Open Air Art

by: Kevin Stanton

Installation artist M.J. Levy Dickson feels strongly about making art as accessible as possible. The idea is to strip away the pomp and circumstance of a museum or gallery, and create an open atmosphere where people can experience art without strings attached.

“The emphasis or goal for my interactive installations is to make art that is inclusive whether indoors or outdoors,” she said.

John Evans’ “The Kiss” in the foreground, with Kevin Barrett’s “Sundance” at back left.

“I am part of what I call the eco-arts movement: making art that brings people back to nature. Exhibiting on conservation land or in a park, under a tree, on an iceberg, in the ocean, anywhere that nature and art create a unified harmony.”

She has worked with the Contemporary Art Partnerships program, a part of the Historic House Trust of New York City, which raises awareness of historic sites by exhibiting contemporary art. Nantucket Historical Association executive director James Russell has inaugurated a similar program on the island by creating a sculpture garden at the Hadwen House on Main Street.

Entitled “Juxtapositions,” it is a contemporary outdoor sculpture exhibition in partnership with the Artists Association of Nantucket. The exhibit is located in the garden of the historic whaling merchant’s mansion at 96 Main St., featuring the work of island sculptors Dickson, Billy Sherry, John Evans and the late David Hostetler, New York-based artist Kevin Barrett and Vermont’s Karen Peterson. “Juxtapositions” opened in June and will run through Columbus Day.

The project asks this question: What is more important, how we view art or merely the act of viewing art? Do the stark white walls of a gallery or the quiet halls of a museum make the act of viewing intimidating? Can we connect with art better in a more relaxed setting?

Russell is not new to the arts. He studied sculpture at Harvard University, and later under renowned sculptor Dimitri Hadzi before running an art museum in Attleboro.

“Personally, I have always enjoyed sculpture. Building a museum is in many ways a sculptural process, one of constant additions and subtractions to build a greater whole,” he said.

The show at the Hadwen House is yet another example of public art islanders have recently seen as they navigate their everyday lives, even while they sit in traffic. In the last couple of years, the roundabout on Sparks Avenue has turned into a

rotating exhibition space.

“The most important part for me is that the work fits in with the space,” Sherry said. “You can’t just stick any sculpture in a park. It has to be the right piece and the right application is key. I feel it’s important to share what I think is beautiful, I’m sharing what I feel is important with the community. And for me that’s abstraction.”

Public art provides an immediate connection with a larger community, Sherry said. Dickson agreed. She recalled an installation she made in New York City’s Central Park, using pieces of glass, and how a child’s play allowed the art to take on a life of its own.

“A child took the largest pieces of glass he could find in the installation and linked them together on the grass to make a trail heading back to the illusion of a pond I had created. He worked very hard on his idea for probably 30 or 40 minutes, before he and his mother returned the pieces to the installation. They placed them in a way that was pleasing to them,” she said.

“I continue to be fascinated by what people think to do with the glass shapes. Engaging in art should be for everyone, regardless of age, economic or cultural background, physical or emotional challenges. The creative process should be inclusive.”

The Hadwen House was built in 1846 by Frederick Brown Coleman for whaling merchant and silver retailer William Hadwen at the height of the whaling boom to boast his wealth and prominence to the rest of the island.

The mansion, acquired by the Nantucket Historical Association in 1964, is one of the best examples of Greek revival-style architecture on-island and the only one open to the public.

While the exhibit was originally slated for the property surrounding The Oldest House on Sunset Hill, the NHA quickly turned to the 19th century Victorian-style garden behind the Hadwen House. It seemed like an obvious choice, given the show’s overall objective to encourage visitors to examine how art and nature can work in harmony regardless of process, material or subject, Russell said. ///

Kevin Stanton is an artist who graduated with a BFA in fine arts with a concentration in painting from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. He writes occasionally for The Inquirer and Mirror and Nantucket Today.