AMY J. BARRY, Special to the Day
It's become a holiday tradition for visitors from near and far to view the art-inspired trees during the month-long "Magic of Christmas" celebration at Old Lyme's Florence Griswold Museum.
Every year, artists from across the country donate hand-painted palettes in all mediums and subject matter to hang on Miss Florence's Artist Tree. Last year, David Rau, director of education, said the tree had reached its quota of palettes, but due to the donation of a wider 12-foot tree, another eight small works of fine art are nestled in its branches, bringing the grand total to 135.
In addition, the museum selects four local artists each season to decorate Fantasy Trees inspired by the current exhibition in the Krieble Gallery. This year, two exhibitions are featured - "White on White: Churches of Rural New England" and "The Art of First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson: American Impressionist" - and so two artists were assigned to each.
A 'White on White' Christmas
Abigail Block of Deep River and Robin Zingone of Chester crafted their trees in response to "White on White," featuring photographs of iconic New England meetinghouses and churches by architectural photographer Steven Rosenthal. Rosenthal also photographed churches in Madison, Old Lyme, Lyme and East Haddam, especially for this exhibit.
In her "A New England Wonderland Tree," Block's emphasis was on the landscape and the churches within it. She played on shadows and light with different colors, versus a literal white-on-white theme.
"The idea came to me right away," she says. "I imagined a snowy winter's day on the way to church. Growing up in New England, I'd see beautiful church steeples coming out of the forest. I imagined (being back in the 1800s), taking a horse and buggy through the woods."
As a new mom with a 6-month-old and a 22-month-old, Block says she was excited for the opportunity to do a Fantasy Tree at the museum.
"I haven't gotten to do something creative in awhile - and I love Christmas," she says.
Block worked on her tree at night while her little ones slept or whenever they napped. Her children helped her discover the "perfectly formed pine cones" dropped by the tree down the street where she walks with them every day.
She gathered the pine cones and decorated them with antiqued silver German glass glitter, along with clusters of pinecones from Cape Cod, acorns from Hadlyme and seashells from Maine. Adding to the tree's natural, nostalgic feeling is white-tail deer and moose antler sheds, pheasant feathers, stars, snowflakes, hand-glittered glass balls and a grapevine garland.
Also acknowledging Rosenthal's church photographs are ribbons flowing down the sides of the tree festooned with rosettes that Block crafted from 19th-century hymnal music, a "tree halo" and "steeple" topped by a Moravian star.
Chester illustrator/designer Robin Zingone more directly responded to the "White on White" theme for her "Birds of Peace" tree.
?My work is very vivid, bold and colorful," Zingone says, "but for the tree I used whites and silvers to create a feeling of happiness and give the sense of peace and calm you get when you go to a church."
When she asked herself, "What are churches?" Zingone says she thought of sanctuaries where people flock, which then led her to think of birds of peace. And so she adorned the tree in glittering white birds fluttering through sparking branches, adding beaded peace signs and snowflake flowers, and topping it off with a giant paper sculpture.
Zingone says she wanted to give "glitz and glamour" to her tree.
"I want you to smile when you look at it," she says.
Zingone is very appreciative of her husband, Peter Riveira, for constructing the enormous grapevine nest at the base of the tree that she filled with giant peace-sign-painted eggs.
"Like a church where people flock to find peace, the nest is a place for the flock of birds to find peace," she explains.
She also credits the freelance designers who assisted her in the project: Grace Chen of East Haven, Laura Fall of Moodus and Nora Graseck of Southington.
This is Zingone's first Fantasy Tree, and although her theme was peace, she admits it was stressful.
"I knew I'd be up against great competition," she says.
Making a great impression
Responding to the Impressionist paintings of Ellen Axson Wilson, Mathew Greene, the museum's manager of visitor relations, created "Roses are Red, the Designer is Greene" - a rose-covered tree in homage to the rose garden at the White House that Wilson conceived while First Lady.
Greene says he saw the combination of traditional red and green as "a sparkling backdrop for a lavish bouquet of roses." He accented the roses with ornaments in the shape of hummingbirds, songbirds and dragonflies.
"I wanted to conjure a peaceful outdoor space," he says.
Greene added to this idea with nature-inspired accents such as glittered branches and twigs. A lush ribbon that cascades over the tree like water from a garden fountain, a moss tree skirt and a garden fence border complete the allusion to the rose garden.
"A Wilson Era Christmas Tree" is Connie Beale's response to the exhibit. Owner of Chester's Button, a store that sells old and new handcrafted items, Beale turned her personal interest in collage and paper to crafting Christmas ornaments that evoke the handiwork of bygone days.
Scissor-cut by hand from periodicals and various printed material, Beale fashioned colorful birds, flowers and other objects or scenes that appealed to her creative and humorous impulses.
"I wanted to see how ordinary objects could be transformed into a personal take on the Christmas tree," she says.
Other ways that Beale celebrated "simpler ways of finding pleasure in the mundane" include paper chain garlands and paper and pipe cleaner hanging decorations.