'Swamp Show' on the Connecticut River inspired by Thomas Cole's 'The Oxbow'
Along the Connecticut river, an oxbow in Northampton, Massachusetts, has long been a source for landscape paintings of tranquil beauty.
One famous 19th century oil, by Thomas Cole, was the inspiration for an art show earlier this month on a cove of the oxbow. Thirty paintings and sculptures inspired by nature were hung, floated or partially submerged in the "Swamp Show."
Viewings were by reservation and only by canoe or kayak. Boat parties were given an hour to paddle around.
On a recent Saturday, Emma Kohlmann stood behind the check-in table and handed out maps to self-tour the show.
“If you want to put your life vests on over there,” she told one party, “then someone will help you in the canoe.”
Kohlmann is an artist, one of about 25 in the show, and the sister of the show’s curator, Charlotte Kohlmann. The two often collaborate with other artists and writers.
"We recently started a press,” said Charlotte, who also does design layout for a small newspaper and writes articles about historic western Massachusetts archives and the people who compile them.
The Kohlmann sisters grew up on the Hudson River in the Bronx and now live along the Connecticut in Northampton. The "Swamp Show" seems to be an extension of much of their lives involving art, nature and history — specifically, in this show, an 1836 painting of the oxbow by Thomas Cole, which was painted from the summit in what is now Skinner State Park.
Charlotte first saw Cole’s "View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow” a few years ago in an art history class.
“I had forgotten about it until recently when COVID hit,” she said.
Considered one of the most significant landscape paintings in America, the oil hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
When the pandemic began, the view of the same oxbow became significant to Kohlmann. She and her sister climbed Mt. Holyoke almost daily.
“We would go up to the summit and we would look out at the panoramic view and we would see the oxbow. We would always point out where we lived,” Charlotte said.
Of course, the view looks quite different now with buildings and a highway mostly cutting the oxbow off from the river.
Cole grew up in industrialized northern England. Historians describe his paintings and essays as a warning to America, that as it developed it was putting its beautiful wilderness in jeopardy.
Cole was the first painter in a loosely tied together group of artists who portrayed America in its "wilderness state," according the Metropolitan Museum of Art's description of the Hudson River School of Painting.
"With his early views of the Northeast," the museum said, "[Cole] inspired successive generations of artists to embrace heroic landscape subjects grounded in the notion that what defined Americans was their relationship with the land."
“I mean, he was like he was a romanticist, right? There are deep narratives in his work,” said artist Michael Childress, who had piece in the Northampton show — an acrylic abstract painting of the oxbow.
It’s the first art viewers saw when they arrived, hung on a tree along the path down to the shore.
“I have always loved Thomas Cole's painting, but also really love [the Connecticut River oxbow],” Childress said. “Thinking about what kind of forces cause a river to divert from its path and then make a loop and then come back on itself.”
After almost an hour paddling around the cove, a canoe carrying Gracie Fossett and her friends returned to shore. Fossett said she's a fan of art you have to look hard at to see, and if you looked away at the wrong moment, you could miss it.
“We almost missed this really interesting tiny brown and green painting on a brown log,” Fossett said. “[The show] is very magical, overall.”
Almost 250 people came to the "Swamp Show," perhaps attracted to art in an unpredictable place. Some rain, wind and curious animals changed the show over the weekend, Charlotte Kohlmann said.
Just like they'd change a landscape.