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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Mares: Painting With Landscape

Here in Vermont we’re spoiled by our profuse and various landscapes with a mixture of open and cultivated land. It’s eye candy for the painter, hiker and driver alike.

Recently, I was in New York City and took a walk through Central Park, the one and a half square mile signature green stamp of Frederick Law Olmsted that’s as famously identified with New York as the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. As I walked 40 blocks north on a beautiful fall afternoon, the place was awash with walkers, joggers, bikers, boaters, readers, strollers, Frisbee players, musicians, and performers.

Ingeniously, Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux sculpted the landscape to give the user an infinity of changing vistas. In the park, you can sometimes see the over arching skyline, and other times you’re literally in the ramble. Olmstead and Vaux created separate circulation paths for horses, pedestrians and wheeled vehicles. They also designed dense green belts with a wide variety of trees and shrubbery. Olmsted called their work “A democratic development of the highest significance.”

Olmsted also designed numerous city parks in places like Buffalo, Milwaukee, Louisville, and other cities. And he conceived of entire systems of parks and interconnecting parkways to connect certain cities to green spaces. He took private commissions to work on great estates such as that of Vermont’s own Shelburne Farms developed by William and Lila Webb, who hired him to create conceptual designs for the growing property as they bought up farms around them.

Olmsted was also an important early leader of the conservation movement in the United States. An expert on California, he helped convince Congress to set up the first national park at Yosemite Valley . In the 1880s he was active in efforts to conserve the natural wonders of Niagara Falls. At the same time he campaigned to preserve the Adirondack region in upstate New York.

As a journalist he spent five years traveling through the South and produced a 3 volume study of the South in the decade before the Civil War. During the War, he was the secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission - a precursor of the Red Cross, In the words of his friend and landscape architect Daniel Burnham, Olmsted was “An artist,” [who] paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views."

On this amble through leafy, hilly Central Park, I was reminded of how cell phones have conquered the land. Phones as cameras were ubiquitous. Strollers carried them like sixth fingers. People contemplated their phones like Hamlet with the skull of Yorick. Bikers texted as they whizzed along. Nannies nattered on their cells as they pushed the prams. Perhaps the funniest sight was a man juggling his phone, coffee cup, cigarette, and dog on a leash – all at the same time.

All of which left me wondering - where would Olmsted have sited the cell phone towers?

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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