River Study (Courtesy of Hollis Dunlap)

Local Artists Reflect on the Florence Griswold Lawn, Site of New Artist Trail in Old Lyme

in Art & Design

OLD LYME — For artists and art lovers, the lawn, the gardens, the light, and the views at the Florence Griswold Museum are iconic, hallowed by the footsteps and brushstrokes of the Old Lyme art colony and the many painters who have followed and continue to flock to the site. 

On Monday, the museum will reveal a new vision for the 12-acre property, including a new artists’ trail, that will be dedicated to Robert F. Schumann, a trustee and patron of the museum for nearly two decades. The Robert F. Schumann Foundation awarded the museum a $1 million grant in 2017 to implement a master landscape plan designed by Stephen Stimson Associates Landscape Architects. 

Visitors will find four distinct walks — riverfront, garden, hedgerow, and woodland — with way-finding and interpretive materials to explain the natural, artistic and historic highlights of the site, including the ecology of migratory bird habitats and native plants and areas historically significant to the Griswold family and the Old Lyme art colony.

Artists’ impressions 

The museum and its surrounds have special meaning to several local artists, including Jerry Weiss, of Chester, who said he came to Lyme almost 25 years ago to teach at the Lyme Academy. 

“I would go there on my own and I brought my classes there. I still like to bring workshops there once a year — students love painting there, they are bowled over by it,” he said by phone Friday. “It’s a very lovely space whether you’re conscious of the history or not, it’s a very special and lovely spot to paint in, in particular where the museum fronts the river.”

(Courtesy of Jerry Weiss)

The Old Lyme area is said to have reminded painters of the Barbizon forest in France where a seasonal art retreat once stood. Henry Ward Ranger established the Old Lyme art colony in 1899 and it was the first to adopt Impressionism.

“There’s always been that vein of recognition, that reminder of French country outside of France,” Weiss said. “The light is beautiful.”

(Courtesy of Jerry Weiss)

Weiss said the legacy of the American Impressionists provides present-day painters with the opportunity to look for new ways to express the natural beauty of the museum’s grounds. 

“I think the challenge for a landscape painter today is to step into that without duplicating, always see your subject through fresh eyes,” he said. “You never want to feel you’re just rehashing 100 years ago but you can’t help but respond to the same things that artists responded to in 1905.” 

Painting outdoors on the museum’s grounds, en plein air, is different from studio painting in a number of ways, Weiss said. The paintings are usually done “à la prima,” in one quick session, which is well suited to the outdoor conditions. 

(Courtesy of Jerry Weiss)

“Plein air is almost by definition an à la prima pursuit,” said Weiss. “It’s walking around a lot, scoping out the area, seeing what is interesting to you. It’s important to be flexible because the lighting is changing, on other days the cloudscape is more important — each day and each session is different.”

Artist Sandy Garvin, of Old Lyme, said the energy and the light of the museum’s site provide creative inspiration.

“There is the most wonderful energy at the Florence Griswold, both peaceful and energizing at the same time,” she said in an interview Friday. “It’s knowing the history of the place, a gathering of like-minded painters there to capture the light, responding and creating at the same time.”

Garvin said when she started painting en plein air about 15 or 20 years ago, the museum’s lawn and grounds were one of her favorite places to go. 
“I would go at the end of the day, and you had the place  to yourself,” she said. “The best time to paint for me is the moment before the sun dips below the horizon, it’s that golden glow that casts all over everything, there’s such a warmth about it.”

Fall Day in Lyme (Courtesy of Hollis Dunlap)

The legacy of many artists who created on that site remains as a kind of collective memory that artists can tap into, she said. 

“You just can’t help but be conscious of those that painted before you and why they came there and how much fun they had as a group, they were all professional painters, it’s sort of like they left their imprint,” she said. “It’s hard to describe but you feel it, you don’t just see it but you feel it, so you try to recreate a feeling or an impression on canvas.”

River Study (Courtesy of Hollis Dunlap)

Artist Hollis Dunlap, of New London, teaches at the Lyme Art Association and said he makes a point of bringing his classes to the museum’s campus. 

“The grounds are perfect for my class. Usually it’s about 10 people and we need to spread out. My students can paint the buildings, the gardens are always beautiful, they can walk down to the river, get the view there — there’s a variety of subjects,” he said. 

Dunlap, who attended the Lyme Art Academy in the 1990s,  said he understands why so many artists have gathered at this particular site over the years. 

Afternoon at the Flo Gris (Courtesy of Hollis Dunlap)

“I always think of artists who were there — I can see the appeal. If you hang out at the Flo Gris towards evening, it’s just what the light does down by the river,” he said. “I love going over there, it’s just such a pretty spot.”

The future

The artists’ trail is opening Monday, “rain or shine,” said Tammi Flynn, marketing director of the Florence Griswold Museum, by phone on Friday.

The new trail is designed to be community-oriented, she said. 

“As we do with all of our inside exhibitions and programs, we want to make sure the outdoors is just as welcoming and the artists’ trail is very much a part of that, it’s very much a community space indoors and outdoors,” she said. 

The goal was to strike the right balance between providing information and preserving the museum’s grounds, she said. 

“We think we have struck a balance between too much information and some wonderful interpretative spots along the way. We have a few little spots that will tell you the history, where an artist might have painted, but without going overboard,” she said. “We want people to soak in the actual feel of the landscape and what the artists felt when they were in the early 1900s to the 1930s, to share that with visitors today.” 

Flynn said the museum will be interested in hearing visitors’ feedback.

“This is new for us and we’d love to hear feedback. In the next year we’re really going to learn how visitors interact and things may be modified — we need to see how visitors use the space,” she said. 

The museum will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Artists’ Trail at 11:30 a.m. on Monday. For more information, go to florencegriswoldmuseum.org.