MIDDLEBURY — Those who visit Middlebury’s Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History often feel like they’ve stepped into a bygone era, surrounded by antique farm implements, kitchen utensils, furniture and toys. It’s a veritable time capsule of 19th-century New England Americana.
But crossing the museum’s storied threshold these days is akin to entering a different dimension — a Fellini-esque costume ball, if you will, in which animals have literally sprung from the earth to don some of the Sheldon’s most fanciful vintage women’s garments in various coy, casual and attentive poses.
It’s all part of a new exhibit titled “Fashion & Fantasy: At the Edge of the Forest” and is a collaboration of South Burlington artist Wendy Copp and the Sheldon Museum. It’s made up of a whimsical pairing of the museum’s extensive wardrobe from the late 19th and early 20th century with Cobb’s stunning papier-mâché animal heads and her own artistic garments deftly crafted from leaves, twigs, petals, moss, bark and other natural materials she’s collected from right outside her front door.
Bill Brooks, executive director of the Sheldon Museum, became familiar with Copp’s artistic abilities last December after viewing one of her exhibits in Shelburne. He was in awe of the artist’s skill in creating three-dimensional, non-wearable clothing ensembles topped with the papier-mâché heads of deer, foxes, deer, geese and other animals.
“I was entranced and fascinated by her ensembles,” he said.
At the same time, he recalled the vast collection of vintage dresses, shoes, gloves, corsets, hats, parasols, fans and other accouterments preserved in the Sheldon Museum’s attic. He reasoned it might make sense to marry the mediums of old-time, utilitarian couture and Copp’s creature creations.
“There had not been that many opportunities in recent years to highlight the best of our vintage clothing collection,” Brooks said.
“I gave (Copp) a call.”
So the two met for lunch and agreed to partner on the new “Fashion & Fantasy” exhibit, now on display at the Sheldon through Nov. 3.
The results are stunning.
With help from museum staff, Copp has assembled a collection of almost 30 characters who hold court in two main rooms of the museum. They include “Belle Starr,” a doe-headed character clad in a housecoat, a corset, hoop skirt, silk shoes and gloves, with an antique fan, sprawled in an antique chair. It’s as if she’s recovering from a boisterous party.
Another composition, featuring a dress fashioned from paper maple leaves, feather and paint, is topped by a portrait of a smiling young girl. It is titled, “Special Topics in Calamity Physics.”
A tutu, fashioned from barbed wire, chicken wire, hydrangeas, leaves and twigs and flanked by a parasol, seems ready to curtsy and spring into a pas de deux.
A creation called “Witch Craft” consists of a feathery, wide-eyed owl’s judgmental head perched atop a purple silk jacket and skirt from the 1870s.
The detail work in Copp’s creations is admirable. One of the exhibits is a cape made of pine needles, red maple, burning bush and seedpods. It looks sturdy enough to wear. Many of the exhibits are “shod” with footwear — ranging from simple boots to elaborate, curly-toed slippers — made from bark, grass and other natural material.
The show also includes some taboo fashions, such as a buffalo coat with beaver collar (circa 1890), and a swastika print dress (circa 1895). Buffalo and some species of seals were once hunted to near extinction, while the swastika was once a good luck symbol, until Adolf Hitler during the 1930s used as it as a symbol for the despotic Nazi party in Germany.
Copp explained she sources most of her material from South Burlington’s Red Rocks Park. She looks for, among other things, birch bark, curly willow branches, poplar leaves and Phragmite (a common reed), and also uses chicken wire, paint, newspaper and glue, guinea feathers, paper clay and fur.
“I see something at the side of the road and I gather it and use it,” said Copp, 61, a former interior designer and an artist who has worked in many disciplines. Her work includes a large mural painted for the American Express Building in New York City.
“I’ve had a very interesting and varied work life,” she said.
She channeled her artistic energy into its current direction after witnessing the physical and mental challenges experienced by her 90-year-old mother, a former vocal artist, as together they downsized decades of fashion in her mother’s closet. She wanted to honor her mom — who now resides in a nursing home — by making her some dresses and capes. And since her mom’s health prevents her from enjoying nature as she once did, Copp decided she’d try to make the clothing from things found in nature. It’s a practice that she noted symbolically reflects the ephemeral cycle of life in humans, as it is with trees, leaves and wild animals. Cobb’s artwork is also reflective of the current movement to source more things locally, to respect nature and to pay homage to feminism and how far women have come since the 19th century, when fashions were designed more to appeal to men than for the comfort of women.
“In the 19th century, women were the acquiescent screen upon which male ideals were projected,” she said. “Like gorgeous flowers in a crystal vase, they were rendered immobile for a time by whalebone-stiffened corsets, layers of incapacitating petticoats and padded bustles — all serving to exaggerate and eroticize the hourglass form.”
Once Copp began working with the materials, she found them a bit too delicate to be made into wearable garments, though she is working on that. But they have provided the perfect tools to make some powerful artistic statements — as well as elicit some laughs and introspection.
“I’m trying to put together in this show some contrasts, and some fun,” Copp said of the “Fashion & Fantasy” exhibit.
“They are objects of contemplation.”
The Henry Sheldon Museum is at 1 Park St., across from the Ilsley Library, and is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday, 1-5 p.m. in the fall.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]