I f Leonardo da Vinci were alive now, he would’ve blown out 562 candles earlier this month, probably using some elegant, ingenious contraption to do it.
Instead, every year around this time, the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop celebrates the painter/sculptor/scientist/engineer—the Renaissance man behind The Vitruvian Man—by calling upon present-day artists to channel his impressive creativity for its Leonardo Challenge.
The annual event germinated in 1994, after grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts allowed the museum to study creativity in fourth-to-sixth graders using a technique from one of da Vinci’s many notebooks. During an executive committee meeting convened to discuss the study’s results, the group also brainstormed fundraising ideas for its scholarship fund. That’s when Board member Gerry Pollack said something that’s stuck with Eli Whitney Associate Director Sally Hill ever since: “He pointed out that in a small town like New Haven, where every nonprofit was asking the same people for support,” the museum/workshop would be wise do it in a way “that was more fun than work,” she says.
Inspired by the results of the kid study, the committee decided to use da Vinci to inspire adults. The first Challenge asked artists to offer their most ingenious take on the humble clothespin; subsequent themes often centered around things that seem simple, straightforward and pedestrian—mirrors, keys, springs, chains —but are actually fertile ground for creative thinkers. This year, Leonardo Challenge participants submitted works for Knot What You Imagine, focusing, of course, on knots; in a do-as-we-do twist, the gala invitation, designed by Hill, is itself a take on a knot, comprising intertwined cuts of paper that “untie” to reveal different panels.
The Challenge culminated in a silent auction of the submissions on April 24 featuring knots of all kinds, from elaborately crocheted garments to forged iron pieces. The entry Knot a Broom starts with an antler for the handle and then erupts into an intricate tangle of soft bristles. An acrylic painting titled Audubon Would Knot Approve by retired art teacher Nilda Gagliardi recreates John James Audubon’s famous American Flamingo, but with a knotty twist in the pink bird’s long neck. Another offering utilized metal to form what looks like a three-dimensional maze in the shape of a cube. A trio of adorable sheep fashioned out of knotted yarn displays the artist’s flair for fiber crafts.
During the event, attendees twisted their own fresh mozzarella knots at the Caseus table and nibbled on nosh from Big Green Truck Pizza, Whole G and Small Kitchen, Big Taste while sipping coffee from Koffee, wine from The Wine Group and brews from the Thimble Island Brewery. For some folks, the reunion atmosphere of the event was the most savory aspect; partygoers included current and past Challenge participants, former museum program participants, workshop apprentices, summer campers and their parents and board members current and former.
Experienced Challenger Eunice Mahler’s participated in all but one of the 20 Challenges so far, and all four of her children have apprenticed in the workshop. Her entry this year is an image of her mother’s hand entwined with that of her father, who died recently. The moving piece is called A Lover’s Knot.
One of the largest and most admired items for sale was a glass-topped coffee table mounted on a pentafoil-shaped wood base, showing a seemingly perfect five-point star in the middle when viewed straight on from above, the dovetail joints that hold the snaking curves together nearly seamless.
“It’s a good shape,” Challenge participant Dan Velazquez, who grew up less than a mile from the museum and helped craft the table, says. “I’ve been coming here since before I was born,” he says, presumably facetiously, and the habit must have stuck, because Velazquez is now a cabinetmaker with Breakfast Woodworks in Guilford.
The culmination of months of work—with multiple entries delivered the day of the event, proving once again the importance of having a deadline—this year’s silent auction was the best ever, netting nearly $60,000 for the museum’s scholarship fund, according to Hill. She emphasized that the event’s success is a group achievement, drawing on the efforts of the museum’s staff, students, friends, food providers and in-kind donors in addition to the artists. The money supports daylong vacation programs and weeklong summer programs, but can also be put towards helping school groups that need a boost.
You can boost yourself by checking out the latest Leonardo Challenge collection at the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, but do knot dawdle: the display only lasts through Sunday, May 11.
Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop
915 Whitney Avenue, Hamden (map)
Sat 10am-3pm & Sun 12-5pm through May 11
Written by Lauren Langford. Photographed by Dan Mims.