Artist paints a message for lake celebration (5/7/09)

Nancy Stone’s work chosen for unique exhibit

May 7, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Nancy Stone’s entry in a groundbreaking exhibit opening this week is an aquamarine flight of fancy, a whale skeleton swimming through Vermont’s inland sea thousands of years ago.


    Courtesy image
Nancy Stone’s painting ‘In A Time Before Names’ is among the select few chosen for a first-of-its kind exhibit of Vermont artists that will travel to New York City and Boston.

The Williston artist titled her watercolor depiction of the famous Charlotte fossil “In A Time Before Names.” The name and image is meant to remind that Lake Champlain was around long before French explorer Samuel de Champlain laid eyes on it.

Stone said she was making a point about the quadricentennial festivities recognizing Champlain’s exploration, in which the exhibit plays a part.

“There’s a celebration that Champlain discovered the lake 400 years ago,” she said. “That’s fine. But it did exist before then, and somebody had to mention it.”

Stone’s painting is among a select few chosen for a unique traveling art showcase called “Champlain’s Lake Rediscovered.” It opens Friday at Shelburne Farms, then visits the National Arts Club in New York City and the Boston Public Library in Copley Square before returning to Vermont.

The exhibit is just one of the more than 100 events scheduled during the Lake Champlain quadricentennial celebration this spring and summer.

Middlebury artist Doug Lazarus came up with the idea of showcasing Vermont artists after reviewing the slate of events and discovering a dearth of visual art featuring the lake.

Thus started a two-year process of raising money, wrangling volunteers and soliciting submissions, Lazarus said. The exhibit will cost about $125,000, a fraction of the price for similar showcases.

“This is a genuine grassroots project,” he said. “It was put together entirely with volunteers. It was done Vermont-style, on a shoestring.”

Lazarus sent out scores of invitations asking artists to submit depictions of the lake. He said he was looking for work that reflected talent and creativity  — not picture postcards.

He ended up with more than 100 submissions. Of those, 39 were picked for the juried show.

Alex Aldrich, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council, said it may be the first exhibit of its kind, although individual Vermont artists often show their work at big-city galleries.

Traveling exhibits pose big financial risks for organizers, but Aldrich said they can only benefit the artists who participate.

“The thing about the arts community in Vermont is the population isn’t big enough to sustain it,” he said. “That means artists have to go outside the state. And this show does just that.”

There’s also a chance the show could provide a windfall for an artist whose work catches the eye of a well-heeled patron.

“It could be a life-changing event if you are sort of discovered by the glitterati of New York,” Aldrich said.

Art history

Stone said she is elated to participate in the showcase, although it won’t be the first time her work has been exhibited outside Vermont.

A sale would be nice, but Stone also wants to provoke a reconsideration of the lake as more than just a pretty waterway and prompt interest in her technique.

“I’m hoping the first reaction is ‘wow!’ and the second one is ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought about that.’ And then, ‘How’d she do that?’”

As a young girl growing up in the Midwest, Stone discovered she had an aptitude for art. She was also interested in teaching, playing instructor with her siblings and assigning them make-believe homework.

She attended college in the New York State University system, majoring in ceramics and also earning a teaching degree. She married her husband, Ken, after graduation in 1965.

Stone taught in Minnesota and Texas before the couple moved to Vermont in 1971. She took a job as a part-time art teacher at Williston Central School, where she worked for 21 years until retiring in 1998.

Stone is still involved with education and community events, teaching at Community College of Vermont, mentoring students and organizing Williston’s annual Fourth of July art show.

“Art can be very, very lonely, so it’s important to me to not only inspire students — whether they are adults or schoolchildren — but to also make connections between people and really challenge them to use creativity for the community,” she said.

Stone’s painting grew from a sketch she drew after seeing the Charlotte whale on display at the University of Vermont more than a decade ago. The skeleton, found during railroad construction in 1849, was preserved in the sediments of the Champlain Sea, an arm of the ocean that formed following the retreat of glaciers 12,500 years ago.

Stone said she has long been fascinated by science. So when she was invited to submit a piece for the exhibit she decided to embellish the old sketch. She researched the lake’s geologic history and used what she learned to create the painting.

“I thought about how I could twist my entry in the show so that it wasn’t just a landscape but really talks about history,” she said. “They were asking for unusual materials and art, and that’s what I went for.”

Stone filtered paint through sand coral she had previously collected to create texture and placed coral pieces directly on the medium. She assembled multiple sheets of a special paper to form a painting large enough to portray the whale’s grandeur while meeting the exhibit’s size limit of 20-by-40 inches.

Lazarus said he was delighted by Stone’s juxtaposition of art and paleontology.

“The whale looks completely natural as a pile of bones swimming around in the water,” he said. “The piece is so confident.”

Stone said she is excited about participating in an exhibit that promotes Vermont artists and shows how much talent is tucked between the mountains and the valley that was once a deep blue sea.

“I believe the quality of the art in the show is fantastic, it’s really stunning,” she said. “And we’re representing Vermont well.”


Exhibit schedule

May 8 – 25

Shelburne Farms

June 1 – 15

National Arts Club, New York City

June 29 – Aug. 3

Boston Public Library, Copley Square

Aug. 19 – Sept. 20

Southern Vermont Arts Center, Manchester

Sept. 23 – 0ct. 31

Vermont Statehouse, Montpelier