MIDDLEBURY — The first words of a new exhibit celebrating one of Vermont’s most recognized artists sum up the seeming dilemma: “What can one say about Sabra Field’s work that has not already been said?”
Plenty, the 82-year-old printmaker soon proves. Take her 1962 illustration of a family of sunny, smiling hippos.
“Here is the birth announcement for my first child, Barclay Giddings Johnson III, ‘Clay’ for short,” she writes in an accompanying caption. “He was a handsome boy, a fearless skier, full of the joy of life, loved and admired by adults and kids alike. Hit by a car just short of his 10th birthday, he died two days later.”
Next comes a 1965 self-portrait featuring more shadows than light.
“This is me the year I grew up, age 30,” she writes, “when my parents died within a week of each other.”
Then there’s the 2011 panorama “Sea, Sand, Stones” that Field composed while visiting Hawaii with her husband.
“Spen died suddenly on our favorite island, Kauai, from complications dating back to cancer seven years earlier,” she writes. “A set of these prints now hangs in Wilcox Memorial Hospital in Lihue in Spen’s memory. The ER doctor who tried so hard to save him has become a good friend.”
Most Vermonters think of Field for works as colorful and carefree as the red barn, blue sky and green hills she created for a 1991 U.S. postage stamp that sold more than 60 million copies.
“Over the course of her career she has received any number of accolades, and has been variously described as ‘the Grant Wood of Vermont,’ ‘the artist laureate of Vermont,’ and as someone who ‘has touched more lives than any Vermont artist in history,’” says Richard Saunders, a Middlebury College professor and director of its Museum of Art.
But the surprisingly personal “Sabra Field, Then and Now: A Retrospective” on campus through Aug. 13 reveals as much about her private struggles as her professional success.
“The direction of one’s wishes”
Field, born in Oklahoma and raised in New York, first came to Vermont in 1953 to attend Middlebury, where she graduated 60 years ago (“I went to Middlebury because there was no math requirement,” she confides in the show’s catalog). She has given the college an archive copy of every print she has ever created.
Writing her own captions, the artist uses the 100-work exhibit to chronicle her career, starting with a 1971 image of swaying green stripes titled “Grass.”
“My first ‘home run,’” she notes. “I inadvertently hit a universal theme that got copied and got me to begin registering work with the Library of Congress.”
On another wall, Field’s 2001 “Eastern Mountains” features a more detailed landscape of emerald, turquoise and gold.
“The trip from coastal Maine to Vermont crosses the White Mountains in New Hampshire and gives a view of the Upper Valley perhaps not as broad and agricultural as in my dreams,” she writes. “Memory alters in the direction of one’s wishes.”
“Eastern Mountains” proves the point. Field began the first proofs on Sept. 11, 2001, just before seeing television coverage of that day’s terrorist attacks.
Every peak in this artist’s world is framed by valleys, the exhibit shows. Consider the 1960 work “Daisies.”
“This was published as a print and also as a hand-printed greeting card,” she explains, “an enterprise found to be hugely unprofitable.”
Next comes a 1969 self-portrait Field produced after leaving her first marriage.
“I divorced and moved from a Connecticut prep school,” she notes, “to an old tavern in rural Vermont.”
Then again, every valley in this artist’s world is followed by peaks. That two-century-old structure, in the Windsor County settlement of East Barnard, is where Field began to design, draw and cut the woodblock prints that have sustained her for the past 50 years.
“I became part of a different culture where I could live and work at home in a quiet hamlet that was good for kids and without pretense,” she continues in the caption. “Here I am sitting in front of my window overlooking a dirt road with alfalfa on the other side and a quote from George Weld on the window frame that reads ‘Therefore Choose Life.’”
“Like artists always have been”
Field’s subsequent 1972 suite of prints depicting the words of the 23rd Psalm allowed her to mark the death of her firstborn son through images ranging from a wintry day (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”) to a starry summer night (“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life”).
As writer Nancy Price Graff notes in an essay that anchors the exhibit’s catalog: “For the first time, she turned to Vermont’s landscape to illustrate humankind’s spiritual connection to nature and nature’s capacity to heal those who give themselves to it.”
Adds Saunders: “While on the one hand she has been accused by some of sanitizing the world and removing the nitty-gritty details that surround us, others would say this is a natural part of a desire to see beyond the mundane and urge us to sense the spiritualism that surrounds us.”
And Field: “I know I see Vermont through rose-colored glasses. I know what dire poverty we suffer here. But I guess I am like artists always have been. They want to see things at their best.”
As an example, the artist pictures herself in a 1988 self-portrait working in front of a seemingly limitless horizon.
“Reagan started a recession, sales started to slump,” she confides in the caption. “An amazing start up, The Mountain School of Milton Academy, hired me to teach gifted high school juniors a few days a week and the commute to Vershire, Vermont, was so beautiful it resulted in many new prints.”
(The self-portrait, its subject adds, features a “fabulous Ralph Lauren red suede skirt I remembered trying on in New York City” but ultimately never buying.)
The exhibit includes several landscapes that viewers may recognize from cards, calendars and Vermont PBS pledge drives.
“I believe prints are a popular art form, meant for collectors of modest incomes, as well as those who can spend a lot,” the artist explains. “It’s been that way since the first woodblock prints were sold to pilgrims as souvenirs at the shrines of Europe in Medieval times.”
But Field’s art wasn’t always seen as marketable. Take the story behind her 1977 “Mountain Suite.”
“Vermont Life magazine requested a seasonal suite to sell,” she writes. “Then they declined to buy them from me.”
The artist went on to distribute the four images herself. (On her website they now sell for $250 each.) Vermont Life, for its part, profiled her in 1979 and put one of her prints on its cover in 1986.
“Life after life? You tell me”
Success has allowed Field to travel the world and take creative chances. Her 12-panel “Pandora Suite,” depicting the Greek myth of the first goddess to appear in human form, came in response to the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq.
“Her work has changed so much over time,” the artist’s brother, Tony Harwood, says in an hourlong documentary, “Sabra: The Life & Work of Printmaker Sabra Field,” that plays as part of the show. “Sabra felt economically comfortable enough to focus on possibly nonmarketable subjects.”
But however far she strays, Field always returns to her roots. Consider the recently completed “Cloud Way,” which she deems the retrospective’s signature image.
“Believe me when I tell you I did the (preparation) to begin this print while on holiday in Sicily,” she writes. “I was homesick for the stretch of the White River along which I travel to reach the coop in South Royalton.”
The show also includes illustrations from her new children’s book “Where Do They Go?” — which the artist, joined by writer Julia Alvarez, will discuss July 29 at Woodstock’s Bookstock literary festival.
The latter work “gently addresses the emotional side of death,” its publisher states. But Field is aggressive in not letting age stop her creativity. The exhibit features a recent work titled “Floating Woman.”
“One morning I woke with a dream of floating up to the heavens,” she writes. “I walked into the studio and made a little drawing.”
Another self-portrait, she realized.
“Mortality? Resurrection? Life after life? You tell me.”
Field caps her show with a 50-year-old print that quotes the late scribe James Baldwin.
“My future was doubtful that summer of 1967,” she writes in the caption. “These words by a black American writer living in Paris described this white American printmaker in New England, and they still do: ‘It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death, ought to decide indeed to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.’”