This summer and fall, countless people will stop for a coffee on Stowe's main drag, go for a spin on the Recreation Path or swing by the town library. Along the way, they may or may not take conscious notice of the large-scale sculptures sited in all these spots. Or the unattributed excerpts of poetry in the town's storefront windows.
These two temporary public installations comprise "Exposed," an annual juried sculpture show now in its 24th year. The show has included poetry since 2011, when Rachel Moore, the dynamic assistant director of Helen Day Art Center in Stowe, began her run as curator.
This year's 17 sculptures by 13 New England artists were selected by jurors Lucas Cowan, the public art curator of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy in Boston, and Sarah McCutcheon Greiche, an art historian and voice for public art in Montréal.
The poetry verses, evoking sculptural images of their own, all come from In the Dark, a 2007 collection by late Vermont poet Ruth Stone. The National Book Award winner was finishing her term as Poet Laureate of Vermont when she died in 2011 at the age of 96. Stone would have been 100 this year, notes Craftsbury poet (and Seven Days contributing writer) Julia Shipley, who curated the verses for "Exposed."
Sculpture and poetry are art forms generally confined to galleries and books, where a select few enthusiasts know to seek them out. Outdoor shows, by contrast, leave everyone who passes "exposed" to the arts. In the deracinated context of this show, then, pieces will engender a far larger range of opinions than they normally would. And viewers who take the time to dig deeper will be rewarded.
For example, take the first sculpture that one encounters on entering town from Route 100 North: "Donegal Gate," precision-sculpted from granite, bronze and copper by Murray Dewart. Impressively engineered and perfectly symmetrical, the 8.5-foot-high work is also unchallenging, its siting at the implied city gates somewhat inevitable. Yet, call a number posted on the placard — no smartphone needed — and a brief recording by the Boston-based artist indicates the piece is "a metaphor for pilgrimage and a kind of yearning."
Granted, sculpture is mute, and one can always simply enjoy it on its own. (As Stone writes in one apropos excerpt, "Then why this happiness in muted things?") For those who seek to plumb the creators' motives, though, the artists have provided explanatory audio files for every sculpture, and their comments are reprinted in the programs available at Helen Day.
One sculpture particularly needs the explanation: "Observatory," by Michael Zebrowski, who currently teaches fine arts at Johnson State College. Zebrowski trained as an architect, and it shows. Built from wood and sited in a field, "Observatory" consists of two white-painted walls facing each other across a narrow platform and supported on their exteriors by unpainted, artfully constructed scaffolds. One scaffold faces Rec Path passersby, who may guess the structure is an unfinished shed at first glance.
For Moore, however, it's the best piece in the show. Standing on the narrow platform, the curator points out that one of the structure's open ends frames Polaris, the North Star. A tiny camera mounted on the other end records a time-lapse video of this still point of the turning Earth. Roughly every two weeks, Zebrowski downloads these cosmic records to the Helen Day website.
"It's an experience; it directs your view to the outside," Moore enthuses. "And I love that he didn't conceal the scaffolding. It's exposed. It's the sketch, the thought that supports the piece.
"Come at night," she adds.
Few of the other sculptures direct the gaze away from themselves. Two pieces on loan from Vermont collectors Frank and Elaine Ittleman are stunning. One of those, "Tiller," is an assemblage of orange-painted steel pipes by John Clement; the title refers not to a farm plow, but to the lever used to control a boat's rudder. The relevant piece is a straight section of pipe that anchors a jubilant curlicue and a semicircle of the same pipe in a baffling feat of engineering. For those who don't pull out their phones, the piece's minimalist lines and balanced sweep will speak for themselves.
"Exposed" usually lacks a theme, but this year's show focuses specifically on lines and linearity. Accordingly, Shipley chose verses from seven Stone poems with linear references, such as mentions of clotheslines or "one hairline path." The words' powerful afterimages may outlast those of the sculptures.
"Frost billows from a long brotherhood of trucks," reads one complete excerpt. (Shipley describes the excerpts as "tweet brief — 25 words per window, max.") Another reads: "And the sky with its black floaters / seems half-blind, too; / the crows dipping over the town."
That last appears in a four-window storefront. The program allows the viewer to realize that all four adjacent excerpts come from the same poem, but Shipley says she didn't intend to make that obvious.
"I was kind of hoping [the excerpts] would make up a new poem based on the viewer's trajectory through town, or another one if they went the other way," she says. "I wanted them to speak to each other and perhaps resonate."
Given the range of passersby, some may feel the power of that resonance, while others may be baffled. Still others will come to "Exposed" to check the price list. (Helen Day sells one or two sculptures a year, says Moore.) But perhaps the luckiest viewers are those who come without expectations, happening on these enormously varied works of art by accident.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Fine Lines"