A cloud of bright yellow sulfur snaked across the ceiling of the hayloft of the 200-year-old Eli Whitney Barn. Down below, on the barn’s floor, animals were set loose to cavort across canvases or perch on the walls, and an ink press rolled. In another part of the barn, a flotilla of miniature people began their journey across a table.
That was the scene on Saturday as the historic barn, on Whitney Avenue where the road crosses from New Haven into Hamden, hosted the work of artists Alexis Brown, Leslie Carmin, Susan Clinard, Kiara Matos, Maura Galante, and Martha Willette Lewis as part of City Wide Open Studios’ Private Studios Weekend, which found artists throwing open their studios for public visits on Oct. 22 and 23, and banding together at several locations across town — including the barn — for people to take a look at what they’ve been up to.
The sulfur cloud in the hayloft was part of Lewis’s installation, a piece called “Little Ice Age: A Visual Calendar” that she created specifically for the space. The title, Lewis’s accompanying note read, “refers to the period of time from 1300 to 1870 when the earth went through a cooling period, partially due to various volcanic eruptions.”
Lewis’s piece tracks the effects in the United States and Europe of the eruption of Mount Tambora in Sumatra in 1816, when the resulting cloud of sulfur created what was called The Year Without a Summer—a catastrophic change in weather that created crop shortages, fueled economic collapses, and drove mass migrations from Europe abroad, and from the northeast of the United States westward.
Lewis arrived at the topic by getting inspired about the space in the Eli Whitney Barn. As an artist who often incorporates scientific information and data into her work, “first I thought I would do something about Eli Whitney,” she said. She looked into doing something related to inventions, or how barns are built. And in the course of her research, came across the events of the volcanic year 1816.
The piece came together quickly after that, composed of objects, she reasoned, one might find in a barn, or in the course of building one. Yardsticks make up the timeline. The cloud, made from tracing paper, is held up by ladders and twine.
The stops along Lewis’s timeline, printed on small pieces of paper, chronicle the hardships people endured in that year. “I have seen some families of eight or 9 children on the road, “ wrote Samuel Goodrich, a bookseller in Hartford, in September 1816. “Families on foot — the father and boys taking turns dragging along an improvised hand-wagon, loaded with the wreck of the household goods — occasionally giving the mother and baby a ride. Many of these persons were in a state of poverty, and begged their way as they went. Some died before they reached the expected Canaan …”
Which could have meant out West, where many New England families migrated in what historian Harlan Hatcher (via Lewis’s project) called “one of the largest and most homogeneous mass migrations in American history.”
There were unexpected cultural consequences too, Lewis said. Trapped in relentlessly gloomy weather in a house in Switzerland, Lord Byron, the Shelleys, and compatriots took to telling each other ghost stories. Kept indoors with few other distractions, Byron wrote the apocalyptic poem “Darkness.” Mary Shelley wrote much of Frankenstein.
“It really was a dark and stormy night,” Lewis said. Though meanwhile, the changes in the atmosphere led at times to strange and brilliant sunsets, captured on canvas by none other than J.M.W. Turner.
“One of the most interesting things about this project was learning how not new anxiety about climate change is,” Lewis said. She found other parallels to the present, including rage toward the U.S. Congress of the time, which gave itself a nice raise before taking the summer off.
“It’s kind of reassuring in a certain way,” Lewis said, gesturing at the barn around her. “We’re still here, and we have it a little better.”
Though studying the calamity brought home the idea of impermanence just as strongly. “We’re living on a ball of magma with cold plates on the outside,” Lewis said. “It’s not like things are stable.”
That set of ideas seemed to resonate throughout the building, from Brown’s and Carmin’s kinetic sketches to Galante’s demonstrations of how to use an old press to create new art.
Matos’s ceramic pieces seemed almost to have been hanging in the barn already for a century, so seamlessly did they blend in with their surroundings.
“It’s all coincidental,” Matos said with a big smile. “I just love very natural materials. There’s nothing from the 20th century in this,” even though the designs are modern.
So the shape on the wall, which could be taken for a boldly decorated iron skillet, is actually something more clever. The disk is not metal, but fired red clay and manganese, which Matos fashioned with pegs so she could attach the leather handles, which she also made, and hang the entire piece from pegs made from reclaimed wood.
These pieces were the eye-catchers in a large display that included plates, mugs, and other dishware as well as plump and colorful birds made from porcelain.
“I love materials in the purest sense. They look like what they are and not something different,” Matos said. And the pottery in particular — hearkening back to Lewis’s installation — “is everlasting unless you break it.”
In another part of the barn, Clinard’s carved faces spoke of a kind of resilience, of permanence.
Her fleet of figures in boats, she wrote, “are quiet, meditative sketches; they have no oars, no sails … they glide through life with purpose and strength. Each boat is unique; as each person has a different approach to move forward.”
But Matos’s words and Lewis’s installation put a spin on Clinard’s work that didn’t so much contradict her intention as enrich it. Each of Clinard’s figures were by themselves, alone in a small craft on a wide ocean, looking inward. They were sharp reminders that maybe part of moving forward is about acknowledging impermanence, about staying adaptable even as the world changes around us — whether 200 years ago when the barn that gave the artists’ work temporary shelter was built, in 1816 when the world was covered in a thin blanket of sulfur that took away summer, or today, when we have troubles that look like the troubles of the past, but are all our own, too.