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Flowers in Winter: Celia Thaxter's Island Garden

December 6, 2013 - March 8, 2014


Discover Portsmouth brings visitors scenes of summer to brighten the darkest winter days. Photographer Peter Randall and contemporary artists Christopher Volpe and Dustan Knight have teamed up to deliver a colorful 21st century response to the famous flower garden that 19th century writer Celia Thaxter cultivated in the six inches of soil on the timeless, rocky island of Appledore, Isles of Shoals.


 A Very Special Garden

Peter Randall has been photographing on the Isles of Shoals since 1974. He issued two books of his Isles of Shoals photographs and as a publisher has produced 25 different books about these islands, including several books by and about Celia Thaxter. Peter Randall will curate the exhibit detailing the historical garden and what it looks like today. "I've been making still photographs of Celia's Garden for more than 30 years. These nine islands are my favorite place to be and I go out each summer to conduct a photography workshop on Star Island." He will also premiere his newest film on the garden on December 5th.  "As much as I enjoy still photography, I'm now getting excited about video." Randall's film debut brings the garden and its story to all those people who are interested in Thaxter, painter Childe Hassam, the Isles of Shoals, New England's history and literary tradition, and of course gardening. (right: Peter Randall, Celia's Garden, photograph. Image courtesy of Portsmouth Historical Society)

Randall's film documents the challenges faced by Dr. John M. Kingsbury, a Cornell botany professor who created the Shoals Marine Laboratory, an undergraduate marine education program, on Appledore. Until then, the island had remained mostly a wild place for the last sixty years. To develop the Shoals Marine Laboratory, Dr. Kingsbury had to build roads, construct dormitories, lab facilities, a dock, and provide running water, electricity, and sewage treatment. Somehow he had a little time left over after his other duties to recreate Celia Thaxter's garden.  After all, her book detailed exactly which flowers she planted and where they were located in her garden. Historical photographs indicated the exact site of the garden. Running the backhoe to prepare the site and using heritage seeds from the collections of Cornell Plantations, Kingsbury recreated the garden as it was when Celia herself maintained it. Forty years later, the garden blooms again each summer, watched over by volunteers and Shoals Marine Lab staff. (Visitors may tour  the garden during the summer by contacting the Shoals Lab at https://www.sml.cornell.edu/sml_reservation.php.) 


A Contemporary Appreciation

The paintings by contemporary artists Christopher Volpe and Dustan Knight represent a 21st century response to Celia Thaxter's renowned Victorian garden on Appledore Island, 10 miles off the New Hampshire coast. The semi-abstract compositions reference the flower forms and colors found in Thaxter's garden as well as in Peter Randall's photographs and Childe Hassam's celebrated paintings of the same location. Volpe and Knight push their medium to execute contemporary, abstract paintings that reinterpret an historical theme.

Artist Christopher Volpe is an oil painter, teacher, and writer, and teaches an annual plein-air workshop on Star Island.  Volpe moved to New Hampshire from Long Island, New York to earn a graduate degree in poetry at UNH. On his path to becoming a painter Volpe states, "I wrote poetry, worked for about 15 years as a professional writer, and taught college English before falling in love with American landscape painting while teaching a class in art history. Shortly after, I made painting my vocation." His paintings for Flowers in Winter take their inspiration from visits to the Shoals and the flowers in Celia's garden as captured in the landscapes of 19th century American artist Childe Hassam and the photographs of Peter Randall. "Mostly I think I'm trying to paint remembered sensations," he writes, "Anyway, doing these more imaginative studio paintings, I'm finding that, for me, taking a more abstract approach sometimes gets me closer to the truth of my experience." (left: Christopher Volpe, From Celia's Garden, O/C. Image courtesy of Portsmouth Historical Society)

For artist Dustan Knight who received her MFA from Pratt Institute and MA, Boston University, the theme of this exhibition is very near to her heart.  Knight states, "The moods of the sea and the fragile yet tenacious flora found flourishing on the rocky islands is spiritually uplifting.  Celia Thaxter understood and celebrated the jubilant alive-ness of the islands.  Like all good sea-blessed persons she loved it unconditionally and with great respect." In these paintings Knight captures the wildness and the delicate strength of the flora as well as the sense of the brisk sea breeze and shimmering light of an island garden.  "I am drawn to the same appreciation of color, light and air that Celia speaks of so often in her writings. I hope when the viewer stands in front of my paintings they sense the sea just beyond the blossoms and hear the seagulls call on a soft salty wind." (right: Dustan Knight, painting, O/C. Image courtesy of Portsmouth Historical Society)

Gallery talks at Discover Portsmouth will feature the artists, Hal Weeks from the Shoals Marine Lab, Pontine Theatre, quilter and author Faye Labanaris, and Childe Hassam expert David Curry.  All talks will be held on Saturdays at 11AM, Donation requested. For the complete schedule please visit http://www.portsmouthhistory.org/.


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