Exhibition Dates: October 24, 2019 – January 5, 2020
Prominent Harry Holl artwork comes full circle on Cape
By Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll, Cape Cod Times
Posted Nov 3, 2019 at 3:00 AM
DENNIS — After surviving more than 50 years and two Caribbean hurricanes, the largest-known artwork by preeminent Cape potter/sculptor Harry Holl is now a permanent part of the art museum he co-founded.
Tree of Life — a ceramic, high-relief sculpture composed of 47 tiles of various shapes, textures and depths — has been restored and installed at the Cape Cod Museum of Art. In what director of art Benton Jones called “a significant event in the history” of the museum, the piece was unveiled Oct. 25 as an unexpected part of the opening of the “Recent Gifts & Acquisitions” exhibition.
This is the first time Holl’s piece, which is about 9 feet tall and 3½ feet wide, has been put on public display. The image depicts two figures in a leafy scene that Holl’s daughter has said is a metaphor for Harry Holl’s life, and life in general.
Holl started Scargo Pottery in Dennis in 1952, and was also involved in establishing several Cape cultural and educational institutions besides the art museum. Tree of Life is a “one-of-a-kind work of art by a significant artist and philanthropist of our region, as well as our museum’s co-founder,” Jones said via email, “and is invaluable both in telling the museum’s story and the story of a celebrated artist and pioneer in our community.”
That Tree of Life still exists to hang in the museum is a story that has amazed officials.
The artwork was commissioned in the 1960s by Al and Rachel Kaufman, Cape residents and personal friends of Holl, for their vacation home on Water Island in the harbor of St. Thomas, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to museum officials. The piece was then attached to an exterior concrete wall for more than three decades.
The home, and Holl’s art, withstood Hurricane Hugo in 1995. But after Hurricane Marilyn struck the island in 1995, 90% of the house was destroyed, according to Jones. Still standing: the concrete wall with Tree of Life.
In between the two storms, the home was purchased by the family of Diana Worthington. After Marilyn, the family decided not to rebuild, but Worthington wanted to save Holl’s art.
The Truro resident removed each of the tiles herself, packed them up, and stored them in various facilities on the mainland U.S. for more than 20 years, Jones said. Then, “as she has entered her senior years,” he said, Worthington “felt an overwhelming concern that this monumental work would get lost forever after her passing.”
She decided the Dennis museum started by Holl in 1980 was the right place for the art to be. Holl, who died in 2014, was a largely self-taught potter and artist. He became renowned for his own pottery and sculpture of various kinds through Scargo Pottery (which is still co-owned by his family) and for passing on his skills to his children — who also sometimes use the techniques evident in Tree of Life, Jones said — and numerous apprentices.
In an article he wrote about Holl, former apprentice Steven Kemp, owner of Kemp Pottery in Brewster for 40 years, said Holl was hard-working and constantly innovating, with “more talent in his little finger than the rest of us had put together. ... Watching Harry making a series of pots was like listening to a master jazz artist play a new and unexpected riff.”
Holl was also deeply involved in the community, and was part of the creation of Cape Cod Community College, Cape Cod Conservatory, the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, and the Cape Cod Potters Cooperative.
In 1980, inspired by his father-in-law, sculptor Arnold Geissbuhler, Holl and his friend, artist/lawyer Roy Freed, proposed the creation of an art museum that would both display and preserve the works of generations of artists associated with Cape Cod and the Islands, according to information supplied by Suzie Johnson, museum director of operations. With a small group of artists, educators and community activists, in 1981, they incorporated the Scargo Lake Museum. That became the art museum now at 60 Hope Lane, which continues to be focused on preserving and exhibiting regional art, as well as holding classes and serving as a center for the arts community to continue that legacy.
The rest of the current exhibit of work from the permanent collection, for example (on display through Jan. 5) includes works by Etta Goodstein of Etta’s Jewelry; a Thomas Hart Benton lithograph; etchings by Albert Edel; paintings by Donald Stoltenberg, Peter Hunt and R.H. Ives Gammell; and an assemblage by Roger Cook. All had been acquired in the past two years and most had never before been on public display.
Tree of Life was unveiled as part of that exhibit after the piece was returned to the museum a couple of days before the scheduled opening reception — which was earlier than expected, Johnson said.
Worthington had contacted the museum last spring about the piece, and had art conservationist David Colombo, a Somerville resident who has a second home near Worthington in Truro, restore the tiles, according to Jones. Museum officials paid about $4,000 from conservation funding for Colombo’s work, plus reassembling the piece, and mounting and framing it, which was done by Cape Cod Picture Framing of Dennis, he said.
Holl’s daughter Sarah, also a potter, shared her ideas about the imagery of Tree of Life at the unveiling, including that the fruit represented children.
“All the different aspects of his life are represented in this image that just kept recurring” in her father’s art and his life, she said.
As a metaphor for life, the roots at the base of the piece “represent ideas and relationships that, if nurtured, can thrive and grow, eventually allowing the whole to mature and bear fruit,” Jones said Sarah Holl told him. “The fruit represents the realization of an idea and the promise of future generations, which, in turn, may sow their own seeds and grow to maturity.”
He has an additional view about what the newest, and one of the most important, pieces to become part of the art museum’s collection represents: “A celebration of resilience through life’s unpredictable journey and the healing power of loving relationships in that journey.”
Officials are still determining where Tree of Life will hang when the exhibit closes Jan. 5, but Jones said how the piece was framed will allow it to be moved to places of prominence elsewhere in the museum — perhaps even, once again, outside.