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

Henningsen: Two Artists In February

There’s no bad time to look at art, but an election year February is particularly good.

Art doesn’t shout, but it does speak to those who listen and, this winter, two exhibits in our area speak deeply indeed, posing questions about nature, the past, and ourselves.

At first glance, the paintings of Vermont artist Eric Aho and those of South Dakota native Harvey Dunn couldn’t seem more different.  

Currently on display at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum, Aho’s meditations on rectangular swimming holes cut into the icy surface of a New Hampshire pond are worlds away from Dunn’s depictions of homesteaders on the high plains, now at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  

Aho’s drawn to reductive abstraction and negative space, sparely exploring the interplay of light and dark on winter surfaces. Dunn was an illustrator for popular magazines and a combat artist in World War I.
A contemporary of N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell, he depicted varieties of color, human forms and emotions.  

Where Aho focuses tightly on specific detail, immersing viewers in depth of color reminiscent of Mark Rothko, Dunn presents prairie vastness the way Winslow Homer envelops us in seascapes.

Yet there’s much in common.

Aho depicts the avanto, a Finnish term for the swimming hole in front of a sauna he built not long after the death of his father, who’d spent youthful winters cutting and harvesting ice. As the artist cuts the hole with an antique saw and then attempts to make sense of it on canvas, he’s reconnecting with his Finnish roots, with the vanished working New England landscape of his father’s youth, with his father himself.

Dunn seems to have experienced what we now call Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder after witnessing and painting searing combat in World War I. In response, he immersed himself in teaching and in painting the homesteading life of his boyhood, of people and nature intertwined in the earth and sky of the high plains. Like Aho, Dunn sought reconnection to a personal past.

Aho says his work makes people want to dive in or stay far away. Dunn prompts a similar choice. Each in his own way demands that we confront nature at its most elemental and ask not only where we fit, but do we?


Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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