STOCKBRIDGE -- Rebecca Keller is not a typical artist. Dressed all in black (include jet black hair), save for a bright, flowery scarf, she looks more like a well-prepared tourist ready to brave the odd elements of a fickle New England rainy season. But while her clothes are not covered with paint, Keller, a native of Chicago, is every bit an artist and, by default, a philosopher. It's this combination that led Donna Hassler, director of Chesterwood -- a Historic Site for the National Trust for Historic Preservation -- practically to Keller's doorstep to invite the artist to be this year's sculptor-in-residence at the former home of Daniel Chester French.
"In 2010, I began raising local support to begin a sculptor-in-residence program at Chesterwood, because I felt it was critical to foster the creation of new work at this important Site of an American artist as part of its mission," Hassler said. "We will no longer be following the static ‘historic house museum model.' "
Keller is, by all accounts, a natural fit for the program which is supported, in part, by the Interpretation & Education Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. For the past five years, this Fulbright Scholar and associate professor at School of the Art Institute of Chicago has been traveling all over the country and abroad in Europe, creating research-driven, site-specific installations at historic homes and estates.
According to her, the process is an exhaustive challenge that forces some deep, creative digging. Daniel Chester French is no exception.
"People sometimes just come to these places once, but what they don't realize is that these old sites contain a lot of stories," Keller said, adjusting a silk panel in Chesterwood's main hallway. "That means I need to tease out the artist's life through creative research. The process is to begin to imagine and identify themes, images and metaphors. For me, French was a hinge between the 19th and 20th centuries."
Keller's research began last January in the vast archives of Williams College's Chapin Library, where she discovered that French, himself a transcendentalist and naturalist much like his literary contemporaries, was a well-connected man who kept regular correspondence (and had several visits) with the likes of dancer Isadora Duncan, writer Henry James, and even the seemingly hermetic Emily Dickinson.
In fact, Keller has used the many letters and guest logs from French's rich social life to create a small installation of about 20 calling cards, each handwritten with the names of esteemed guests to the estate.
She has on display in French's study a sculpture she created by stacking books of all subjects dear to French -- garden design, who's who in America, nature -- and draping them with silk typewriter ribbon, imitating the "classical composition with garlands and symmetry" set against the backdrop of a bright window with the sprawling landscape in the distance.
According to Anne Cathcart, Chesterwood's associate manager of collections & programs, Keller takes the idea of site-specific and raises it to "site-complicit," a term Keller throws around that has stuck.
"Rebecca's residency gives our guides and the community the opportunity to integrate her narrative into the narrative of the house," Cathcart said. "Her installations don't make sense without the house; they are truly authentic."
They are authentic right down to the business of handwriting. In both the parlor and the dining room of the main house, Keller selected quotations by French and his friends on the topics of nature, beauty, and transcendentalism, and then painstakingly (with the help of one of her former students) replicated his handwriting onto 5-inch acrylic letters affixed to the windows. The effect is eerie, giving off the impression that the house itself is thinking, and filled with memories and possibly spirits.
The same can be said for the narrow hallway to the kitchen, which Keller draped with silk panels cut into wing shapes. The light, moveable fabric in the shadowy space speaks, she said, to "the allegory of the wing, of taking flight, which French included in many of his sculptures."
"There are lots of challenges working with a historical site, not least of which is the integrity of the past and the physical structure itself," she said. "I have to make a big conceptual claim but be light with the materials I use and the impact on the house itself. I'm not their only concern here. This is a public site. But I like something to push against. Challenge breeds creativity."
While in residence at Chesterwood, artist Rebecca Keller will have an opportunity to visit other Sites in the Berkshires, meet with the staff members and engage with the public through weekend workshops in early June and an informative conversation about her work.
If you go ...
What: Talk with Rebecca Keller, artist in residence at Chesterwood, home of Daniel Chester French, sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial
When: Friday from 5 to 7 p.m.
Where: Chesterwood, 4 Williamsville Road, Stockbridge
Information: (413) 298-3579, www.chesterwood.org