28 January 2014

How I Feel About Winter

into the thorn-covered
rock recess.  (Get drunk
and call it

My shoulder frost-sealed;
rubble owls perched on it;
letters between my toes;
-       Januaried from 70 Poems by Paul Celan, translated from the German by Michael Hamburger, New York, Persea Books: 2013

Detroit Photographic Company - Miner's Cabin In Winter - Colorado, c. 1910, beineke rare Book Library, Yale University, New Haven.

24 January 2014

Jane Berry Judson Of Castile

Jane Berry Judson - A Bit Of The Forest At Fontainebleau,  c. 1910, private collection, U.S.

The resemblance between A Bit Of The Forest At Fontainebleau  and Edward Steichen's Pond – Moonrise may be coincidental but I doubt it.  Steichen's 1904 vision of Mamaroneck was, as a matter of fact,  a summer resort for vacationing New Yorkers.  The Forest of Fontainebleau, located southeast of Paris, was a nature preserve rather like our Adirondacks, prized as a place where nature existed in its purest state.  Jane Berry Judson would have known about wild nature.  Judson (1868-1935) grew up in Castile, New York, a small upstate village perched on the west bank of Letchworth Park.  Comprising more than a thousand acres and three of the steepest 'ribbon' waterfalls in the state, Letchworth Park is a series of gorges along the Genesee River Valley just west of the Finger Lakes. The same glacial movements that created  the Finger Lakes carved the trench for the river gorge.

When Judson was growing up, the area was the private  estate, summer home to a wealthy industrialist, William Pryor Letchworrth. Also a devout Quaker, Letchworth was active in many charitable associations so it was  natural that he gave Glen Iris (as he called the place) to New York State in 1906 to be a park, a decade after the establishment of the Adirondack Park.

Details of Jane Berry Judon's life and career are scattered, probably buried in archives of libraries and historical societies, contributing to a maddening sense that the artist was elusive when she was more likely just overlooked.

It seems misleading to label an artist as elusive when what she was more likely was overlooked.  Much as Americans went to Europe for a more worldly education in the arts, the Europeans were more open to taking prints seriously as an an artistic medium.

Judson began her art studies at Pratt Institute in 1904, the year after Arthur Wesley Dow left but she worked  his curriculum of composition and design.  After that, Judson moved to England to study  color printing with Allen W, Seaby.  Apparently she traveled to France and Belgium while abroad.   When she returned to the States, Judson moved back  to Castile. 
All the prints I have been able to find are landscapes; the few human figures are represented as part of the landscape.  As you might expect, the environs of Letchworth State Park appear frequently.  Other places Judson sought out were also in the Northeast, including Mount Monadnack in southern New Hampshire and Sheepscot River in Maine.  Fontainebleau and Bruges are the outliers then.
Judson exhibited  with the Rochester Art Club, the Buffalo Society of Artists, and the Print Club of Philadelphia.  Most of Judson's woodblock prints and etchings are still in private collections but her works are in the collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University.

Jane Berry Judson - Afterglow.  Sheepscot Bay, Maine, undated, private collection. 

None of this would matter much if the works were less evocative or less finely executed.  Trees in Judson's works are real, they are individually rendered; I believe that they existed, that we are seeing what she saw.    Who knows?  She may have worked from sketches or even photographs.  Kodak in Rochester, the nearest large city, was a monumental presence in western New York.  Judson may have looked at that bit of Fontainebleau through eyes prepared  by Steichen's Pond - Moonlight.  The Forest of Fontainebleau itself had its natural state tested by seeming legions of artists setting up easels and tripods.  The romanticizing of nature that decries total human absence may  make us privilege images of Letchworth but it coexists in the world and in Jane Berry Judson's art with the Sheepscots and the Mamaronecks as in life.

Jane Berry Judson - Twilight.- Sheepscot River, Maine, 1910s, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Ithaca, NY.

Jane Berry Judson -  Letchworth State Park, undated, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Ithaca, NY.

Jane Berry Judson - Mount Monadnock At Night, undated, private collection.

19 January 2014

Verne Morton Photographs A Phantom Lake

On a winter day in upstate New York  the sun sets over the hill,  light reflected off the snow preserves the day a little longer in the short season.  Over the hill and down in the next valley is Cayuga Lake, one of the deepest lakes on the North American continent.    Ithaca is there, too;  known as the the Athens of upstate, the place where  Ezra Cornell founded one of the first coeducational colleges in the United States in 1865.  No backwater then or now.   The town in the photograph is Groton and its resident photographer, Verne Morton, an amateur naturalist whose photos were  used to illustrate nature  guides published by Anna Botsford Comstock and Liberty Hyde Bailey, two of the early coeds to graduate from Cornell University.

Groton is  a village in the southern part of the Owasco Lake watershed, which is another way of saying that if the glacier that dug the trench had melted faster, Groton would be underwater.  To be precise Groton, like the mythical Breton city of Ys, would be at the bottom of a lake.  As things turned out the glaciers retreated without leaving much ice behind so Groton sits in a valley -  or more romantically, a phantom lake.  People who dismiss interstate highways as boring  underestimate the places they pass through heading south from Syracuse along Interstate 81 en route to Groton and Ithaca, you travel through a valley that could have been a Finger Lake.

When you live in the Finger Lakes you learn the glacial language of eskers, moraines, and drumlins.  Eskers are long, twisty ridges that resemble snakes when viewed from the air;  being composed of sand and gravel they are ready made roadbeds.  The word  drumlin has its origins in old Irish, meaning ‘little ridge.’  Its characteristically gentle, rolling shape has been likened to a series of half-buried eggs. And lastly is the humble moraine, basically just a jumble of  leftover glacial junk. 

Phantom lakes and buried eggs.....how did these things become part of the landscape?

If you have ever dragged your fingers through sand on a beach, you have rehearsed the path that the Laurentide glaciers  carved when they retreated northward during the Pleistocene period.  At a point that became the south end of trough,  the glacier began its earth-moving operation.   Digging deeply, pushing and tossing dirt and stone to the sides, its path becoming shallower and broader as it went.    As it moved the glacier started to melt from all that friction, and the rate of melt determined whether the trench became a valley or a lake. In photographs, the southern ends of the Finger Lakes resemble nothing so much as Scandinavian fjords; however the areas between lakes are rolling hills rather than rocky clefts.  Cayuga and Seneca Lakes are so deep that they do not freeze over in winter.

When Groton was incorporated in 1860 there were 569 inhabitants; since then the population has quadrupled but the village still looks much as it did in Morton's photograph taken a century ago.   The hedgerows and fences  on the hill  are the visible reminders of the military lots, so-called, rewards for service during the Revolutionary War.    Settlers  came to farm, displacing the Iroquois who had cultivated the land for centuries, but the new people were in a hurry and they burned what contending  revolutionary armies had left intact    Historian Barbara Graymont has described the soldiers as engaged in  “ a strange task indeed for men at arms - a warfare against vegetables.”  Fertile farmlands, apple, plum, and peach orchards, and cornfields taller than the humans who cultivated them, all were laid waste during Sullivan's campaign against the British.   By the time Verne Morton took this picture there was  little old growth forest left in upstate New York.

Verne Morton (1868-1945) lived in Groton all his life; he began taking  photographs in 1896. What prompted his interest is unclear but the detailed documentation he left in 12,000 negatives and the consistent clarity of his prints testify to its importance in his life; this was an avocation rather than a hobby. It is tempting to view these images through a haze of nostalgia, specially  the ones that include human figures., dressed in what, to our eyes, are quaint outfits.   Children do make for sweet images, but the girls and boys Morton photographed at George Junior Republic were not ordinary children, their behavior had been judged "negative and serious as to require supervision."  In today's parlance, they were PINS, juvenile persons in need of supervision.
 Morton's photographs of people and places in and around Groton, Freeville, and Dryden are more than curiosities, they are documents of a history  inscribed on the land for eyes curious to see.   I think Morton would have appreciated geographer Yi-Fu Tuan’s concept of geopiety, an  attitude toward the land he defines as “full of numina or local powers,”  another version of the wisdom of the Iroquois.  

For further reading:
Barbara Graymont – Seneca in Handbook of North American Indians, 15, Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution: 1978.

Verne Morton - Winter Sunset Near Groton, 1904, History Center of Tompkins County, Ithaca.