Saturday, February 24, 2018

Imagining a New Walden

By Gail Bambrick

Thoreau is the inspiration for a multifaceted Tufts Art Gallery exhibition, cabins included

items from the exhibition

“What I’m really interested in is the future and what it looks like, and in inventing a future through history and material culture and art,” says J. Morgan Puett. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Deep in the American psyche is the belief that we will only find our true selves when we shed the trappings of social structures and experience life at its essence. That was certainly true for Henry David Thoreau when, beginning in 1845, he decided to live in a small cabin by Walden Pond, in Concord, Mass., and write about his experience in Walden.

Understanding Thoreau’s motives and ideas—and how they relate to us today—is the theme of a new exhibition at the Tufts University Art Gallery, Renovating Walden, which runs through November 14.

“The exhibition is immersive,” says gallery director Amy Ingrid Schlegel. “It is not the expected static contemplation of a painting or sculpture, but a participatory experience in both ideas and in the actual construction of places and how we are reflected and changed by choices of where and how we live.”

As you enter the gallery, you find yourself in a room transformed into a lyceum, a public space for lectures, debates and dialogue. Here, surrounded by walls appointed with art, photography and objects that evoke Thoreau’s time and our own—a period saw, a digital photo frame and a beehive smoker, for starters—groups will gather for classes, lectures and public workshops offered by Tufts faculty as well as invited artists.

From further within the gallery, the sound of hammers and saws, a wall covered with period tools and the scent of fresh-cut lumber and wood shingles give hints of the work happening ahead. There, the exhibition’s creator, J. Morgan Puett, and her team will construct an exact, full-size replica of Thoreau’s Walden house, as it is sometimes referred to.

This will be followed over the course of the exhibition by the construction of a second house, an imaginative response to Thoreau’s experience based on the ideas explored in the lyceum. Also at play will be an “algorithmic game,” as Puett calls it, with objects Thoreau surrounded himself with or was drawn to, as he described in the voluminous journal he kept for 24 years. These include a range of contemporary and historical objects that Thoreau felt revealed stories about everyday life: a fireplace tile, a flute case, a snowshoe, a glass bottle, a paper cutter he made from pine wood and pencils that he manufactured himself.

Puett says she will use a list of 1,100 such objects, first categorizing and analyzing them. “Each step along the way, we will respond to and, in a very whimsical way, collaborate with Thoreau’s things,” she says. We constantly interact with things in ways we often remain unconscious of, Puett says. Our attention to them helps define their meaning and reflects on our role in how they were made, worn or placed in an environment.

“These responses will inform how we change the contents and actual wood structure of the second house. It will also produce change in what is displayed on the walls of the lyceum, all to reflect deeper or broader understanding of Thoreau’s experience, as well as our own,” Puett says.

Visitors will be viewing a changed, evolving exhibition. Periodically, tintype portraits made by project collaborators and objects on the tool wall will be rearranged, as will the second house itself.

“It is an unusual way to experience art. It is a way to collaborate with the world and not slather on too many egos—a democratic way of maneuvering through the world,” she says. “What I’m really interested in is the future and what it looks like, and in inventing a future through history and material culture and art.”

Hooshing Along

The installation was developed by Puett and longtime collaborator Mark Dion, along with six graduate students in the joint-degree program of Tufts and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, who spent three weeks this summer at Puett’s artists’ colony, Mildred’s Lane, in rural northeastern Pennsylvania.

Like Thoreau’s cabin, Mildred Lane’s main house is bare to the bone, with rustic boards and a no-frills décor. But it is also filled with flora and fauna and other objects from the environment to create an ongoing relationship with the natural world.

“It is a living, breathing place,” says Joanna Tam, SMFA’12. “Either its environment is interacting with you, or you are helping inspire it. I will never take everyday objects for granted again, but will be aware of what they are influencing in me and in the environment they help create.”

At Mildred’s Lane, they were hooshing everyday, Tam says. Say that again?

“It is a Southern expression I grew up with that has a range of meanings,” Puett says. “Like ‘the house needs hooshing’ would mean cleaning, or saying someone was ‘all hooshed up’ could mean excited or dressed up—but in the art world it has come to mean arranging objects so they have meaning or interest, or to clean them out to reveal their essence.”

Renovating Walden brings that philosophy to life, sparking innovative thinking on the part of participating Arts and Sciences faculty, who will offer numerous classes and seven public lectures. Among the faculty is Gilbert Metcalf, a professor of economics, who will discuss what Thoreau can teach us about sustainability.

“By living in a cabin in the woods outside of Concord for over two years, Thoreau could learn the true cost of living in a complex society,” Metcalf writes of the project. “Life is about making choices, and Thoreau would have us make deliberate choices. Economics provides a set of tools to help people make those deliberate choices.”

In addition to Walden, many of Thoreau’s other works, such as Civil Disobedience, are important as springboards for action, says Elizabeth Ammons, the Harriet H. Fay Professor of Literature in the School of Arts and Sciences. She will pursue that theme when she uses the gallery lyceum as a classroom for her course “Boston Radicals.” Her focus, she says, will be on Thoreau’s anti-slavery writing and his work as an abolitionist.

“This exhibit has sparked new thinking for me in how to approach the material,” Ammons says. “For example, I am going to have students each give a short oration about women’s rights in the lyceum. It will expose them to the power of the spoken word and how it can differ from written expression in its impact and power to persuade.”

On several Thursdays, Puett and five artist colleagues will offer what they call the “Ganoderma lucidum Lyceum,” with special presentations. Commonly known as the “shelf mushroom,” the Ganoderma lucidum grows from the side of trees near the ground. Puett points out that the Ganoderma’s Chinese name, lingzhi, means herb of spiritual potency or mushroom of immortality. “Almost anything could happen at those sessions,” Puett says.

“We feel we have succeeded in engaging a wide spectrum of the Tufts community in some very creative and cross-disciplinary thinking,” Schlegel, the gallery director, says. “We think everyone may be surprised by how attending any aspect of this installation, from the ‘parlor’ discussions to standing inside Thoreau’s cabin, may catalyze new ideas or reflections.”

For a detailed list of all public lectures in the lyceum, go here. For more information on the exhibition, go to

Gail Bambrick can be reached at

Posted September 17, 2010