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Follow the Yellow Brick Road to the Florence Griswold Museum

AMY J. BARRY, Special to The Day

Publication: The Day

Published September 29. 2013 4:00AM
Flying monkeys, crafted by Gerry Matthews for the 2013 Wee Faerie Village exhibit, watch over the grounds of the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme.

Faeries first descended on the grounds of the Florence Griswold Museum five years ago when dozens of area artists and designers were invited to created miniature dwellings for the magical creatures.

Every autumn since, the museum has presented a collaborative month-long outdoor installation with a host of hands-on activities and related events.

This year's theme takes an unusual turn and heads up the Yellow Brick Road with the "Wee Faerie Village in the Land of Oz."

David Rau, the museum's director of education, says he tried to come up with a way to do the popular faerie village again but make it different and interesting.

He thought it would be nice if there were a story that linked each of the locations together and "The Wizard of Oz" came to mind - "kind of perfect for fall with scarecrows and witches," he says. After doing a little research, Rau also discovered that the original book, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum, was published in 1900, the first year artists began to arrive in Old Lyme.

Convinced he was on the right path, Rau set off to create a map with locations based on the 24 chapters of the original book so that visitors would travel sequentially through the story from beginning to end.

He then invited artists to create handcrafted faerie houses or scenes based on a particular chapter in the book for each location.

These include the more widely recognized Poppy Fields, Emerald City, Land of the Munchkins and Wicked Witch's Castle, to the lesser known Country of the Quadlings, Home of the Queen of the Field Mice and Dainty China Country - a porcelain city, which Rau himself designed and built.

Rau notes that a large grant from CT Humanities has allowed the museum to afford an array of complimentary educational programs and speakers that encourage the literary connection to Baum's masterwork.


Since early spring, nearly 50 participating artists have been hard at work in their studios on their individual sections of this ambitious project.

Clay and mixed media artist Peter Liebert of Preston and jewelry artist and sculptor Kristin Merrill of East Haven created "The Deadly Poppy Field" scene from Chapter 8.

The father-daughter team has shown together at New London's Lyman Allyn Art Museum and local galleries. This is the second year they collaborated on a faerie house.

Liebert has been a working artist for 40 years. He was professor of Art at Connecticut College for 37 years. Merrill shows and sells her limited edition jewelry and her sculpture throughout New England.

Liebert and Merrill typically both incorporate found objects and natural materials in their work - something Leibert has been drawn to in the past 15 years.

"Kristen's picked up a trait of mine, which is collecting junk," Liebert jokes.

However, their scene in this year's Faerie Village is a departure from their usual choice of materials. They've created giant poppies out of red plastic tablecloths.

We both really wanted to do the poppies and thought it would be really fun," Merrill says.

"We both had the idea - the simpler, the better," adds Liebert.

The idea may be simple, but the execution was labor intensive: each poppy is made up of 16 layers of tablecloth, cut and twisted, which will then hang in two trees, stems free-flowing, along with small tinkling bells to create the sound you might hear just before falling asleep.

In between the trees is a sculpture that spits out steam that the artists hope will enhance the drowsy, sensory feeling they're trying to create.

"We're both more abstract thinkers, not artists that are literally painting a scene, and we wanted to do something more symbolic of our thinking," Merrill says.

"The viewer is supposed to be looking for the faeries, but in our case become the faerie - small, looking up at huge poppies," she explains.

Both Liebert and Merrill are pleased the museum chose the Wizard of Oz theme.

"It's a classic movie, the kind you don't see anymore," Liebert notes. "And how many kids today read the book?"

"That's what's neat about this. People only know the movie on TV, they don't know what the original story was," Merrill says. "As a kid, I grew up with the black and white movie that they colorized, so your first spot of color is the red poppies. It's one of my favorite parts of the movie - it's so beautiful."

Gerry Matthews of Haddam is a retired physicist, who spent most of his career in innovative computer-oriented electronics. Always interested in working with his hands and with wood, he became a custom furniture maker in the late 1990s, after apprenticing with woodworker Josh Freeman of New London.

Matthews says he started making faerie houses for his grandchildren a few years ago and he exhibited them at the Haddam Neck Fair; twice he earned Best in Show awards. Last year, one of his creations was exhibited in the Fringe Faerie Houses section of the Florence Griswold event.

This year Rau invited Matthews to create a scene for the Oz-themed show, and he chose Chapter 14, "The Winged Monkeys."

Coincidentally, he had just started making whirligigs, including a unicycle, a kayaker and a trotting horse, and decided to try his hand at monkeys.

He made five monkeys that each sit on top of an 8-foot-high steel rod, out of Southern yellow pine that his architect son had repurposed from an old barn.

"It's beautiful wood," he says. "As opposed to most whirligigs that are country or folk with pretty wild paint, I just used stain and varnished them (so you) mostly see the color and grain of the wood - it's a more natural appearance."

People have told Matthews that they still get nightmares about the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz.

"I always thought of them as strange, funny, whimsical creatures. I purposely wanted them to be entertaining, not frightening," he says.

His background as a physicist came in handy to calculate the center of gravity and power required to drive all the mechanisms in the monkeys.

Each one has a different combination of linkages, so they all operate differently, he points out. And most whirligigs have a sail on them to direct them into the wind, but these don't, and so their movements will be more random and less predictable. Even their personalities are unique: one is a female flying monkey with red lipstick and red shoes.

Once they're installed he expects they will be "delightful to watch, all spinning around doing their monkey antics."

Matthews says he can't wait to see what everybody else is doing.

"It's very exciting," he says. "It's such a creative bunch of people."



What: Wee Faerie Village in the Land of Oz

Where: Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme

When: Oct. 4 – Nov. 3; Tues.-Sat., from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sun. from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: $15 adults, $14 seniors, $13 students, $5 members, children age 12 and younger free. Includes
outdoor walking tour of faerie village with the Official Yellow Brick Road
Map, Family Weekend in Oz activities, and admission to the Florence Griswold House and “Harry Holtzman
and American Abstraction” exhibition in the Krieble Gallery.

More info: www.florencegriswoldmuseum.

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