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Miss Florence's Artist Tree celebrates 10 years

AMY J. BARRY, Special to the Day

Publication: The Day

Published 12/08/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 12/06/2013 05:37 PM

For the past decade, artists from as close as Old Lyme to as far as Oregon have created their own signature palettes for Miss Florence's Artist Tree at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme.

This holiday season, the tree will remain untrimmed. The 12-foot evergreen will not stand at the center of the museum's Krieble Gallery for all to admire the dozens of hand-painted, one-of-a-kind palettes that grace its branches.

But don't fret. In celebration of the tree's 10th anniversary, the palettes, which began at 52 in total and are now topping out at 145, are being dispersed on three smaller trees and wreaths throughout the grand lady's historic home, decorated for a 1910 Christmas.

This break with tradition, explains David Rau, museum director of education, is in part due to the increasing number of palettes.

"We're delighted to see how many people come back to see this tree every year," says Rau, who first conceived of the Artist Tree. "But with a 12-foot tree, even with the binoculars we give them, people really can't see the palettes in the (highest branches). Last year, as we were decorating the tree, we realized the most we could get on it would be 150."

Every year, Rau goes in search for new artists whose work he believes will complement the tree, and invites them to create - and donate - a palette.

"They're all given a blank wood palette that's the same size, shape and thickness. What they do with it is up to their own creativity," he explains. "The only guideline is that it should be appropriate as a gift to Miss Florence and should represent their signature style."

The styles and subject matter are as varied as the artists and range from traditional holiday scenes and landscapes to abstract designs. Mediums run the gamut from oils, acrylics and watercolors to ceramics, metal, glass and collage.

The late Sol Lewitt, the renowned abstract artist and Chester resident, was among the first artists to create a palette for the tree.

"It's a very linear design with black wavy stripes down it. It's the perfect signature piece by Sol Lewitt, Rau says. "It was very exciting and very generous of him to do it."

Besides the palette's size and shape, everyone has to contend with the hole at the upper center, which is also handled in numerous ways.

"Some artists use the hole in playful, clever ways. Some completely ignore it, and others cover it up and create a beautiful surface," Rau observes.

LOCAL ARTISTS RESPOND

Noel Belton of Deep River and Brad Guarino of New London were among the first artists to be invited to participate in the Artist Tree project in 2004.

Belton says he was "absolutely thrilled and honored."

He found the project a real challenge at first but then realized it was about tradition, which made it easier to settle on his subject matter simply because he was living it.

"I was teaching painting classes and the Florence Griswold was one of our favorite haunts … we were doing what so many had done before us and maintaining the tradition of making art at that fabulous location," he says.

"I set up my gear during a class and painted a portrait of one of my students as she herself painted on location. Hence, the title of my piece 'Legacy.'"

Belton says he immediately knew that many more talented artists would follow him and his palette would be displayed with them year after year.

"That's why it was important to me to make a strong and honest statement of my connection with the place, the tradition, and the legacy," he says.

Just starting graduate school and a bit preoccupied Guarino - whose palette is titled "The Caroler" - recalls, "I knew I wanted to integrate the palette's shape into my design but didn't have much time to think about it. One day, I was looking through some old cast drawings I had done at Slater Museum and came across one of Luca della Robbia's choirboys. That's what gave me the idea to use the hole for a caroler's mouth."

A self-portrait, Guarino says, "casting myself as a caroler seemed very funny. I'm a dreadful singer, I'm the last person you would want caroling at your door."

He found the limitations of the palette the most interesting part of the project.

"It's very specific. I wanted to incorporate the shape but transform it in some way, to make it less palette-y," he says.

Sadie Davidson DeVore of Mystic was among the 11 new artists who created palettes for 2013 with her Christmas-themed "Poinsettia Pyramidal Symbols," which she says was inspired by "my memories of holidays past and celebrations to come with my six grandchildren."

Davidson DeVore's design is a version of an Egyptian decorative pattern. The Egyptians, she notes, would have used egg tempera as a medium, but acrylics painted straight onto the mahogany palette gave her an equally rich and vibrant effect.

"The Florence Griswold Museum is hanging on to the beauty of the traditional English-American holiday and adding new traditions to their celebrations and ceremonies each year," she says. "I personally want to be a helper to this growth and decorative change."

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