Sabra Field at Middlebury College Museum of Art


Middlebury College Museum of Art

Through August 13, 2017

If you don’t live in Vermont, perhaps the name Sabra Field doesn’t ring immediate bells. But you know her art. With the possible exception of Woody Jackson—he of the black and white Holsteins that grace Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream products—no recent artist has done more to evoke Vermont’s rural heritage than Ms. Field. Not many artists can claim that 60 million people have seen her work. In 1991, she pulled out nostalgic stops for a red barn, verdant fields, green hills, and blue skies ensemble that graced U.S. postage stamps. If that sounds more commercial than artistic, read on.

Although she is now 82, has lived in East Barnard since 1967, and has been producing art since her undergraduate days in the 1950s, her Middlebury College retrospective is aptly titled “Then and Now.” It includes old favorites among the 100 works on display, but also more recent work like a sixteen-panel assemblage titled “Cosmic Geometry,” which on the surface appears to a collection of spirals, angles, architectural details, shapes, and natural objects, but which might also be viewed as metaphors for life and passages. Even more stunning is her “Pandora Suite,” a powerful exploration of the human experience from the exaltations of love to the ugliness of racism and the insanity of war. There’s much more to Sabra Field than barns and farms.

Still, there’s no escaping the fact that Field is first and foremost associated with tranquil wood block prints that capture the solitude of the Vermont countryside. And if you wonder about the postage stamp thing, consider that for many years Field grappled the same challenge that most artists face: how to parlay the creative spirit into something that resembles making a living. She raised a family, taught art to supplement the family budget, flogged her work at craft fairs, and did small shows. Emily and I first saw her work in the 1970s at the Montshire Museum in Norwich, and the fact that it’s science museum gives you a clue that Field's impact was more modest back then. Here’s another tip-off; we own a few of her prints—things we bought for much less than they’d go for now! 

 If you look hard at Field’s prints, you begin to realize that she’s doing more than romanticizing rural vistas or seeking to fossilize fading ways of life. There is a Zen-like quality to a lot of her work. In some cases, Japanese aesthetics are pretty obvious, but there are others in which it’s subtler. You stand before scenes of waving grass, puffy clouds, undulating fields, and lumpy mountains that are bisected by fence lines, silos, shadows, of contrasting patches of color and, without realizing it is happening, you sink into a meditative state. Others, like “Fox in Winter” or any of a number of deep frost scenes force you to think upon the dance of life, struggle, survival, and mortality. Or, if you wish, you could just see her work as appealing to the eye. If you can make it to the show, though, you’ll learn from the captions and a video that Field had more in mind than simply making pretty pictures. My personal take is that we ought to take regional artists such as she much more seriously than we do. But I suspect that Sabra Field would be happy that people like what they see—no matter what they make of it.

If you can’t get to Middlebury before August 13, don’t despair. Ms. Field is an alum and the college is a repository for her work, so there’s likely to be something on display next time you’re passing through. And there are always Vermont galleries to consider. Field is now such an icon that it’s a rare independent gallery than doesn’t have something of hers on offer. You’ll know her work when you see it. First the color will grab you, then the composition, and then…?

Rob Weir

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