“Snowflake” Bentley Inspires this year’s closed-bid art auction

A Snowflake Bentley original from the Bennington Museum collection

December 1, 2021

One of the Bennington Museum’s most popular annual exhibitions is December’s just-opened, closed-bid auction of work by artists from the Bennington region and beyond.

Here’s how it works: the Museum chooses a theme as a prompt; Curator Jamie Franklin invites 25 artists to create new work or to choose a piece from their stores in response to the prompt. The artworks are mounted in the Museum’s main exhibition gallery, each with an artist’s statement and a dollar amount that establishes the minimum bid. 

Anyone wishing to bid on the work writes a number on a simple form and drops it in the lockbox (you can also do it online), by 4 p.m. on December 20. On December 21 the bids are opened by Museum staff and winners are notified; they can claim (and pay for) their piece(s) as of the 22nd. Half of the purchase price goes to the artist, half to the Museum.

Now in its 7th year, the exhibit has found a formula that seems to work for everyone, not least the covetous (and generous) public. The minimum bids for pieces in the current auction range from $95 to $16,000, with most somewhere in the hundreds. 

The begetter of this year’s theme is a figure well known to Vermonters: Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley, the subject of a Caldecott-winning book by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Mary Azarian (illustrator) that is read in every elementary school in the state.

Bentley was a farm boy from Jericho, a small town east of Burlington that gets about ten feet of snow in an average winter – or did when Bentley lived the 66 years of his life there (1865-1931). He was in his teens when he developed an interest in snowflakes. He tried sketching their delicate forms, but they melted (or sublimated) before he could reproduce their intricate symmetries.

The acquisition of a microscope and a bellows camera – and two years of persistent tinkering – enabled the then 19-year-old Bentley to make his first (and the first) photomicrograph of a snow crystal, in 1885. He made the forms – and science – of snowflakes the study of his life. His more than 5,000 images of individual snow crystals – no two alike – delight the eye and mind. One of his prints, from the Museum’s collection, opens the exhibition like a portal.

The title of the show is Transient Beauty.”

Snowflakes come to us, moralized Bentley, “to teach us that all earthly beauty is transient and must soon fade away.” When a snowflake melted, he said, a unique masterpiece of design was forever lost. It became his urgent ambition to capture with his camera as many of the finest crystals as he could: 

“Quick, the first flakes are falling, the couriers of the coming snowstorm; open the skylight, and directly under it place the carefully prepared blackboard, on whose ebony surface the most minute form of frozen beauty may be welcomed from cloudland. The mysteries of the upper air are about to reveal themselves, if our hands are deft and our eyes quick enough.”

Bentley used a different voice to record detailed observations of weather and for the article “Snow” in the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Farmer – inventor – artist – scientist – and lover of Vermont snow, Bentley is an inspiring figure whose example made for a powerful prompt for the Museum’s exhibit. 

Examples of Responses to Bentley

Artwork created by Katie Cleaver for the "Transient Beauty" exhibit at the Bennington Museum.
Untitled by Katie Cleaver

Master metalsmith Katie Cleaver of Bennington, whose work has been featured in previous shows, contributed a pendant made of dendritic quartz, silver, white gold, and topaz beads. She was drawn to Bentley’s close-ups of dew and frost, she says, which depart from the strict symmetries of his snowflakes. She isn’t the first jeweler to find inspiration in Bentley’s work: Tiffany’s bought a set of crystals from Bentley more than a century ago.

Artwork created by Joanna Gabler for the "Transient Beauty" exhibit at the Bennington Museum.
Transient Captured by Joanna Gabler

Anima Katz has drawn patterns that reply to Bentley’s straight-laced hexagons with spirals and other shapes in fanciful and energetic arrangements. Joanna Gabler created a square of square panels showing water droplets photoshopped into mandala-like patterns. Corwin Levi’s extraordinary freehand pencil-on-paper “Mandala” incorporates cityscapes and motifs from Islamic art.

Eastern calligraphy figures directly in Daisy Rockwell’s “Snowy Evening.” That’s the snowy evening of Robert Frost’s beloved poem, but here swirlingly translated into Urdu against a blue background. It’s a study in evanescence, as the artist (who translates Hindi and Urdu literature from her home in North Bennington) explains in her statement.

Artwork created by Ahmad Yassir for the "Transient Beauty" exhibit at the Bennington Museum.
Local Abrash (diptych) by Ahmad Yassir

East meets West in the work of Ahmad Yassir, who came from Beirut to study art at Bennington College. He has created two designs that also make use of Arabic calligraphy to respond to Bentley. Look closely and you may spot the Bennington Monument emerging from a decorative vegetal background.

Cambridge, N.Y. artist Leslie Parke, another repeat exhibitor, took advantage of some single-paned windows to photograph patterns created by frost and condensation; she then rendered the same effect on canvas. Observing frost and images of frost for endless hours, says Parke, she became lost in nature’s “infinite variety and ultimate order.” No wonder that the images Parke selected for this exhibition cast a spell. 

Artwork created by Angus McCullough for the "Transient Beauty" exhibit at the Bennington Museum.
Catch by Angus McCullough

Multidisciplinary artist Shanta Lee Gander supplied a striking sepia-toned photograph of a discarded – or perhaps lost or forgotten – doll that is returning to nature on the forest floor: an emblem of human transience, and perhaps of the passing of a whites-only ideal of beauty, as the artist’s note suggests. Angus McCullough, meanwhile, rescued a mossy, multicolored baseball glove from a similar fate and gave it a riddling title: “Catch.” Moss will cover us all someday; perhaps that’s the catch. 

Halifax, Vermont-based artist Michaela Harlow contributed three charcoal and pastel evocations of phases of the snow season. Fortunately for Bentley and other Vermont artists, winter can be long here. “Winter has always been a time of observation, contemplation, and intense creative focus for me,” says Harlow. “During the pandemic, this pattern was magnified by limited contact with the outside world and few distractions.” Even Covid has a silver lining when you’re an artist.

Artwork created by Michaela Harlow for the "Transient Beauty" exhibit at the Bennington Museum.
Rain to Snow in Autumn Wood by Michaela Harlow

And that’s not even half of a highly creative exhibition. Catch it before – like all things – it passes.

Of course, if you prefer the satisfaction of sure and immediate possession of some object of desire this holiday season, just check out the beckoning shops of Bennington, including the one right there at the Museum.

How to Bid on Your Favorite Piece

A word on silent bidding from one who has tried it. You might think that it’s a lot calmer than when bids fly at a live auction. It certainly is a lot slower. At a live auction, one is advised to determine the most one would pay for a particular item and then stick to that amount. We all know that it isn’t that easy.

A silent auction would seem to take away the stress – and opportunities to lose one’s head – of live competition. Maybe that works for the resolute, but if you bid in a silent auction for a work you would really like to own, you may suffer from imaginary counter-bids and end up raising your own bid a second or third time (it’s allowed) until blessedly the auction is over. Those raises may, of course, have made all the difference.

Remember, it’s for a good cause (two of them), and if you don’t win, at least you had the pleasure of playing the game and falling for some art.

Phil Holland of Pownal writes a monthly post for this site.