Humans & art of place: Williams College students use Clark landscape to get intimate sense of place


WILLIAMSTOWN >> This semester's Biology 225 at Williams College doesn't meet in a lab on campus, but in a seminar room at the Clark Art Institute.

This semester, as part of an exhibition at the museum he has co-curated, Professor Henry W. Art is using Stone Hill as its subject and classroom.

"It's really a microcosm," he said. "It's one of the most diverse square miles around here."

The course, titled "The Natural History of the Berkshires: Stone Hill" is offered in conjunction with Sensing Place: Reflecting on Stone Hill, an exhibition at the Clark that celebrates the museum's defining natural feature in its backyard, an ever-changing place that has been shaped by geology, and the people who have lived and worked there.

It opened in early July at the Lunder Center, and includes an exhibit of objects and ideas like a plow, a cow skull and a collection of bird songs. Altogether it considers not just this particular place, but the idea of "place" as it has changed in the 21st century.

The exhibition culminates this weekend with a series of events to bring guests out into the space that even though at the center of town, can still feel like a world apart.

Events begin at 8 a.m Saturday with the first ever Trailblazer 5K Run around the Clark's campus trails and the network of trails nearby maintained by the town. At 10 a.m. there will be a symposium moderated by Professor Art and Mark C. Taylor, professor of religion at Columbia University, the co-curators of the exhibition. The sessions will explore "questions of place in art, literature, philosophy, cultural geography, and environmentalism."

Sunday is Family Day, with free admission to the museum. It will also be the first "Kite Day" on the hill since mid-1970s. From 1961 to 1975, Williams students in H. Lee Hirsche's basic design class were assigned to design and fly their own kites at the hill.

The day will also feature a performance by the Williams Percussion Ensemble and members of the Handbell Choir, Concert Choir, of a new work, entitled "Second Growth," commissioned from composer D. Edward Davis. Beginning at 11 a.m., "the performers spread out across the Stone Hill meadows, listeners are encouraged to follow, exploring the music on foot and creating individual sonic pathways."

Kathleen Morris, the Clark's interim senior curator and Marx director of exhibitions, said the exhibition celebrates a vital part of the museum.

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"Stone Hill is at the heart of the Clark's campus," she said. "Our campus expansion/renovation plan turned the main focus of the campus toward views from the building across our reflecting pool and up to Stone Hill. It reinforces the idea that at the Clark our visitors can experience both art and nature."

She said as the geographic center of town, the hill offers some of the town's best views, and is an important recreation space for townspeople and visitors.

An important aspect of the exhibit is the collaboration with Williams. Morris said that works on many levels — such as a talk Friday by neuroscientist Susana Martinez-Conde on "behavioral insights developed by Old Masters and how they used or challenged perceptual cues in their work." The event is co-sponsored by the Williams College Program in Neuroscience and the Psychology Department.

"We look for ways to collaborate with Williams and have done so on many occasions," Morris said. "We certainly look forward to continuing such engagements whenever the opportunity arises."

Professor Art said the idea for the class component came from discussions with then-Clark Director Michael Conforti about ways to deepen the connection between the two institutions beyond just the arts.

For their class meeting this week, his group of students arrived for a discussion about the different kinds of forest environments you would find in New England, in Williamstown, and specifically on Stone Hill.

"New England is incredibly diverse," Art told the students before a slide showing different layers of forests around the region. "And Williamstown is actually situated to have an incredible variety within a one-hour drive."

The course, which is also listed in Environmental Studies, isn't just about the physical properties of the place, though it begins with close observation. Each student is assigned a patch of the site, and is responsible for make weekly reports on what they find there. It is an effort to "observe and peeling back the layers of the onion to understand what's going on at their site."

But another part of the class is to include interviews with a list of possible sources who have some deep connection with Stone Hill, as part of the StoryCorps project. "Going beyond yourself and your perspective is important," Art said.

Instead of a final exam, at the end of the semester each student will complete an interpretive field guide to their site, which will be available to the public.


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