MAGPIE TALE: Move Over Matisse
This week’s contribution to the Magpie Tales.
When Thomas Hart Benton’s People of Chillmark was unveiled in 1920, it was universally praised as being one of his greatest works — a reputation it continued to hold until more than 30 years later when it was discovered by…the people of Chillmark. News, especially news from the art world, traveled much more slowly back then. Needless to say, the populace of Chillmark was outraged, and they felt something needed to be done to repair their reputation.
A community meeting went on for hours with angry outbursts, frustration and people wanting to find a way to track down Benton. This all seemed to go nowhere until Edna Turkinberry stood up and said, “The best way to fight fire is with fire. Let’s paint portraits of the real people of Chillmark!” Edna had taken a correspondence course in painting from an Adventist liberal arts school in Nebraska and was prepared to teach the citizens of Chillmark on how to become artists themselves.
It sounded like a daunting task in a town where few knew the difference between pizza and Picasso, but all admired the sensible self portrait of Edna that hung in her living room. She distributed flyers around town asking people to submit a sample work.
No one was prepared for the volume and quality of work that soon flooded in. Luellen Luis’ portrait of Snoopy was just one example, and soon Edna realized that this would have to be a juried class, and she let in only 12 of the top artists who submitted work. When the Courier-Gazette interviewed her, she said, “In a nutshell, all I can say is that Chillmark has talent.” The classes went all spring, and by the arrival of summer, Edna announced that she would be mounting a show right after Labor Day and she planned to send a personal invitation to Thomas Hart Benton himself so he could see what an injustice he had done to the good people of Chillmark.
The show was mounted at the dining hall of the Cranberry Cottages Lodge and Resort out on Route 17. It was clearly the event of the season. Chillmark’s citizenry came out in droves, and the line to get in backed up nearly half a mile. Visitors were first greeted by a stunning portrait of leading local equestrian Elvira Itchmite and her mare Inky, painted by Rhoda Rashburn Richie.
A serene portrait of retired librarian Agnes Oogleston captured both her grace and fondness for the glorious flora of Chillmark. It even included her wearing her favorite pair of Thom McCanns.
Single mother Tina Travisa charmed everyone with a gloriously vibrant portrait of her with her delightful daughter Shirley. Shirley was a remarkable and bright girl who would graduate high school at age 12 and would win scholarships to Harvard and Cambridge before dropping out at 14 to join an early punk band called the Stool Samples. She would later go on to found her own band, Shirley Pimple and the Pus Cats, that shocked not only the people of Chillmark but even the most radical members of the punk scene. By age 21 she was married, had two daughters and worked the evening shift at a TGIF Friday’s in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
But the sensation of the show was the self portrait by Rhonda Razzdale. Long considered the “Venus of Chillmark” with her swan like neck, flaxen hair and eyes that were once called “the color of a Tuscan summer sky” Rhonda captured her beauty on canvas with an unexpected intensity. Standing at over nine feet high, this portrait left many people stunned, including David Dinkeldorf, an art critic with the Boston Globe who stood in front of it for nearly an hour, his jaw dropped and his eyes transfixed. After taking it in, he silently exited, not saying a word to anyone.
The next day his opinion was heralded in three words at the top of the arts section: “Move over Matisse”. In his review of the show, he praised all of the artists but spotlighted Razzdale as “single-handedly pushing art forward with one painting into the 21st or maybe 22nd century.” Calls soon came in from the Met in New York, museums in Paris and Buenos Aires. That was until they actually saw the work. The following week, Dinkeldorf completely recanted and said his review was written just before he came to terms with a long-standing substance abuse addiction and that he was heading upstate for treatment. “Honestly, I don’t even remember going to that show,” he confessed. “It all came after a 48 hour binge, and I probably would have been charmed by the stains in my kitchen sink.”
The show continued for another month, but the sizzle had obviously diminished. Most of the paintings ended up being sold in garage sales or church auctions. All, that is, except for Razzdale’s portrait which she held on to and still considers to be a masterpiece.