Sowing and Reaping

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April showers brought a special bloom to the Eli Whitney Museum last Thursday. Just over the Hamden-New Haven border, champagne popped, lights twinkled and hundreds of viewers and artists stopped to smell the roses and other flora made of near-endlessly various media, including concrete, barbed wire, yarn, neon gas and, occasionally, actual petals.

It was the fundraising gala for the museum’s 23rd annual Leonardo Challenge, and it was both familiar and distinctive. Each year, museum director Bill Brown and associate director Sally Hill pluck a theme from among the many skills and passions once pursued by the great Leonardo da Vinci. The theme then inspires artists to contribute appropriate works, which, after being sold during the silent auction portion of the gala, stay up for public viewing—this year, until May 14. “The first [Challenge’s theme] was clothespins,” Brown recalls. “That was very successful, and we thought we could do it another year.” 22 themes later, the unusual event is stronger than ever, posting record numbers of both artworks collected and dollars raised.

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Hill, the art show’s lead organizer, says that while this year’s floral theme might seem like an easy provocation, it’s not. “The whole idea of the assignment is to throw it on its head… Translate it in some way that’s special to you.” The effect of seeing well over a hundred of those special translations, across textiles, woods, clays, metals, paints, inks and photos, is dazzlement. Hill says she contributes a lamp each year, a fitting tradition considering da Vinci’s love of light. This time, it was a small neon flower bulb surrounded by a custom Kiara Matos ceramic. “It’s not about a flower,” Hill says enigmatically about the Challenge as a whole. “It’s about the bloom.”

Sheri McGregor, one of the artists in attendance, says that when she first got the Challenge’s invitation—which read, in part, “evolve a flower in paper, steel, glass or any improbable medium. Arrange a flower in an unexpected bouquet or myth. Plant a flower in a fresh and unexpected garden”—she “thought it was kind of boring,” but it grew into a worthy dare the more she considered it. Tianna Romo Kurek also found the theme fertile, saying she “went through a bunch of ideas,” before landing on a wire apple tree twining up out of a burl of driftwood.

Some designs are cheeky, like Molly Gambardella’s wispy metal dandelion titled Blow Me, or It May Flower, Mark McCarthy’s miniature Pilgrim ship laden with spirea blossoms. Elliot Rama Kurek’s Madera Rosa is an elegant, minimalist meditation in wood, while Keith Murray and Delari Johnston’s Leo Bloom, a book that traces its own creation for the Leonardo Challenge, is playful and sweet. Betsy Golden Kellem’s single-panel cartoon Maybe You Shouldn’t Stop to Smell The Roses… is dark and funny, issuing a warning against carelessly savoring nature, lest you be savored in turn.

“The most valuable export New Haven has is design,” Brown says. He’d taken a moment to talk with me but, in a packed crowd of hundreds, was interrupted by kisses, handshakes and well-wishes at a near constant pace. The Challenge aims to reacquaint artists with the feeling of starting from scratch, of having to draw raw inspiration from an unexpected source and form their piece with the kind of “improvisational creativity” Brown sees throughout da Vinci’s work. “Leonardo saw so much,” Brown says. “There are so many ways in which he gets to the threshold of modernity… He erases the boundaries between all disciplines. His music informs his physics, and that’s a good thing.”

Outdoors on the museum’s grounds, attendees ate, drank and ambled along the Mill River, passing beneath the flowering cherry, dogwood and magnolia trees whose blooms will depart much earlier than those made of sterner stuff.

But for the evening, the focus was on the present. Asked about next year’s Challenge theme, Hill shivers. “We don’t even know. We try not to think about it before the night is over,” she says.

As Sandy Rhodes’s Retablo: Retabloom has it, “Flowers / A day is all we last, A breath!” Until next year’s invitation, anyway, when perennial inspiration will sprout again.

23rd Annual Leonardo Challenge: Leonardo in Bloom
Eli Whitney Museum – 915 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
Sat 10am-3pm, Sun noon-5pm through May 14
(203) 777-1833

Written by Sorrel Westbrook. Image, featuring Sarah Afragola’s Imagination in Bloom, photographed by Dan Mims.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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