July 1, 2021
Art is everywhere, if you look for it, and in Bennington you do not have to look very far.
The Bennington Battle Monument, after all, dedicated in 1891, is an elegant and imposing piece of sculpture, a soaring 306-foot-tall obelisk made of rough-hewn blocks of limestone (look closely and you can see fossils). Statues of General John Stark and Colonel Seth Warner adorn the grounds. It’s the most popular Historic Site in Vermont, and the elevator to the Monument’s observation deck is once again open to visitors.
Credit must go to the annual North Bennington Outdoor Sculpture Show (NBOSS, now in its 24th year), though, for keeping the art of sculpture alive in the local landscape.
The juried show brings the work of local and national artists to the village of North Bennington every summer, and the Bennington Museum in Old Bennington is also in on the action, hosting more than 20 sculptures on its own grounds.
The sculptures vary in size, shape, and materials; some invite reflection, while others offer whimsical commentary on the world. Many are inspired by natural forms or benefit from being exhibited in outdoor settings: in North B., on lawns and front yards, in bowers, on the grounds of the Park McCullough Historic Governor’s Mansion, and in the vicinity of the well-preserved, National-Register-of-Historic-Places railroad depot.
Meanwhile, from the Museum’s sloping side yard, past the sculptures on the lawn, a trail leads to a meadow and a shady brookside grove, both superb settings for encountering outdoor art. The show opened in June and runs through Nov. 7 in both locations.
Whether or not you see NBOSS, you will probably notice the moose. That’s moose, in the plural. They date to the 2005 Moosefest, an event so successful that it was repeated in 2009. A number of moose remain, each one a work of public art.
It all began as one of those Chamber of Commerce marketing campaigns (this one was evidently modeled on the Town of Brandon’s 2003 ”Really, Really Pig Show”). Bennington is not really moose country (if you want to spot a real moose, head to the Northeast Kingdom). But the moose population in all of Vermont had been on the rise in the early 2000s, to around 5,000 animals, having rebounded from near disappearance 50 years before.
Vermont’s most charismatic megafauna were back; Bennington rode the wave. And why not? If you’ve ever seen a moose in the wild, you won’t forget it. “Their massive size creates a sense of awe, their elusiveness imparts an almost mythical quality, and their odd proportions belie surprising grace,” observed GMC Field Assistant Isaac Alexandre-Leach in the Long Trail News. Unfortunately, illnesses and tick attacks have since depleted the Vermont herd to around 1,500 individuals.
In 2005, the Chamber ordered 55 moose models from America’s Fiberglass Animals in Nebraska. They were large, but not quite life-size, and unpainted. The Chamber asked local businesses to sponsor the decoration of the moose by local artists, who were paid for their work. It was the talent and ingenuity of the artists responding to the unusual shape and surface – and perhaps to any aura of moose – that lifted what could have been an exercise in kitsch into the realm of original pictorial art.
The painted moose were stationed all around town for one summer and fall, then auctioned off to benefit local arts groups. Visitors loved them while they lasted. A dozen or so remain in town from both Moosefest years and still tickle the fancy.
Then came the catties. That’s local talk for catamounts, the Eastern Mountain Cougar, that is. Catamounts were Vermont’s alpha predator in the18th century, when the state was first settled by colonists. The animal has a particular place in Bennington and Vermont history, as one specimen was famously stuffed, hoisted on a pole, and aimed at the colony of New York from in front of Fay’s tavern in the 1770s, when the Green Mountain Boys contested New York claims to their New Hampshire-granted lands.
Catamounts were hunted out of Vermont in the late 1800s. And yet there are sightings. Fifty to 75 a year are reported to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Service. Most, if not all, are bobcats or escaped domestic pet cougars, but the catamount mystique lives on, in art if not in nature.
In 2013 another Chamber of Commerce order went out to Nebraska, and 50 catamounts were soon on their way. Once again, and with an equally inspirational subject, local artists rose to the occasion. You’re as likely to spot a cat as a moose as you walk or drive around town. If you happen to be from New York, know that all is forgiven. The land claims were settled in time for Vermont statehood in 1791. Never mind the bronze replacement for that old stuffed cat that was placed on a pedestal at the site of Fay’s tavern in Old Bennington in 1896.
Contemporary history also gets its due in Bennington’s public art. A memorial to the victims of the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks situated by the courthouse downtown takes the form of a 5,400-pound block of white Vermont marble supporting a piece of steel from the World Trade Center. And the words “Black Lives Matter” were painted in the street in front of the Town offices last summer by concerned citizens in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
Phil Holland of Pownal writes on subjects of local interest. Here he is, reporting from the field up behind the Bennington Museum, as reflected in Michael Thron’s “Whisper.”
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