Art in Paradise: Old House, New Art

Holyoke’s Wistariahurst Museum is a gorgeous place. Built in the 1860s in Williamsburg, later dismantled and moved to Holyoke, Wistariahust was the imposing home of the Skinner family, well-heeled silk manufacturers. It’s an old-school mansion, the sort of edifice that could easily incorporate four or five houses of more average size. It’s got a butler’s pantry, a spiral staircase with a piano in the stairwell, and an impressive colonnaded music room.

Wistariahurst director Melissa Boisselle explains that the house was inhabited until 1959, when only one family member was in residence, along with a servant. The house was deeded to the city of Holyoke, and now it’s a well-furnished museum that serves as an imposing reminder of the glory days when Holyoke was a mighty industrial power.

Right now, Wistariahurst holds an extraordinary art exhibition. It’s the brainchild of Boisselle and curator Vitek Kruta, an artist and restoration expert from Czechoslovakia who’s lived in the Valley for years and is now a Holyoke resident. For the exhibition, Boisselle and Kruta invited an impressive list of local and non-local artists to wander Wistariahurst in search of inspiration. Visually, there’s plenty to hold interest inside its walls, from elaborate wallpaper to detailed woodwork and period furnishings. The artists took what they saw and transformed it into quite different visions.

Wander the halls and rooms now, and Wistariahurst’s furnishings and details blur with many of the new artworks. It’s as if seeds were sown in the fertile interior and grew into new iterations of the old—a fancy old toaster sits beside a large-scale wooden version of itself (a magazine rack by Peter Dellert); an ornate wallpaper pattern is reproduced in the finish of a nearby teapot (by Molly Cantor). The ideas get farther afield as well, with sculptures outside (by Lee Hutt) that frame particular views of the house, and the most technologically minded entry, a room-sweeping robot that wanders the floor around the piano, armed with tape heads that pick up sounds from recording tape on the floor and amplify them for listeners. It’s a collaboration by David Poppie, Roger Sayre and Dane Johnson.

Dean Nimmer found inspiration in water-damaged wallpaper and composed paintings using the patterns. Architectural details find new homes on pottery by California’s Jeff Margolin, whose work already looks like it could hail from the Gilded Age.

The artworks fill the place upstairs and down, and Boisselle and Kruta are excited about the results, even hoping to make the exhibition an annual affair. Kruta sees a lot of potential for Holyoke, both in terms of population growth (he points out that its current residents—around 40,000—live in a city that used to hold many more), and in terms of its artistic community.

He draws an interesting comparison with his native Czechoslovakia, which fell off many people’s radars in its years of communist rule. When that ended, people rediscovered the country’s many forgotten charms, especially in Prague. Though Holyoke doesn’t hold the medieval splendor of a city like Prague, Kruta believes that same kind of rediscovery is not just likely, but certain in Holyoke, which holds its share of architectural treasures. For him, this exhibition is an attempt to draw attention to the city’s potential, to invite residents and visitors from elsewhere to experience a very Holyoke version of the arts.

The results of Boisselle’s and Kruta’s approach are often magnificent; the interplay between artwork and setting becomes pleasantly complicated, and Wistariahurst feels more alive for it. Though there’s still that nice, bookish must that fills old houses, the exhibition makes a visit an occasion for surprise, not just a walk through roped-off rooms. With more such work on the horizon, Wistariahurst stands to offer a new kind of old-house experience, and in a town that’s ripe for a new look.

Author: James Heflin

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