Pat Musick looks at the world a little differently.
Her perspective has set her apart from the rest of her family and has given her a voice in the visual arts, which is on display in “Where Did You Come From Anyway?” the latest exhibition to open at the Bennington Museum.
While retrospectives can feel exhausting to the viewer (and no doubt to some artists as well), this one almost feels too short, as though the viewer would like to wander through the mercurial works of Musick for a room or two more. The work itself is excellent, but the curator, Jamie Franklin, created a captivating visual narrative with Musick’s pieces and within the small space he had to work with, transitioning smoothly between some of the artist’s early two dimensional works to her more recent abstract sculptural works.
Early in her career Musick was working with figures, painting expressionistically and focusing on people in various everyday situations. But as her career went on, and as she moved around the country with her husband and former NASA astronaut Jerry Carr, she started to work mostly with found and manipulated objects that feel at once earthly and other-worldly.
The jump-off point of the exhibition and the title work is aptly named “Where Did You Come From, Anyway?”, a question that Musick’s mother asked over 30 years ago while they were addressing notes for one of Musick’s exhibits. The question stuck with Musick through the years.
Though she lives in Manchester now, her family has roots in Iowa farmlands, where people were what Musick describes as conservative. Neither her mother or her father considered themselves “artists” or “creatives,” though looking back Musick believes they were artists in certain ways, unbeknownst to them.
“I personally believe there’s an artist in everyone. The housewife or the taxi driver, the school teacher or the farmer all can express creatively. It’s a matter of showing them perhaps how. I’m not talking about making a painting, but living a life,” Musick said.
Within the title work, a woman stands alone with her arms crossed on an island, with a vibrant blue cornstalk growing next to her. Her head is enveloped in this pink and white sky. It points to her family history as well as where her thread comes in.
A series of pastel drawings called “Winter,” gives one other answer to that question. In a style that feels reminiscent of Georgia O'Keeffe, Musick draws on a muted color palette and a sweeping line to emote the harsh beauty of winter in the northeast. When Musick drew them in the 1970s, she was experiencing her first northeast winter since moving from California.
She uncovered the series about a year ago after they’d gone missing for nearly 20 years. Their placement in the exhibition is nothing short of perfect.
“It was like my mom asked the question, ‘Where did you come from, anyway?’ and then right beside it is something that I did 15 years before she asked that question. So it was like ‘That’s where I came from, visually and artistically.’”
“Winter” (and a partial answer to the title question) marks where her works on paper stop and her work with sculpture picks up within the exhibition. Looking at a piece like “Gate 1,” in which long golden sisal-thread bunches and tangled strands of steel hang from a large, curved piece of driftwood, it becomes clear that her process and inspirations have changed drastically.
It wasn’t an easy change either.
For much of Musick’s early career, she lived in city environments, which were perfect for painting people. But in 1985, she and her husband moved to the Ozarks and her natural environment was no longer so densely populated with her usual subject matter.
“I was suddenly surrounded by different images: mountains, valleys and cornfields, rivers, lakes and the sky. I struggled with that for about five years. I did four series of paintings that I ultimately destroyed because I was trying to find myself,” Musick said.
Then, she and her husband witnessed a series of natural disasters, including major floods and forest fires that wiped out hundreds of acres of forestland. She viewed it from on the ground and he viewed it from space. They were both struck by just how damaging the disasters were.
“For about a year, I just really despaired that we weren’t going to recover. Then the spring of the next year, when my husband and I went out walking in the woods, we became aware of changes that new life and new growth was springing up from the forest floor. The trees were more abundantly green than they had been before the disasters. It was just an incredible change. I knew that that was what I wanted to express,” Musick said.
That joy is reflected in pieces like “Epilogue 18,” a joyful composition of steel, stone and wood.
Those materials run throughout the exhibit, juxtaposing the natural world and the man-made or man-manipulated.
That relationship is most evident in “The Words Were All the Same II,” where a series of ascending steel stands (the tallest standing above five feet) hold blocks of timber topped with perfectly balanced grey and white speckled natural stones. It’s also where her husband’s influence is most felt in the exhibition. The two often collaborate, with Carr doing the metalwork and assisting with the design structure.
While Carr was in space, he observed many natural disasters and was struck by how much the natural disasters can impact the earth almost as much as humans could.
“They really were in combat with each other in terms of affecting our lives,” It became the conflict that Musick was most interested in: between the natural disasters and the man-made disasters.
Each block of timber in “The Words Were All the Same II,” has a unique split down the side, where the wood is coming apart as if broken by the weight of the stones.
However, when Musick originally created the sculpture, the pieces were completely whole. The change marks a small scale natural disaster, but it’s one that worked with the piece and its message rather than against.
“When an artist is working with natural materials and also with abstract shapes, you let the work create along with you,” Musick said.
“Where Did You Come From Anyway?” will be on exhibit until Dec. 30. If you go, make sure to check out “Crash to Creativity: The New Deal in Vermont,” which features WPA Art from Francis Colburn and many others that created Vermont’s modern identity. Also, don’t forget to check out the museum’s collection of Grandma Moses works and the Grandma Moses Schoolhouse.
For more information visit benningtonmuseum.org.