Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Hunter Nesbitt Spence has been participating in the Leonardo challenge at the Eli Whitney Museum in Hamden for sixteen of its seventeen years of existence.  Every year the material selected for the artists to work from changes, from ice cream spoons to playing cards to keys to tape measures.  Hunter takes it all in stride, because he makes the same entry every time: a flower arrangement.

From the first time he designed clothes pins into lilies, he has been hooked on the creativity.  Hunter, who grew up on a farm in Virginia, still speaks with a Southern drawl as he talks about his career at the Yale School of Drama where he taught masks and theater props for decades.

His entry this year, floral of course, is named Mirabella and features glass flowers fashioned from mirrors.  This versatile man from Hamden also has a permanent job running trains at the museum from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve.

The Leonardo Challenge, a fundraiser to collect scholarship money for children to attend the museum’s summer and year round programming, is named for the grand inventor and artist Leonardo da Vinci.  Each year one hundred artists from all walks of life, from all across the country, are invited to use their imaginations to create an entry.  All contributions are displayed and put to bid at a silent auction and gala dinner that was held on April 28.

Sally Hill, the museum’s Associate Director, was inspired to create a lamp, as she does every year, utilizing a Man of La Mancha theme.  Titled “Knight Light,” her lamp features Don Quixote on a silvery horse with a shade on his head.  She also created a chess set she dubbed “Through the Looking Glass.”

Amy Peters, an art teacher, loves color and different textures and enjoys combining them.  Utilizing her hobby of wood burning, she creates a mirror each year in a frame surrounded by funny sayings.  Her entry is called “Mirror Inspiration.”  Karen Klugman used a make-up mirror to fashion her “Tipsy Barbie” while Tim Nighswander took images and reflected verse for his “Shattered Mirror.”

On the sweet side, because she loves baking desserts, Eli Whitney Museum Manager Karen Lenahan presented “Alice’s Looking Glass Cakes,” inspired by Alice in Wonderland.  Artistically distinctive were Jean Cagianello’s “Dominoes and Dice,” eye glasses and glass dominoes that an Elton John might favor.  The artist Salvatore Dali influenced Jayne Crowley’s distorted face in glass while Linda Lindroth and Craig Newick went polka dot happy making a black with silver dotted ottoman they named “The Dottoman.”

New Haven’s David Moulton, an air conditioning contractor, let his imagination go wild creating “Infinity,” a unique wooden square ceiling hanging lined inside with mirrors.  Having entered every year since the year of the beaded chains, he knew instantly what he wanted to create and build in one weekend.  It took longer for the glass to be ordered than it did to construct it.

The award for the most entries easily goes to husband and wife Keith Murray and Delari Johnston of Stamford.  He is an accountant and she is a former costume designer for the theater who now manages a spice shop.  The pair agonized for months over what to create and then crammed their entries into the last six weeks, when Keith is busiest doing tax returns.

Using their dining room table as their studio, they bought wooden mannequins from an art supply store and dressed them in hand- sewn costumes as Alice, Chinese kings and bishops, cleverly calling them “Peking Through the Looking Glass.” Keith’s handmade frames also used Swedish and French toast to make bread and butterflies.

The full array of entries will be on display until Sunday, May 22.  The museum is closed Monday and Tuesday, and open Sunday and Wednesday to Friday from noon – 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.  The museum is located at 915 Whitney Avenue on the New Haven/Hamden border.

Come see how wood, egg shells, leather, sea shells, feathers, tree bark, marbles, paint, prisms, embroidery and, of course, mirrors translate into objets d’art worthy of a Leonardo da Vinci.

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