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Lyman Orton collected 400 works of local art 'for the love of Vermont'

Lyman Orton has been collecting Vermont art for 45 years. He recently published a book detailing his collection, in collaboration with writer Anita Rafael.
Mikaela Lefrak
/
Vermont Public
Lyman Orton has been collecting Vermont art for 45 years. He published a book detailing his collection, in collaboration with writer Anita Rafael.

A major exhibition of more than 80 paintings, prints, and drawings opens Wednesday at the Vermont History Museum in Montpelier. The works are culled from the extensive collection of Lyman Orton, a 7th-generation Vermonter and proprietor of the Vermont Country Store, and co-curated by Orton, Donnel Barnum, and the Vermont Historical Society.

"For the Love of Vermont: The Lyman Orton Collection" is comprised of 20th-century art made by local artists and out-of-staters who spent significant time making art in Vermont. It features better-known painters like Cecil Bell and Kyra Markham alongside non-professionals like the GRACE artists of Hardwick. There, seniors would attend workshops and paint their memories.

Orton began the collection 45 years ago when he began attending auctions as a hobby. "I started buying paintings, and realizing that there was a lot of great art leaving Vermont," he said. "So that's what got me started."

Orton very consciously shies away from the elitism that can rear its head in the art world. That tendency can be traced all the way back to the very first piece of art he purchased. A salesman who sold products to the Vermont Country Store happened to be an artist on the side. Orton bought a watercolor painting called "Beaver Meadows," depicting a scene near Weston.

Coauthor Anita Rafael, collection curator Donnel Barnum and Lyman Orton stand in front of pieces of his collection.
Mikaela Lefrak
/
Vermont Public
Coauthor Anita Rafael, collection curator Donnel Barnum and Lyman Orton stand in front of pieces of his collection.

The exhibition is organized not by artist, but by theme: barns, sugaring, laundry, and more. Collection curator Donnel Barnum and Orton hope the structure helps make the art more accessible to a general audience.

"What we're doing is thinking right off, from the decision to buy a piece of art, of, 'what are we going to say about it? What's the story we're going to tell about it?' Orton said. "And I guess that probably harks back to my life as a curator at the Vermont Country Store, both in the store and in the catalogue. What am I going to say about this product?"

One of Orton's favorite paintings is by a German-born artist by the name of H. Weber. It depicts a winter scene on a lake — likely Lake Champlain — with ice shanties and people gathered together to fish. "Weber wasn't exactly well-known, and it might've been the cheapest painting I've ever bought," Orton said, "but it's my favorite."

The Vermont History Museum exhibition follows on the heels of two others that went up last year at the Bennington Museum and Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester. Last year Orton also published, with co-author Anita Rafael of Wardsboro, an art book called "For the Love of Vermont."

"In a way, it's also Lyman's memoir," Rafael said. "He has a seven-generational memory of what all these places were and how people lived."

"But I need a trigger to bring it back," Orton added. "These paintings are my trigger."

Broadcast live on Wednesday, July 3, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.