Curtains up: new theatrical curtains reflect Vermont seasons

Five regional artists go all in to create a modern chapter to Main Street Arts’ historic theatrical curtain collection

By Susan Morse

Michelle Ratté stands in front of her painted curtain at Main Street Arts in Saxton's River

Michelle Ratté stands in front of her painted curtain at Main Street Arts in Saxton’s River

How do you paint a curtain, and a large 9 by 18-foot theatrical curtain at that?

With exuberance and color and not a small amount of trepidation and curiosity a group of five contemporary Saxtons River artists have learned..

Michele Ratté says she isn’t even a painter: the Saxtons River artist calls herself “a printmaker and assembler.”

But Ratté agreed to be an integral part of Main Street Arts’ ambitious Five Seasons Project, (see sidebar) which included five contemporary artists who live in the Saxtons River area to paint theater curtains based on Vermont’s five seasons. (perhaps you forgot about Mud Season?)

Ratté picked autumn.

Charlie Hunter of Bellows Falls with his mud-season-themed curtain

Charlie Hunter of Bellows Falls with his mud-season-themed curtain

Other artists included Eric Aho, winter; Charlie Hunter, ’maple and mud;’ Julia Zanes, spring; and Donald Saaf, summer.

It was Main Street Arts Chairwoman Julie Messervy’s idea to add a modern chapter to MSA’s already existing historic collection of theatrical curtains (the largest in the state) that intrigued Ratte, a Dartmouth College art major.

Plus, the collaboration with the other artists – most of whom are her neighbors – was another plus.

“I’m not a painter, so I had a lot of technical questions,” saidRatté. That and the scale of the curtain, and that fact that it would ordinarily be viewed 20 to 25 feet away, she said.

Many ofRatté’s art pieces are small and delicate, jewel-like constructions, where the viewer can study the artistry.

Ratté and the other artists made miniatures, or ’maquettes’ of their theater curtain designs, and those paintings are being sold as a major fund raising effort by MSA. Ratte said she ’collaged’ her two by four-foot maquette.

“The curtain is almost psychedelic,” saidRatté, who said the experience of starting small – the maquette – and making it much bigger was a new experience. “It changes everything and some of the colors change,” she said.

All the curtain artists on stage

All the curtain artists on stage

Ratté was unable to use her patented metal process on the autumn curtain because of the technical constraints placed on a theatrical backdrop, which must be able to be rolled up for storage.

Ratté and another artist have developed a method for the permanent printing of precious metals and precious metal powders onto textiles; they hold a U.S. patent for the invention and her artwork is colorful and shimmering as a result..

So instead printing gold leaf or aluminum on the golden scenes of fall, she painted what she calls a “hybrid scene,” melding together different familiar scenes around Saxtons River, including the river itself, and area vistas, including the vista of her own back meadow.

“I wanted to create a rural Vermont scene, including some of the animals,” saidRatté, whose studio is a converted chicken house.

“I wanted to honor people like the Stickneys,” she said, referring to a longtime Saxtons River farm family.

AndRatté – true to Messervy’s idea of the cross-fertilization of the different arts – said a poem by Ruth Grandin also inspired her painting.

Ratté’s Saxtons River studio wasn’t big enough for her to paint the curtain. So she, Zanes and Saaf all painted their curtains together in the former Book Press Building in Brattleboro. “We were actually out in the hallway,” she said.

Hunter painted his at his studio in Bellows Falls, and Aho also had a big enough space at his Saxtons River studio

“I like the way it came out, the scale was very different,” she said.

Ratté said the technical aspects of painting on a large piece of muslin was also a concern, but she credited fellow artist Charlie Hunter and his assistant with figuring out how to prime the muslin canvas for all the artists, who had to use acrylic paint.

“It’s a big huge piece of fabric and you’re adding some liquid,” she said, saying she knew from working with textiles how tricky they could be.

Ratté said the muslin had to be thin enough to roll up, and the acrylic paint would be flexible enough to be rolled as well.

“Charlie brought a lot to the table,” said Ratte.

“It’s an honor. I was really caught up in the multi-media concept,” saidRatté, who moved back to Vermont in 2009 from Martha’s Vineyard..

She grew up in Arizona and Brattleboro, while her father, CharlesRatté, was a geology professor at then-Windham College. He eventually became the Vermont state geologist.

She said her family geology field trips to the natural world had a big impact on her art.

Her current fascination is the fossil beds in Isle LaMotte, in northwestern Vermont, a place she first visited with her father about 10 years ago..

Her rubbings and drawings of the fossils of the long-ago sea creatures are bound to surface in future work.

SIDEBAR

When Main Street Arts asked five area artists to add to its collection of early 20th century curtains, the challenge was accepted by the artists without hesitation, said Julie Moir Messervy, chairwoman of the board of Main Street Arts, a local arts organization located – where else! – but Main Street in the small village of Saxtons River.

Messervy, a noted international landscape designer and author of many award-winning landscaping books, is no stranger to ambitious arts projects, marrying the unusual with the traditional.

The theater curtain project had its start in another art form, music, and several of the artists took their inspiration for yet another – poetry, Messervy said.

The Painted Curtain Project is a major fund raising effort for Main Street Arts, which is in the middle of a $1 million renovation and expansion project that will make the community arts center more accessible to all members of the community, in particular its second-floor theater, as well as addressing long-standing shortcomings of a former early 20th century Odd Fellows Hall.

The community arts center will have new class rooms, additional display space, and new event and reception areas, as well as a landscaped outdoor display and performance areas, according to Messervy.

Messervy said that local composer Carol Wood, a retired college professor from Louisiana and harpist, is also involved with MSA, and wrote The Saxtons River Suite, based on the four seasons.

She askedRatté, as well as a three other Saxtons River based artists – Eric Aho, and Julia Zanes and Donald Saaf. Aho, chose winter, and the husband and wife artists of Zanes and Saaf took spring and summer.

Wood’s music inspired the curtains, and eventually MSA acknowledged Vermont’s unofficial fifth season – Mud Season – by adding a fifth artist living in another village in Rockingham, Charlie Hunter who lives in Bellows Falls.

Hunter took Mud Season, and added another big M to his seasonal theme – maple. His was the first curtain finished.

She hopes the curtains will be used in other creative and dramatic presentations on Main Street Arts’ stage, but in the meanwhile all five curtains will be on display on Sept. 27 during a community day in Saxtons River.

“We want everyone to see them,” said Messervy.

Messervy said the curtains, which are nine feet by 18 feet long, will then travel south to Brattleboro, where they will be on display for the month of October at the Gibson River Garden in downtown Brattleboro.

“They will be there for a full month,” said Messervy. “How many places could they be displayed?”

She’s on the hunt for another large venue for Saxtons River’s beautiful but unusual curtains.

“We’re talking to someone at the State House,” she said.

A world premiere of Wood’s Saxtons River Suite “a concert of the curtains,” Messervy said, will be held as soon as the renovations to the Main Street Arts building are complete at the end of the year.

MSA will hold a special fundraising party to unveil the five curtains at a private home in Bellows Falls on Saturday, Sept. 27 from 6-8p. For the first time, all five of the new painted curtains will be hung and displayed together.

The event will also feature an auction of six to ten special items by Sharon Boccelli, music by The Saxtons River Suite, and cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.

Tickets are available at $75 per person, with 100 percent of the proceeds going towards MSA’s capital campaign.

RSVP by Sept. 20 to Main Street Arts Director Margo Ghia at mghia@mainstreetarts.org or 802-869-2960.

A kickoff event will be held on Oct. 3 at the River Garden in Brattleboro, where the curtains will be on display for the entire month of October.

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