Robert Hite builds spirit houses

A weathered wooden smokehouse in the apple orchard, a free-standing fence enclosed in morning glories, a 20-foot tower where an invisible watcher can look out over the Round Stone Barn — new structures seem to have taken root Hancock Shaker Village this summer.

And up the road at the Berkshire Museum they will appear on the walls.

Robert Hite, an artist based in the Hudson Valley, has brought sculptures from his “Imagined History” series to the Berkshires — miniature buildings that settle into the landscape and seem to hold their own stories.

In place, they can be haunting, even etherial, said Lesley Herzberg, curator at Hancock Shaker Village.

“His work has such a range,” she said, “photography, sculpture, painting,” in a blend of nature, science and art.

He began as a painter, he said, as he walked through the Shaker village considering sites for this new work, which he has built in his workshop in Esopus, N.Y. He places his sculptures carefully in a landscape, and then he often photographs them as a permenant record.

The land itself drew him to the Berkshires, he said. And then he saw a Shaker gift drawing, “Bower of Mulberry Trees.” An arch of birds in light strokes hover over an arch of bold green leaves and, below them, arcng lines of script. It struck him powerfully, not the fine woodworking he first thought of as a Shaker craft but a painting, an hommage to nature.

It had an effect on him. He began to think about the Shakers’ way of living on the land and in the world.

“The Shakers have so many qualities that should be retained,” he said. “They had a profound sense of community. … They were conscious of what they ate and how they grew it They were making things functional but beautiful.”

When Herzberg saw his work, she and Maria Mingalone at the Berkshire Museum felt it settle into their own places.

He sources wood from renovations, she said, from houses built before 1920, adapting and re-using things people have lived with — floor joists, wall studs, lathe.

“They have a patina that enriches,” he said.

As he makes his own quixotic houses, he imagines the beings who live in them like familiar spirits. Herzberg recalled the story behind “Sister, Sister,” a work not in this show: Two aging sisters who had a falling out were living together in the family home — and they cut it in half, so they lived apart in two sides.

Hite’s stories move between experience and fiction, he said. He does not usually tell them, because he wants people to find their own, and they do. People have thought of their family heritage in other countries. Vient Nam veterans have told him that a miniature stilt-house on a lake shore remnds them of their time on the delta.

The stilts come from a common Southern architectural element, he said. They are often used to protect against snakes and rising water. For him they also have a transitional aspect, in buildings, structure, life.

Here the place itself is in transition, the New England hills returning to forest, cattle in the pastures, stone walls, old clapboard houses and farm outbuildings.

Hite looked across the garden to the Round Stone Barn and said quietly that it was one of the most beautiful buildings he had seen in all his life.

Places that move him can fine their way into his work, and so do places where he has lived.  He grew up in Virginia, outside of a town of 500 people, and he left there young. But his hometown still influences the forms of his sculptures, the kinds of architecture he brings in and the stories he invents around it.

“A sociological thread runs underneath,” he said.

As he made the pieces in this show, he thought of people with few resources and few choices and of the underlying philosophies in the way the Shakers lived — their simplicity and independence, the way they shared work within their own community and the way they became a refuge for the communities around them, taking in families and children and sharing what they had in hard times.

His work also moves between light and dark. He finds a sense of freedom in fence that will not fence anything in. “Night Whistler’s House” comes from a story with a gristly aspect, he said, with a fire tower and someone watching and waiting with an ominous intention. He grew up in an area where people have to watch for fires, and the idea of guarding has extended for him into the future.

This tower invokes “things we have to watch out for,” he said, “things coming, like climate change — what’s the next step for us as a species?”

But the Night Whistler may have a lighter element to it. He will train flowering vines up the tower, and they will also climb in another work along the fence.

Hancock Shaker Village has grown morning glories and moonflowers in the greenhouse, Herzberg said. They started the seeds in April.

So the pieces will look different over time as the flowers grow and the season moves.

From his beginning as an artist, he said, he has thought about nature and man interacting with nature, and making living plants a part of the work plays to that theme.

Morning glories grow quickly, and they are beautiful — blue in contrast to the houses in shades of red and brick and yellow.

 

Photo at the Top: ‘Seven Deadly Sins.’ New York sculptor Robert Hite will bring his work to Hancock Shaker Village and the Berkshire Museum. Photo courtesy of Robert Hite

 

What: “Living on Earth,” Robert Hite’s sculpture, photographs and paintings

Where: Hancock Shaker Village, Routes 20 and 41, and Berkshire Museum, 39 South St., Pittsfield

When: Open through the fall at Hancock Shaker Village and opening June 26 at Berkshire Museum with a reception June 30

Information: hancockshakervillage.org and berkshiremuseum.org

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