Tuesday, June 22, 2010

America's Least-Known Small Art Town

Vision, love, commitment, personal passion... these are the qualities necessary to create something truly great.

Even the great group projects—the Internet springs to mind—rely fundamentally on the love and passion and personal commitment of individuals, just, lots and lots of them all tuned to the same spiritual channel. Anytime I stumble across something wonderful, it has been made by an individual, and reflects that person's priorities instead of those of the market, and I'm grateful for it.

This leads me to my favorite small museum in America, the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, MA.

Icons, for those who don't know, are Russian religious art, usually painted by anonymous artists on wood panels and used to give orthodox churches their eerie every-surface-painted beauty. You know those onion domes you see in photos of Moscow? The inside of the dome is usually painted with eyes and a face, representing God looking down. Ceilings, walls, etc. are all hung with icons depicting religious stories. The gleaming, dark-painted, cyrillic-emblazed, gilded panels are also used in orthodox homes, where there will be a spiritual "icon corner." And they're given as gifts for important life events such as the birth of a child, in that case, it would be an icon representing the child's name-saint.

Like most religious art, with icons, god is in the details. You need quite a bit of cultural context and narrative to understand and appreciate a panel, and this has always been a problem with how icons are displayed in Russia. I've seen several wonderous collections that are either not explained, or explained by guides with poor English and a grasp only of tourist cliches and apocryphal anecdotes. Under those circumstances, once you've seen a few icons, you've seen them all.

Well, enter the newish Museum of Russian Icons in the sleepy country town of Clinton, Mass. This is a beautiful small museum in a renovated mill building, staffed by amazing docents who hop up and start chatting with you when you enter the room. The museum is enhanced by every modern art educational tool—video, audio, etc. Individual magnifying glasses are mounted with each artwork, allowing the viewer to peer at every tiny jewel-like detail. And unlike every museum I've been to showing icons in Russia, the work here is properly lit.

The project is the idee fixe of a local entrepreneur, who started collecting icons in the 90s, when
Russia was in disarray. This is stuff that definitely wouldn't be allowed out of the country now—that it ever made it across the borders is controversial, and upsetting to Russian art lovers. The entrepreneur is from Clinton, made his icon-collecting money in manufacturing in Clinton, and decided to give back to the town with the museum, despite the fact that this is an utterly weird place to have such an esoteric collection, the largest and best outside of Russia, and the best-presented of anywhere on earth.

I think it's a must-see daytrip for anyone visiting Boston, or in the Boston area. The little town also has a good Italian restaurant and some fun thrift-shopping, if you're into that.

Here's me and Ada here over the winter:

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