Sunday, February 10, 2013

Arts & Extras: Italian Renaissance chapels inspire Martinsville-born artist

Arts & Extras column

Mike Allen, arts and culture columnist

Mike Allen, arts columnist

Recent columns

Arts&Extras blog

Recent posts

Alison Hall first went to Italy 12 years ago while she was an art student at Hollins University. Traveling with her professors Bill White and Jan Knipe, she visited the chapel of St. Francis of Assisi in Umbria and saw for the first time the frescoes attributed to early Renaissance master Giotto di Bondone.

"In the winter in Italy it feels so medieval," the Martinsville native said, but then going inside the spectacularly painted chapel, "it's like 'The Wizard of Oz' in Technicolor."

After that first tour of Italy, "I just wanted to make a life there somehow," she said.

Now an art teacher herself, at Hollins and the University of Virginia, Hall's gone back to Italy every summer, and visited both the St. Francis of Assisi chapel and the Arena Chapel in Padua, where Giotto also contributed frescoes.

Her visits to those chapels provided the inspiration for "Alison Hall: Pilgrimage," which opened Jan. 29, the first of five new exhibitions at the Taubman Museum of Art.

The other four, "50 Great American Artists," "John Cage: The Sight of Silence," "Jean Helion: A Painter's Journey in Life and Art," and "Time and Indeterminacy in John Cage's Legacy: Tyler Adams and Sabine Groschup," all open Friday.

On display through May 11, "Pilgrimage" is Hall's first museum show. It's meant to evoke a chapel in its configuration, with a large painting opposite the main entrance to the regional gallery and three smaller drawings on the walls to each side, similar to how frescoes or stained glass windows would be placed.

Hall's sister-in-law, Roanoke photographer Sarah Hazlegrove, while visiting Hall's exhibition, called it "a place to meditate."

An eighth piece, made of wooden blocks, lies on the floor, arranged to mimic the floor pattern found in the Arena Chapel. It's Hall's first sculpture. At first glance the entire space, including the art, seems mostly white. Up close, though, the art offers some surprises, especially the large painting, called "La Passeggiata Parallelo" (The Parallel Walk).

Within the grid of the painting, Hall painstakingly re-created the architectural details and geometric patterns of the Giotto panels in Umbria. "I painted each fresco without the figures in them."

She spent nearly six months on this task - and then she covered all that detailed work with broad strokes of white, obscuring the re-creations but not hiding them altogether.

Hall was inspired to paint over her work by the story of St. Francis, who relinquished all his material goods. "It was so exhilarating," she said of the effort.

The smaller drawings on the side walls are filled with the intricate geometric patterns found in the frescoes, drawn by hand. "There's something I really love about repetition," she said.

In earlier years visiting Italy, Hall, 32, would paint landscapes. While outside, she noticed how closely residents there stick to routine. A boy she saw being brought to the park in a baby carriage was still coming there to play at the same time of day 10 years later. "The rhythm of life in Italy is so repetitive," she said. The repetition in "Pilgrimage" reflects that.

Hall created "Pilgrimage" for the Taubman Museum at the request of former president and CEO David Mickenberg, who saw a show she put on with Lexington artist Clover Archer Lyle during the 2012 Roanoke Marginal Arts Festival.

Another new exhibition, "John Cage: The Sight of Silence," also has a regional connection.

Cage, a New York-based avant-garde composer and artist, might be most famous for scandalizing the classical music world in 1952 by debuting four minutes and 33 seconds of silence as a musical composition.

Cage died in 1992. Between 1983 to 1990, he participated four times in the Mountain Lake Workshop in Blacksburg, run by artist Ray Kass, who's now the museum's adjunct curator of Southeastern art. The workshop involves inviting prominent artists to try something different. Cage chose to experiment with watercolors. Volunteers would make the paper stained with smoke he preferred to paint on.

Those paintings form the basis of "The Sight of Silence," part of a national celebration of the centennial of Cage's birth year.

Cage preferred his shows to be organized by a principle of "chance operations," so earlier this month Kass, Director of Exhibitions Leah Stoddard and Roanoke Arts Commission members Nathan Harper and Susan Egbert rolled dice to determine where the five largest paintings would be placed.

Accompanying the Cage exhibition, "Time and Indeterminacy in John Cage's Legacy" contains film and video about Cage's music created and organized by Los Angeles-based artist Tyler Adams and Austrian filmmaker Sabine Groschup.

"50 Great American Artists" combines art from the Taubman Museum's collection and additions from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk to showcase 50 paintings, drawings and sculptures spanning 135 years, including pieces by Winslow Homer, Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol.

"Jean Helion: A Painter's Journey in Life in Art" follows the career of a French artist, a leading figure in the art scene of Paris in the 1930s, who eventually settled in Rockbridge Baths. The show is curated by retired Hollins art professor Bill White.

"John Cage" will remain open until May 18. "Jean Helion" will close May 25, and "Time and Indeterminacy in John Cage's Legacy" and "50 Great American Artists" will close June 1. The museum's hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Admission is free. For more information, call 342-5760 or visit

Science Museum hires 3

The Science Museum of Western Virginia has announced three new hires as it continues to expand its staff in preparation for moving back into Center in the Square in Roanoke in March.

Former Blue Ridge Literacy program coordinator Betsy Hale is the museum's new volunteer coordinator, responsible for organizing docents to help with tours and special events.

Vinton native and former elementary school teacher Leigh Ann Soltis will supervise contracting educational programs for schools, families and community groups.

New animal care specialist Hannah Weiss earned a master's degree from Radford University, interned at Mill Mountain Zoo and worked as an educator at the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Conn. She'll be assisting with maintenance of the butterfly garden and care of other museum animals.

Museum spokesman Michael Hemphill said at the moment the museum has eight full-time employees and six part-time, and intends to hire four more full-time employees and five more part-time before its May 18 grand opening.

On the Arts blog

Radford University's Valentine's Day "Give Your Heart to Art" benefit for the school's arts museum will honor the late Roanoke-born artist Dorothy Gillespie. To read more, visit the Arts & Extras blog at

Weather Journal

News tips, photos and feedback?
Sign up for free daily news by email