Artist’s whimsy takes us on a trip through quarantine
Here’s the scene: I’m at one end of the dining room table on a Zoom call for work and my wife is at the other end of the table laughing wildly. I thought my jokes during the meeting would lift the mood a little, but was quietly pleased that my wife found them so funny. After I got off the call I walked to her end of the table and asked what she found so humorous, figuring I’d repeat the best lines during my next few social interactions.
She pointed to her computer screen, where a curmudgeonly old man was holding up a piece of birthday cake to the camera. Next there was a picture of the man in a green knit cap and red sweater sitting at a table with a can of black beans, a jar of ketchup and a glass of red wine in front of him. And another of the old man gazing pensively into a mirror with the caption “Day 20 — Time for self-reflection.”
She had stumbled upon a photo series on the Sheldon Museum website in which Middlebury artist Debbee Smith had dressed up a papier maché mask of a man’s face in clothing so it was a nearly life-size doll. She then placed “The Man,” as he is known, in different poses around her house that showed how he was coping with the coronavirus quarantine. Here is the man snoozing while reading a book, learning to knit (not with much success), sewing himself a facemask, learning to paint, doing a puzzle, baking cookies then overdoing it on desserts. One picture of the man staring out the window is labeled “Cabin Fever.”
The photos take the viewer on a tour — day by day — of an old man coping. Many people will see themselves in the images, though perhaps they would consider their own responses to being stuck at home to be a little more moderate. They are perceptive and humorous. “Day 21 – Keeping track of time” shows The Man opening a pill box labeled Sunday through Saturday. Another shows The Man trying to figure out Instagram.
“So funny!” says Mary Manley, associate director at the Sheldon Museum.
Debbee Smith says she created this collection of tableaux to post on social media for her friends to see. While she is a serious artist and has had various shows of her collage boxes around the area, she clearly creates art more for the love it and not for the money.
“My background in art is a piecemeal assortment of mostly ceramic classes, some drawing, some painting and some sculpture classes,” she says. “None of this was officially learned as an art major, and it definitely is/was not about having a career in art.”
Usually she works with clay and found objects — leaves, seed pods, stones, rusty metal — inside a shadow box. Smith categorizes her work as dark, ridiculous or funny. More privately, she sometimes tires to express the wonder she feels.
“There are two of me I guess with a dark and a light side.”
The grumpy old man came from a papier maché mask that she found about six years ago in front of St. Stephen’s Church in a free box after the Peasant Market. It hung around on her wall for years until she started babysitting a two-and-a-half-year-old grandniece who loves masks and jokes. “I started setting up situations with him for the days she would be with me, and from there it was easy to continue with him when the sheltering business started up,” Smith says.
One challenge in creating the series was that the man’s face obviously does not change its expression. Nevertheless, Smith changes the body language, adds props and manipulates the setting to change the mood in every scene.
“He really has the same expression, but depending on where the hat sits on his brow and whether he is looking up or down is what determines which mood you are seeing,” Smith explains.
About halfway through the series, The Man finds a guest at his elbow — a brown, furry rabbit. The image is labeled, “Day 28 – Easter bunny visits.” The bunny stays with The Man in most of the rest of the scenes in the series — they journal together, nap on the couch together, plan a garden together. Along the way there are some other rabbit-related surprises.
“The rabbits,” Smith explains, “they all started from the Easter Bunny because I needed some more material to work with and it was Easter … and then, you know how rabbits are.”
The images in the series are wonderful pieces of art on their own and tell an insightful story when taken as a whole. You can see the entire collection online at henrysheldonmuseum.org/old-enews under the heading, “‘The Man’s’ 2020 Sheltering Activities and Moods.”
Smith says it was fun to make and admits that she herself laughs at the images.
“The stay-at-home guidelines have not been much of a problem for me,” Smith says. “I have a garden, places to hike, the grumpy old man to think about. And being part introvert — a friendly one — it’s been in a strange way very fun.”