water, tiny fragments of stone, a feather dropped from a bird’s wing, a delicately veined petal from some flower. But always, from the very beginning, it was snowflakes that fascinated me most. The farm folks up in this north country dread the winter, but I was supremely happy, from the day of the first snowfall, which usually came in November, until the last one, which sometimes came as late as May.”

He would capture many snowflakes — so many that he has the credit for showing that now two of them are the same. In his lifetime, he took more than 5000 images in gelatin silver prints. He called them photomicrographs. And if every snowflake is really unique, he made images of crystalline forms that no one else will ever see again.

Snow frozen in time

Jamie Franklin has acquired one them for the museum. He has known Bentley’s work for years, he said, and it felt like a natural focus for a winter show. Each holiday season, Franklin chooses a work in the collection or from this place and handpicks regional artists in the community whose work connects for him, and the show becomes an auction to benefit the artists and the museum both.

Leslie Parke's Advanced Projects Dance Class turns ice on glass into abstract patterns of light and color. Press image courtesy of Bennington Museum

Leslie Parke's Advanced Projects Dance Class turns ice on glass into abstract patterns of light and color. Press image courtesy of Bennington Museum

“We take an idea or a theme or an artist and dig deep,” he said, “and Bentley’s work has so many facets, no pun intended.”

The artists this year have responded in reflections, geometry and early forms of photography. Leslie Parke brings studies of water on glass, stippled and translucent and abstract. Erik Hoffner’s photographs of intricate patterns in ice transform the holes ice fishers bore in local ponds. Frozen in again, they gleam like an astrals body in a night sky, or cells, or eyes.

Light script flows against a shifting ice blue, as Daisy Rockwell draws from Robert Frost, translated into Urdu. And facing her lines, in gold, clear lines of Arabic script read Bennington Vermont, surrounded by geometric patterns, rivers and cedar trees.

Precision melts into individuality

Ahmad Yassir is an artist and teacher in North Bennington, and manager of Initiatives, Programs, and Partnerships at the Sage Street Mill, and an alum of Bennington College, where he studied educational development and community building through public policy and visual arts.

In his work here, he is drawing connections between North Bennington, where he has lived for the last five years, and his home country, Lebanon. They are both landscapes of conifers and mountains and rivers, he said. Lebanon is a green country on the mediterranean, rising quickly from the sea to the highlands.

“It’s the only Middle Eastern country that is not a desert,” he said. “You can go for a swim and in half an hour you can be on a mountain and snowboarding.”

He finds connections too between snowflakes and Middle Eastern art, in their symmetry and patterns. Middle Eastern art often calls for minute perfection in form, like the fine control in a line of script or the sculpted geometry of the vaulted ceilings of the Alhambra, or the starred mosaic tilework on the walls and floors, or woven Persian rug.

He wants to recognize the labor in that kind of clear repetition, he said, and the care and time it takes. In the West, scholars have often dismissed Islamic art as ‘decorative.’ He wants to show the skill and beauty in it. And at the same time, he wants to make it his own. He calls these two works Local Abrash, he said. In Arabic, abrash means the unique irregularities that come from making something by hand.

These are not traditional calligraphy, though he has practiced traditional forms for many years. As a teenager he took part in national competitions, he said, and he found he was not winning because he was more intrigued by making his own forms.

As an aspiring artist at home, he grew up sketching, and he found that people around him seemed to hesitate to take art seriously — because Islamic art is built on such a long tradition, they felt it was too old or too hard. Coming to Bennington College and working with professors who encouraged him, he has developed his own art practices, and he wants to encourage this kind of contemporary innovation for his students here and his contemporaries across the Arab world.

He wants to revive practices that have centuries of tradition and are fading.

‘I want people to question and change their minds, to become more openminded toward the idea of artmaking.’ — Ahmad Yassir

“Glassblowing is a dying practice,” he said, “and the same for woodworking, and everything that is considered an Islamic art. They’e dying because they are so traditional.

“I find that similarity between Islamic and Quaker art — we have that idea that we’re not creators, and so we can’t draw portraits, and the solution is to draw paradise or natural elements. My process is trying to figure out how to do Islamic art with the fewest constraints. I want people to question and change their minds, to become more openminded toward the idea of artmaking.”

This show has motivated him to come back to calligraphy again, he said, and now he imagines continuing the work in new ways, playing with abstraction, color, language.

Frost translated into Urdu

Rockwell agreed — she too has found this show opening her to new work. On the wall facing Yassir’s work, Rockwell’s Urdu script fans out against a background washed in deep dusky blue. The words in English would be familiar to almost anyone in the room tonight — they are a translation of Robert Frosts’s Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, lines he wrote just up the road in Shaftsbury.

Rockwell is a painter and a translator Hindi and Urdu literature in North Bennington. She this work began by looking for a ghazal about snow, she said — a form of Arabic poetry composed for centuries in North Africa and India and throughout the Middle East. She has a background translating from Hindi and Urdu into English, and she hoped to translate a poem with images that would speak to Bentley’s work.

She went searching with her friend and co-translator, Aftab Ahmad, a professor in Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University. And they could find only one word for snow or ice, a word usually used to suggest the coldness of a lover. So they turned to Frost, she said, and she found the reversal illuminating.

North Bennington artist Ahmad Yassir blends calligraphy, geometry and individual expression in 'Local Abrash.' Press image courtesy of Bennington Museum
Image by Ahmad Yassir

North Bennington artist Ahmad Yassir blends calligraphy, geometry and individual expression in 'Local Abrash.' Press image courtesy of Bennington Museum

She often asks Ahmad what a word means in Urdu, when they work together. Now he would ask her for nuances in English. He would ask her about a phrase like ‘without a farmhouse near …’ and she would try to encompass all a reader in Vermont would feel and understand when they thought about a farmhouse on a winter day in 1922. She would find try to explain warmth and shelter, loneliness and changing ways of living. He came to understand that a farmhouse meant more than a building, she said, and he chose a word with an inflection of home.

She found it fascinating to take something so familiar and pull it apart, she said, and see it through the lens of a new language. The poem came alive for her again, complex in a way it had not felt in years, as she and Ahmad talked about how to find a word for woods, or for a single flake of snow, and how to understand the relationships between the people and the land.

“Whose woods these are I think I know …”

A single drop of water reflects

Ice can reflect in more than one direction. Joanna Gaber has evolved 25 distinct images here from a single photograph of light on water.

She calls her process macrophotography, and like Bentley she has become absorbed, she said, in photographing “the inner and intimate dimensions of flowers, hidden from the naked eye, found only through the lens of the camera.”

But where Bentley recorded microscopic details with precision, Gaber transfigures hers into kaleidoscopic abstractions. Keeping the color and shifting light of the original image, she forms her own fractal patterns and mandalas

“First the water, then my eye, then the digital camera and my imagination,” she said.

These images are new, she said, made for this show, and she thinks of them as mapping invisible patterns of energy, fluid as subatomic particles, moving between microscopic worlds and galaxies. As a painter and photographer, she has also held other callings, from Philosophy and Sociology Assistant Professor in her native Poland, to New York City, to night librarian at Williams College Library. These images feel meditative to her, she said, like a portal, and while these are each about a foot square, she has some large enough to walk into.

“I’m opening something,” she said.

Across from her images, stars and cells revolve in Hoffner’s photographs too. He has also been studying ice crystals for years, two decades and more. He and his wife love to skate outdoors on local ponds, he said. They moved to Western Massachusetts from the Southwest, and in their first year, they rented a house on a lake. They had a cold winter and a dry December, and they would put their skates on every day and explore for hours.

And he began to pay attention to the sites of ice fishers. They would drill into the ice, leaving an open round hole, and then they would leave, and the opening would freeze again overnight. He found them as dark circles in the ice ringed with filaments of crystal, like the iris of an eye.

“I would see them the next morning, and it would blow my mind,” he said.

He would come back to them and watch them change over time, as cracks crossed them and rain pitted them and snow blew into the indentations.

He admires Bentley, he said, and he enjoys being part of this gathering responding to a Vermont artist.

“One of the most resilient things about our lives is community,” he said.

‘One of the most resilient things about our lives is community.’ — Erik Hoffner

Yassir feels the same.

“I’m not from here, but I’ve been here long enough to be appreciated as a local,” he said. “Any person who comes to a new place has a lot to bring, their uniqueness … As someone living here, studying, building relationships, the more I see connections, and people are becoming open to it.”

He finds the people around him accepting, and he values that warmth. As someone who has studied and taught internationally, he has found that sense of acceptance again here. He walks often walks around North Bennington now, he said, and people will stop and talk with him.

“If there’s anything I miss at home, it’s walking down the street and saying hi to people,” he said.

He remembers the casual friendliness of a neighborhood, knowing the people who live and work around you, and picking up a conversation at the corner store or the coffee shop … or at the local museum, with another artist who has traveled the world and come home.

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.

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