Launching a New Vision for Chesterwood with the Morris Center Studio
Daniel Chester French is sometimes referred to as the “Dean of American Sculpture,” a nickname as big as his most famous work, the mammoth statue of Abraham Lincoln that sits inside the Lincoln Memorial.
French, who lived between 1850-1931, crafted iconic works across the country, from that of the 16th president in Washington, D.C. to the Statue of The Republic at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago to other beloved pieces in Atlanta, Detroit, San Francisco, and beyond.
But for all of his larger-than-life-size works, his truly outsized contribution to the legacy of American art is Chesterwood, his former summer home, studio, and gardens. A National Trust Historic Site, Chesterwood is where French lived and worked six months of the year.
It was not a quiet oasis, the type of refuge you might associate with an artist’s retreat. It was a busy, buzzy place, explains Margaret Cherin, interim director at Chesterwood. During his time at the then almost 200-acre property, French would invite other sculptors and artists to display their works on-site, such as when he invited the famous Isadora Duncan to dance in the garden. And it was not just about bringing in the creations of others. Even in his own pieces, French worked collaboratively. The Italian Piccirilli brothers were the talented marble craftsmen who chiseled French’s American Renaissance designs from stone, and French’s sculptures often worked in concert with architect Henry Bacon’s designs.
“We know that that was important to him,” Cherin says. So Chesterwood, while taking care to preserve the house, studio, gardens, and wooded landscape, is also preserving French’s commitment to artistic collaboration. With the recent renovation of the Morris Center, a former garage-turned-multi-purpose space, the site launches the first phase in establishing a year-round artist-in-residence program where working artists can live, work, and create together.
“We want it to feel like it's a place full of creativity, and a place where things are happening,” Cherin says. “We don’t want Chesterwood to be a stagnant historic site.”
The site, built on what was once the land of the Mohican Tribe near Stockbridge, Massachusetts (now the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians reservation is in Wisconsin) is building on French’s spirit of collaboration. “He was part of a team and the myth of the artist sitting alone in his studio is one that we would like to dispel a little bit,” Cherin continues. “There is no way French could produce 100 public monuments without a lot of people helping him. And the way that he worked is not unusual; a lot of people work that way today. There was no time in French’s career that he did not have people come to Chesterwood and be inspired.
“When we tell artists about newly expanded residency program, they get really excited because they love the energy of going into French’s studio and feeling his presence,” she says.
Revving Up the Garage
While the restoration and renovation of French’s former residence, which eventually will house artists and provide a spot for communal meals, is still underway, summer 2022 marked the first step in Chesterwood’s long-term vision.
That’s thanks to the renovation of what was once a humble garage. According to Chesterwood records, in the summer of 1909 French bought his daughter a new baby blue Buick Runabout. French didn’t know how to drive—and he never learned. But in 1911, he received a 1908 Locomobile touring car as a gift from a client.
He sold some of his horse-drawn vehicles and hired a chauffeur, James Wyman, to take the wheel of his new automobiles so he could embrace the new mode of transportation. Eventually, he donated that Locomobile to the Glendale Fire Department in 1917, but replaced it with a Dodge, and then a 1922 Studebaker, and then around 1930, with a 1927 Packard limousine.
With all that buying, selling, and donating, of course French needed somewhere where to park the cars. He had a garage built, and scholars believe, designed by Bacon, French’s friend and the architect with whom he worked on many projects.
Being a garage, it is a modest square space, about 20’ x 24’, with room for two cars in its day. However, the space always had large doors, a high ceiling, and windows that both let in a lot of natural light and looked out on the wooded surroundings. In the 1980s, the garage structure was remodeled, turned into a multi-purpose space, and named the Stephen V. C. Morris Center, or Morris Center, after the advisory council benefactor who helped finance the project. Over the years it had been used as a visitor's center, shop, and more recently, a storage space.
The 2022 overhaul included the addition of a heating/cooling unit, a large industrial sink with hot and cold water, new lighting, and a water-resistant and industrial epoxy resin flooring that can stand up to a variety of media. In one of the previous iterations, the space had carpeting, and that wasn’t suitable for artists using clay, paint, and other materials that need to be mopped up, says Gerard Blache, senior superintendent of buildings and grounds. There had been discussions to add shelving, but artists suggested leaving the walls blank so that the space could be more flexible.
Changes made were to the building’s interior only; the exterior remains as it was originally constructed. “This is a tiny little project compared to the residence, but the Morris Center Studio is the small manifestation of what we are trying to do at the site on a larger scale,” explains Mark Stoner, the Graham Gund architect at the National Trust.
The design of the space allows visitors to Chesterwood to see some works-in-progress through the windows, but not so much as to be a distraction. The Morris Center Studio is centrally located in Chesterwood, a short walk from the Visitor's Center, so it is easy to find. But it is also situated so that from the inside the artist looks out at some of the bucolic 122 wooded acres, which are a habitat of groundhog, bear, porcupine, and other wildlife.
“It was a really fantastic time,” says John Belardo, the sculptor who in the summer of 2022 became the first artist to use the Morris Center Studio for a month-long residency. Belardo doesn’t participate in a lot of artist-in-residence programs, in part because his large-scale sculptures don’t lend themselves to being on the road. The oversized figures, clay, and tools are not easy to load in the trunk of the car. But Belardo, who lives about an hour from Chesterwood and is a frequent visitor to the site, could not resist the opportunity to commune with French’s past for an extended period. “I always knew a lot about Daniel Chester French, but now I understood more about being Daniel Chester French,” he adds. In particular, he appreciates how French’s “works are public and permanent and meant to be seen in a beautiful way,” and the Chesterwood experience underscores that.
Belardo is a fellow for the National Sculpture Society, which held one of its annula conferences at Chesterwood. He gave a presentation about the Piccirilli brothers; that lecture connected to the themes that Chesterwood wants to highlight with the artist-in-residence.
The goal to make Chesterwood the fulfillment of French’s legacy means making it more than just a museum, Cherin says. French’s letters, scrapbooks, photographs, and other papers that were once stored in a non-climate-controlled space on the third floor of the residence are now at nearby Williams College and will be digitized and searchable all over the world. The restored residence and additional studio spaces—plus Morris Center Studio—will be open to all kinds of artists, including dancers and poets, not just sculptors.
Artists-in-residence will be able to eat together, work together, and share their works with visitors to Chesterwood from May to October, when the site is open to the public. Cherin says there may be opportunities for artists to come in the quieter parts of the year and work during the winter, and then return in summer with public programming or exhibitions.
In the end, Cherin says, the Morris Center-as-working-artist-studio will bring the creative practices of contemporary artists into the visitors' experience, and thus Chesterwood will begin to resemble the active artistic hub of French's day.
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