Last year, stepping into the James W. Palmer III Gallery meant entering the Vassar Pop-Up Store; instead of drawings, paintings and sculptures, students would find a world of Vassar sweatshirts, school supplies and overpriced textbooks. Now, art has once again returned to this beloved space in the College Center with the start of a more normal year and a new season of exhibits of both student and communal art.
Starting off the semester was “Driftwood-on-Hudson: Threads of Many Colors,” which opened back in late August, and closed this Wednesday, Sept. 22. The show featured the work of Carlton Wood, an artist from the Hudson Valley community whose art consists of driftwood and colorful thread.
Wood first got the idea to make art out of driftwood from his wife, who suggested using string on the wood while they were walking along the Hudson River one day. “We always go down to the riverfront, because we live right by it,” Wood commented while talking through the pieces in his exhibit, “and kicking the driftwood around, my wife made the suggestion, ‘Why don’t you try your string on the driftwood?’”
Although he initially set aside the idea for a while, Wood eventually returned to it, weaving the thread and string over this new medium. The result was an eye-catching, intricate piece of art—“Swirl (Explosion),” the piece that sparked it all. “I couldn’t wait to get back to find some more wood, and every piece of wood I saw, I saw a string art on it,” Wood expressed.
Fast forward to today, and Wood has created almost 100 pieces with the driftwood, many of which were featured in his Palmer Gallery show. The pieces of driftwood, all different shapes and sizes, adorned the walls, filling the open space with intricate images on beautiful pieces of wood.
Walking through the little gallery, Wood described the process behind his pieces, talking about the various images he created on each of them. “I challenged myself to be able to create on whatever difference of the wood is, as you can see all of the differences in it, so you never know where I’m going to start, where I’m going to finish, because I just follow the nature of the wood, and that in itself gives you half of your creativity,” Wood said.
Whenever approaching a new piece of driftwood, Wood draws much of his inspiration from the natural surface of the wood. “We find a piece of driftwood,” Wood’s wife and manager Linda Wood commented, “and he sits back and looks at it and looks at it, and he gets an idea, and he sees something, like an artist does. And he’ll say, ‘I got a really good idea for this,’ and he’ll put it in perspective for me, and he draws it, fills it, starts it and then a masterpiece is born.”
Oftentimes, due to weathering, Wood has to stain the pieces of driftwood, but the gallery also includes pieces that showcase their natural colors: “I’d get that chance to use some wood sometimes without having to put coloring on it, not staining it. And when I do, it’s just an added asset to all the nature of the whole design. You always want to show off as much of the beauty of the natural wood as you can.”
Wood has incorporated a wide variety of pictures on the pieces of driftwood. From abstract images of lightning and feathers to important figures in Wood’s life like LeBron James, Wood’s passion for the images he creates underscored all of these different pieces.
The pieces came to the Palmer Gallery through a Vassar connection.“Carlton Wood’s work came to the attention of Dean Quinn from his nephew, Michael Wood, a Vassar security guard,” explained Ed Cheetham, Director of the Palmer Gallery, over email. “It was an exciting opportunity to present a local artist who is largely self-taught.”
Cheetham, who is also associate Director of Campus Activities, assumed his role as gallery director after the retirement of Teresa Quinn, Associate Dean of the College, who had run the space since its founding in 1996. He relayed Quinn’s disappointment at the gallery shutting down last year: “I know it was devastating for Terry [Dean Quinn]. She worked hard to make the space a reality and having to shut it was not easy for her. I know she is glad we were able to provide a space for all those artists this year.”
He reflected on the gallery’s closing last year, noting via email, “I was not involved in that decision, but it was the only thing we could have done. We are fortunate that all the artists who were to be represented in 2020/21 are now part of our 2021/22 season.”
Looking ahead, the Palmer Gallery has a few shows planned for this school year. Next up is Chris Silverman, who is Senior Web Designer in Vassar’s Office of Communications. Cheetham remarked, “His work is all digitally based and will be a beautiful show.” Following is Simon Tosky, an artist based in Kingston, NY. As per usual, the end of the semester will feature art by students in visual arts courses.
Vassar is lucky to have a space like the Palmer Gallery, as it plays a role in bridging the gap between the college and the surrounding community. Its location in the heart of campus invites Poughkeepsie locals and visitors into the often isolated “Vassar Bubble.” Moreover, the gallery’s emphasis on highlighting local art is beneficial to artists and community members alike. Cheetham commented, “Because it often features the works of artists living and working in the Hudson Valley, it can be a point of entry to the campus for many. It’s an intimate space that is open to anyone who walks through the College Center.”
Call the Campus Activities Office at (845) 437-5370 for gallery hours and more information about upcoming shows.