Monday, January 4, 2010

The Woman-Made Garden

One of my first posts was about those special places that represent a folk artists attempt to draw you into their world in a real, physical setting. Called Folk Environments, these places can provide an incredible experience as you inhabit a landscape of dreams and visions. Environmental folk art is a worldwide phenomenon, but you shouldn’t discount what may be in your own area. It is also largely a man-made art form, owing to the immense physical challenge of reshaping the land. But you should never assume that a woman-made environment can’t be as ambitious in design and execution as any man’s.

The best example of a female folk artist realizing her vision for an environment is Veronica Terrillion, an artist I had the pleasure of meeting in the early 1990s at her home in Indian River, New York. My first introduction to her work came from a lecture I attended by Varick Chittenden, the Executive Director of a group called Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY). The slides he showed were striking, and it was particularly interesting to me that Mrs. Terrillion made artworks of singular, individual importance in addition to creating a large environment. I was, at the time, very interested in expanding our folk art collection at the Fenimore Art Museum to include more 20th-century artists, so Mrs. Terrillion was definitely on my list of people to meet if possible.

After making some inquiries, I found a great piece of Terrillion’s artwork in a gallery in Buffalo. There were several unusual and appealing elements to the piece. It was kind of a three-dimensional painting, a painted canvas with sculptural elements, which I had never encountered before. The work was also highly personal, as it depicted the artist’s father sledding logs in the Adirondack Mountains. I bought it for the collection.

There is no way to fully appreciate this piece, however, without meeting the artist in person. That summer I took the two-hour drive up to Indian River and met Veronica Terrillion. She was amazing. Almost 85 years old and still making art. In concrete. She was very gracious (most Adirondack people are) and showed me her “woman-made” house and garden. She built the cedar log house, by the way, and dug out a big pond (renting a backhoe) as a setting for her concrete sculptures.

And what a setting it was, three acres that included a menagerie of animals and religious figures and scenes from her life (that's her family below, including a poignant detail of her holding the baby she lost in infancy). Overseeing the whole landscape was, appropriately, St. Francis of Assisi, who looked very much at home in the north woods of New York State. Veronica had been a devout Catholic her whole life, as well as a lover of nature. The house was equally amazing, especially the painted “floor mats,” actually rectangular areas coated with concrete and painted in lively, abstracted patterns. One caught my eye; it was a representation of the annual spring runoff, complete with birds and flowers and blue for the water.

Veronica noticed my reaction. She immediately pulled out a painting on wood panel of the same scene, and gave it to me for the museum. Veronica died in 2003 at the age of 95, and her family still allows people to see the environment by appointment.


  1. We stopped last summer and chatted with her son. it is quite a place.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Mose! Glad you had a chance to see the environment in person. There's no substitute....

  3. Have also seen her place and it's wonderful! Has the museum thought about acquiring more of her pieces? Wonderful as the pieces are being where they were created, they are also deteriorating exposed to the weather. It would be a shame to have them "melt" away...

  4. The inevitable deterioration of these outdoor sites is a major concern, of course. That is one reason why we wanted to acquire some pieces that had already been selected for sale by the artist. We don't want to have any active role in dismantling the environment if the family wants to keep it for people to experience and enjoy, but we will keep our eyes open for other opportunities to add more of Veronica's work to the collection. Thanks for the comment!


Blog Widget by LinkWithin