Stone Hill the focus of Clark Art Institute's Sensing Place exhibition

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Stone Hill the focus of Clark Art Institute's Sensing Place exhibition
Cow Skull Unearthed from Galusha Farm, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Photo: M. Agee.

WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS.- The forces of globalization, virtualization, and migration create shifts in the ground beneath our feet. Worlds change in unexpected ways, and place is disappearing. The exhibition Sensing Place: Reflecting on Stone Hill, opening at the Clark Art Institute on July 4, 2016, examines the enduring value of place through the lens of Stone Hill—a prominent geological formation at the heart of the Clark’s campus.

The exhibition charts two intersecting paths. The first examines the social history, geology, geography, ecology, and biology of Stone Hill as a specific place. The second explores the broader concept of place by presenting the interpretations of artists, writers, philosophers, scientists, and naturalists reflecting on objects found on Stone Hill. A series of related programs including daytime and evening hikes and walks, music, lectures, and special events will be presented during the exhibition, which runs through October 10, 2016.

In the galleries and on the trails, the exhibition immerses visitors in the rich natural and cultural history of Stone Hill from its geological formation to the present and examines broader concepts of place through objects linked to Stone Hill as interpreted by those familiar with the richness of this special place. Contributors include novelist Jim Shepard, artist Stephen Hannock, art historian Michael Ann Holly, landscape architect Gary Hilderbrand, author Elizabeth Kolbert, and others.

“While Sensing Place may seem like a bit of a departure from other Clark exhibitions, we’re excited to present a show that extends our tradition of inspiring and informing, but through a framework that is fresh and different,” said Kathleen Morris, the Clark’s interim senior curator and Marx Director of Exhibitions. “There is great beauty in the ideas and objects included in the show, and we look forward to sharing them with our visitors. The exhibition creates a wonderful opportunity to think about the importance of places in each of our lives and to explore these ideas—and our campus—in a new way.”

Sensing Place: Reflecting on Stone Hill is organized by Mark C. Taylor, Professor of Religion, Columbia University, and Henry W. Art, Robert F. Rosenburg Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies, Williams College. The exhibition and its accompanying programs are generously supported by Herbert A. Allen, Jr.

“In today’s high-speed mobile world, place disappears in screens where reality becomes virtual. Sensing Place creates the opportunity to slow down and rediscover who you are by reflecting on where you are,” said Mark C. Taylor, exhibition co-curator.

Multiple media are used in the exhibition including a sonogram and recording of a bird song, video representing the melting of glaciers and creation of Lake Bascom, and historic maps, photographs, and ephemera that illustrate the rich history of Stone Hill. The objects presented in the exhibition are varied and include historic artifacts. Each of fourteen participants chose a single object to reflect upon and interpret in a short text.

Author Jim Shepard tells the story of John Barney Wright by showing the mid-nineteenth-century sharp-shooter’s rifle that Wright modified to hunt bear. Another author, Elizabeth Kolbert, uses soil monoliths to illustrate how Stone Hill has evolved, and continues to evolve, throughout the centuries. Soil monoliths detail natural intervention, such as climate change, and human intervention, such as a plow, in the evolution of place.

Stone artist Dan Snow reflects on a recreated field wall that would have been common on Stone Hill in the eighteenth century. The wall intersects interior and exterior spaces as a reminder of Stone Hill’s agrarian past. Artist Stephen Hannock reflects on the passage of time by presenting a root ball of a fallen cluster of buckthorn trees that was found on Stone Hill Road. For Hannock, the growth rings of the tree show how time has passed and been recorded.

By looking at the natural and cultural history of Stone Hill, it is possible to discover traces of the past that continue to shape both the present and future. Today’s Stone Hill has been formed gradually by interactions with geologic, meteorological, human and biological processes. During the last Ice Age, before human habitation of the region, this land was covered by a mile-thick glacier that, as it later melted, filled the surrounding valleys with a lake, turning the twin summits of Stone Hill into islands. For the region’s earliest inhabitants, this ridge was in all likelihood part of the primary transit route between the Hudson and Connecticut River valleys.

“Stone Hill is far more than a landmark for Williamstown,” said co-curator Henry W. Art. “Stone Hill’s history is rich and diverse, and by studying its past, we can help current generations to further appreciate the central role it plays in defining this unique place.”

Stone Hill was named by mid-eighteenth-century colonists shortly after their first encounters with the landscape. These early settlers cleared much of the hill’s forests to create fields for farming and meadows for grazing sheep and cattle. The woodlots that remained provided timber and fuel for the local economy into the early twentieth century. Remnants of these woodlots can still be found on the hill, along with the stone fences demarcating abandoned fields and pastures that have become second-growth forests. Until the early twentieth century, Stone Hill Road, running near the top of the ridge, was the main highway connecting the center of Williamstown with towns to the north and south. With the founding of Williams College and the Clark Art Institute, a rich educational and cultural tradition was folded into this beautiful natural setting to make Stone Hill a place that harbors important lessons and memories.

In 2014 the Clark dramatically changed its landscape by adding a new visitor center and by reorienting the campus to face Stone Hill. A three-tiered reflecting pool at the base of the hill is one of many sustainability measures cited by the U.S. Green Building Council in awarding the Clark with a LEED gold certification in 2016.

The Clark is not the sole owner of property on Stone Hill, nor is it alone in shaping its landscape. Since 2007, exhibition co-curator and artist Mark C. Taylor has been reshaping his land at the southern end of Stone Hill, creating a dialogue between place and the worlds of art and ideas. Removing soil to uncover massive layers of stone ordinarily hidden underground, he has also revealed networks of rocks, trees, ponds, and streams. Sculptures made of stone, bone, and steel punctuate the natural setting. Three large, abstract sculptures pay homage to his intellectual heroes—Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Georg Hegel.

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