Hay Days

Art meets agriculture at Shelburne Farms
Most people picture “summer art class” as an outdoor adventure in landscape painting, and Vermont offers no shortage of compelling vistas for the two-dimensionally-inclined. But the nineteen art students who signed on to “The Mentor Experience” last summer traded in their easels for power augers, and got into the landscape — literally. Under the direction of art professors Bill Davison, Ed Owre, and Kathleen Schneider, they spent three rainy weeks constructing a site-specific sculpture on a hillside previously occupied by dairy cows as part of a larger community curatorial effort known as “the HAY project.”

“It’s been a hell of a lot of physical work,” said Owre, shoring up one of the 150 “pillars” of stacked hay bales in “Ricochet: Herd Swale Mosque” on the day before its official opening at Shelburne Farms last July.

Owre handled most of the engineering on the triangular structure, which occupies 6,500 square feet of pastureland on the former estate and model farm developed by William Seward Webb. Sixty hours of surveying later, even he had new appreciation for “the art of measuring,” as he phrased it, noting, “These students could probably build their own house after this.”

Leading the way through the fourteen-foot spruce timbers like a farmer parting stalks of prize corn, Owre showed how the tops of the pillars echo the landscape, while the bales of hay contained within them form a level line. Every angle, and shadow pattern, offers a surprising new view. From the top of the slope, which looks across at the newly renovated turn-of-the-century farm barn, you get the impression of looking out over a studded rooftop awaiting a second story.

That tension between the irregular topography of the land and the hard geometry of the triangular design lends the piece a Stonehenge feel, of nature partnered with human industry. Closer to home, the interplay has political implications. “Combining agricultural and architectural references,” Fleming Museum curator Janie Cohen wrote in the exhibit catalogue, “the design interweaves the land uses that compete for the soul of Vermont.”

In that respect, “Ricochet” directly reflects the mission of the HAY project. The sculpture is a part of a three-month effort to draw attention to the most important, and humble, crop in Vermont through lectures and exhibits located primarily at Shelburne Farms. But like the other like-spirited efforts on exhibit — curator Pat Parsons also commissioned a hay art piece from site-specific artist Robert Chambers — the organic endeavor is also a recognition of the working landscape, and its tremendous aesthetic contribution to the daily lives of Vermonters. Against a backdrop of dwindling dairy farms and suburban sprawl, it is a poignant partnership of art and agriculture.

That connection was not lost on the toiling students. “We developed a new appreciation for construction workers and farmers,” Alexis Curreri remarked with false annoyance as she dug at the soft earth alongside the stream that divides the piece in two. Her efforts, coordinated with two fellow students struggling to move a back-breaking boulder, looked less like art class than the last day of Outward Bound. Exhibiting the team work developed over days of digging together, the workers lowered the weighty rock into the hole Curreri had prepared for it. Now a handy cross-creek “stepping stone,” it looked like it had been there for years.

The students also learned that art is not set in stone — or hay. It is an evolving, and in this case highly collaborative, process. When the original design of “Ricochet” was modified from a rectangle to a square to a triangle due to rocky soil and bad weather, “they were initially kind of upset,” says Schneider. Over time, “they began to understand and grow fond of the new design,” she said. “You make mistakes, and correct them.” Not a single student dropped the class, which turned out to be a practical lesson in life as well as land moving.

Of course there were some moments of “justified whining,” as Davison puts it. “We worked through some very scary thunderstorms, during which this entire hillside turned to slime,” he explained. Due to record rainfall during the month of July, the students often arrived in the morning only to find they had to redo their work from the day before. It gave new literal meaning to the term “changing landscape.” And judging from the non-agricultural crowd that showed up on opening day, changing demographics.

“Twenty years ago it would have been unheard of for Vermonters to even consider coming to a program called ‘hay art,’” said Roger Clapp, Deputy Commissioner of Agricultural Development in Vermont. “But today, with fewer Vermonters actually involved with agriculture, many people are looking to reconnect with their natural surroundings. It’s a new way of appreciating the landscape, and the people who shape it as part of their everyday life.”

Involving students in efforts like the HAY project indicates a strengthened interest in community activism on the part of the university, and updates its commitment to agricultural education — a mandate that dates back to the days of Justin Morrill. Even if none of them ends up working the land for a living, these students will likely remember enough about their experience to respect and appreciate those who do.

“They didn’t learn how to paint a pretty picture,” said Davison. “But they’ll never forget this.”