Museum, artist wading into inspiring waters

Surrounded by the bucolic beauty of the Brandywine, it’s difficult to avoid inspiration.

On Saturday, June 11, artist Dylan Gauthier (left) will lead a boatbuilding exercise at the Brandywine River Museum of Art.

On Saturday, June 11, artist Dylan Gauthier (left) will lead a boatbuilding exercise at the Brandywine River Museum of Art.

So when Thomas Padon, executive director of the Brandywine River Museum of Art, heard from a friend about an engaging artist-in-residency in New York, the wheels began turning. He started musing about “The Poetry of Nature,” the museum’s current exhibit that showcases works from the Hudson River School of Art, a show with strong parallels to the Brandywine School of Art, especially its affinity for nature.

“The Brandywine is such a powerful presence at the museum, and yet we had never done anything that actually engaged people with the river,” Padon said.

On Saturday, June 11, that situation will change dramatically when artist Dylan Gauthier begins a yearlong residency at the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art – the museum’s first such program. Gauthier’s project – a literal launch to a year of planned, creative initiatives– will be a boatbuilding exercise, and the public is invited to participate.

Padon said he’s excited about the partnership for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Gauthier’s enthusiasm. He said Gauthier’s first visit to the museum constituted a whirlwind day of touring. Gauthier returned a couple weeks later and expanded the geography, traveling to the Brandywine’s headwaters in Honey Brook Township and following it to its mouth at the convergence of the Brandywine and Christina rivers in Wilmington.

“Needless to say, he was wowed by the beauty,” Padon said. “People who aren’t from this area often can’t believe that a place like the Brandywine exists.

“But he’s also very interested in the Brandywine as a connectivity factor that brings together diverse communities,” Padon continued, adding that ideas about other projects flowed from those visits. “He’s fascinated by the intersection of art and nature, and his whole approach is very collaborative.”

Gauthier, a graduate of Hunter College of the City University of New York, where he studied film and media, is a co-founder of Mare Liberum (“The Free Seas”). Created in 2007, Mare Liberum is described as a freeform publishing, boatbuilding and waterfront art collective and civic initiative, based in Brooklyn, New York.

Rooted in centuries-old stories of urban water squatters and haphazard watercraft builders, Mare Liberum forges collaborations to explore what it takes to make viable aquatic craft as an alternative to life on land. It is also a way to spotlight the overlooked and often toxic waterways of urban centers – a mission in synch with the conservancy’s emphasis on ensuring the health of the Brandywine.

On his website, Gauthier characterizes himself this way: “I am an artist, curator, and writer who works through long-form projects to engage with ideas of ecology, architecture, collectivity, time, media and networks, utopian systems, and the artist’s role in society.”

Gauthier’s Brandywine project, entitled “highwatermarks: six ways of sensing the river,” will be divided into six modules, each focused on a specific theme and mode of sensing: drifting, observing, gathering, charting, sensing and distributing. These modes transition from states of direct communication between the artist and the landscape to more abstracted and even virtual forms of interaction with the river and its surrounding communities, museum officials said.

Padon said Gauthier would not move to Chadds Ford during his residency but would spend considerable time in the area. Among his scheduled activities are building a temporary studio along the Brandywine, inspired by the tetrahedral cabin Alexander Graham Bell employed to support his first experiments with flight and environmental sensing; creating a film that captures a single drop of water as it traverses the full length of the Brandywine in all seasons; and writing a book that chronicles the conservancy’s first artistic residency as it celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2017.

Padon said other initiatives would likely evolve during the course of Gauthier’s residency, springing from whatever floats his boat – or the community's. Padon aptly described the process as fluid.

“It’s going to be very exciting to watch,” he said, stressing the interactive nature of the experience. “He’ll be inviting people to stop in and watch him work.”

On Saturday, June 11, Gauthier will oversee the construction of a punt, a flat-bottomed riverboat that he will use for a series of excursions on the Brandywine and nearby waterways over the course of his residency. Gauthier will lead his “crew” in reading boat plans and the basics of boatbuilding as the group assembles the custom-designed punt, scaled for two people. The boat will launch with a small celebratory ceremony at 5 p.m.

Museum officials stressed that volunteers need no prior boatbuilding experience to participate in the free sessions, just an avid curiosity and an interest in learning.

For more information on becoming a boatbuilder or to RSVP, contact Laura Westmoreland at LWestmoreland@brandywine.org or 610-388-8120. Specify if you would like to join the morning (10 a.m. to 1 p.m.) or afternoon (2 to 5 p.m.) session – or both.

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