Willimantic, Conn. – “What I love about research is it’s like being a detective,” said Eastern Connecticut State University Visual Arts Professor Anne Dawson in regard to her latest research project, “Weir in Windham.” “I like solving mysteries. It’s cool when a hunch you had is proven right, and also when you find out you were wrong.”
“Love at First Sight: J. Alden Weir and Windham, CT,” an Eastern-produced documentary about the accomplished impressionist artist J. Alden Weir, premiered this past September. “Weir in Windham” is the title of the larger, multiyear project led by Dawson that includes a website and book, and will culminate in 2016 with an exhibition of some of Weir’s best works. While the project overall concerns Weir and his love for Windham, CT, the documentary in particular proved to be quite the community undertaking.
Dawson first decided to investigate J. Alden Weir back in 2009 when she discovered the famed Victorian artist was buried in Windham in 1919. She had been seeking her next research endeavor, and decided Weir would be the perfect topic, both for his historical importance and pertinence to the community. “His most famous works were painted in Windham,” said Dawson, “yet his story here was untold.”
Film was among the avenues chosen to tell Weir’s story in Windham. That is when Dawson sought out Communication Professor Denise Matthews, an experienced documentary maker, who then assigned the project to her documentary production class. “A goal of this project is to develop appreciation and awareness of Windham,” said Matthews, “and the visual nature of a documentary helps people to click with the research. It really brings Weir’s story to life.”
The documentary began the following fall 2013 semester. By December 2013, a rough draft full of interviews, reenactments, narratives and a number of hard-to-come-by landscape shots and images of Weir’s Windham works were compiled in documentary format. Communication major Emily Haggett ’15 spent the following spring semester in an independent study further editing and fine-tuning the documentary. “It was nice not having to worry about research; only filming, editing and production,” said Haggett in regard to Dawson’s all original research.
Coming from two different backgrounds, Dawson and Matthews’ production team experienced a bit of a “learning curve” when adjusting to each other’s medium. Dawson, an art historian with a literary background (who is also writing a book about Weir), was not used to the confines of film. “A film is totally different than a book. Professor Matthews knew which pieces needed to be told without going too in depth or not enough,” said Dawson. “I feel the documentary really captures the essence of the research.”
Regarding the structure of the documentary, Matthews said, “It’s very important to have a dramatic arc.” This being Haggett’s first documentary, she added, “I didn’t realize we should approach it like a story; it was nice to think of it in that way.”
Attesting to the community implications of the project, Eastern’s Center for Community Engagement helped fund the documentary. Willimantic’s Railroad Museum and Textile Museum were involved as well. In addition to expert input and interviews, museum staff enlightened Dawson of an authentic Victorian era passenger car in their possession. “The boxcar was in bad condition, but they fixed it up enough for us to film a reenactment in it,” said Matthews.
The research and production processes have been time-consuming, meticulous efforts. Luckily, Weir’s indecipherable handwriting and letters were previously transcribed, but still, Dawson had to track down and get permission to use his paintings. Dawson took a semester-long sabbatical where she traveled to Utah to uncover archives, and then to California to interview more of Weir’s family. While the book’s manuscript is mostly finished — and due to the publisher in March 2015 — Dawson is still looking through old issues of The Willimantic Chronicle (local newspaper) from 1882 and 1919, the time period when Weir resided in Windham.
“Love at First Sight” can be viewed at the project’s recently launched website www.weirinwindham.org. Upcoming “Weir in Windham” events include a book to be published by Wesleyan University Press and 2016 exhibitions at the Akus Gallery and Lyman Allyn Art Museum.