Last June, I volunteered to work at the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club’s Blooming Art show on the last day of the event, a beautiful Sunday afternoon. I was seated almost in the middle of the room, collecting entrance fees and donations and greeting people as they arrived. Of course, I had attended the event earlier in the weekend so as to have time to study the paintings, sculpture, and floral arrangements. Blooming Art is one of my favorite annual events in the summer season on the Vineyard. The concept is used in art museums around the country as a way of bringing visitors into gallery spaces and a way of attracting donors.
When art lovers come to such an exhibit, they are invited to focus attention on perspective, on relationships. In some ways, of course, all art is self-referential. All art has as its subject art itself, in addition to whatever else is going on in the painting or sculpture or film or whatever. Some works of art are quite consciously self-referential and others don’t make such interpretations obvious on first inquiry. But when two art objects are paired, the conversation between them is central to the viewer’s experience. Neither work can be viewed alone; each derives its meaning in the relationship.
This conversation between two art objects is one of the reasons I love Blooming Art.
As I sat doing my volunteer work, I had ample opportunity to focus my attention on the works displayed on the lower level of the Old Mill, and I was enjoying that time to be an art critic. But during a lull in the traffic of visitors, I noticed a field mouse entering the space and moving determinedly across the stone floor. Another volunteer scooped him up and took him outside. I was amused to see him re-enter the room in only a few minutes, and he began his journey once again across the stone. Once again the volunteer picked him up and took him much farther away from the mill entrance. I was a little sad to see him go. But it didn’t take long for him to come again. By this time, his adversary was not around, and I watched him move with a purpose toward the other side of the room, where he entered a hole — obviously a familiar hiding place — under the stairs.
That mouse put me in a different place altogether. I thought of the thousands of field mice who had taken refuge in the Old Mill over the many decades it had stood there, and my attention shifted to the structure around me and away from the art displayed inside it. The Garden Club saved this beautiful antique from destruction when they purchased it in 1937. One year before the purchase, the New Bedford Sunday Standard Times, on Sept. 26, included this statement in an article on Martha’s Vineyard: “Standing idle, desolate, and slowly rotting and breaking into oblivion in this old village is the last Monument of a Vineyard industry, once thriving and essential, now dead.
“The landmark, recalling Vineyard industrial history, is an old mill on the south side of the Edgartown Road by the Old Mill Pond just outside the village.
“For years historically minded Vineyarders had considered the renovation of the old construction, but all their talk brought no result until late this summer, when the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club took active interest in the mill.”
For those who have an interest in the history of the building, they can find a small book in the Martha’s Vineyard Museum library (no author or publication date). In that book, the writer calls the Mill Brook the “Old Mill River.” The book cites a deed dated August 11, 1760, as the first record of a grist mill in this place, but some historians believe that the site functioned as a mill much earlier than that, however, because when Benjamin Church built the first grist mill on the nearby Tiasquam River in Chilmark in 1668, that stream became known as the New Mill River. Logical thinking brings historians to the conclusion that the “Old Mill” in West Tisbury existed before the “New Mill.”
None of this history was in my head at the time. Instead I was carried away by the timeless mouse and the antique building, situated as it is beside a pond and shaping the view for everyone who enters West Tisbury, and all of this led me to a favorite poem, Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar.”
Anecdote of the Jar
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
This is poem about visual relationships, the change in perspective that the smooth jar makes in a uncontrolled nature. The conversation here is not between two art objects, but between the natural landscape and a manmade object, the focal point that controls the eye in a scene.
When I ended my volunteer work and headed to the car, I paused and turned around to look at the Old Mill, preserved by the Garden Club for every visitor to West Tisbury, sitting stately and proud by the pond. I was struck by the integrity of the building. Mainly, however, I saw it — like the jar in Tennessee — shaping my view of the landscape, controlling my perspective, and taking dominion everywhere.
Blooming Art is modeled after the Museum of Fine Art’s Art in Bloom show, an annual celebration of floral arrangements inspired by the museum’s masterpieces. Blooming Art will be held June 23 to 25, 2017, at the Old Mill in West Tisbury. Visit marthasvineyardgardenclub.org for more information.