The Maridon is one of those obscure museums that you find in small towns. The kind that I should note, I am hopeless addicted to. There’s small, usually devoted to an esoteric subject and are typically a blast to visit because the people are passionate and the halls are empty. Don’t get me wrong – I love the Met, I love Boston’s MFA, but if I’m driving through a town and there’s a road sign advertising some obscure, tiny museum run with love and donations, I’m going to stop in. And I’m going to buy stuff in the shop, because these small museums also have the most random souvenirs.
The Maridon has been open now for a decade. The strangeness of the collection is because much of the museum -- the collection and the grounds -- were the personal possessions of Mary Hulton Phillips. Phillips was a Butler native who married Donald Phillips (the museum’s name "Maridon" comes from the combination of her first name with that of her husband’s.) Donald was the grandson of Butler oil and natural gas baron T.W. Phillips. Philips put that money to good use, undertaking a lifetime of collecting art works and antiques while being fantastically generous to organizations in her home town.
Photo by Cynthia Closkey https://www.flickr.com/photos/cynthiacloskey/3024207710
I first visited the Maridon, about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh in Butler, PA, years ago, shortly after it opened, I’ll admit; I blew it off. A nice netsuke collection (although no Shunga netsuke (at least not on display), so, perverts, look elsewhere), mixed in with some replica pieces and an incongruous and large collection of Meissen porcelain which, I felt, diluted the overall focus on Asian Art.
Ran In-Ting’s Watercolor’s exhibit is the first special exhibit I’ve been to at the Maridon and it was well worth giving the museum a second chance. The exhibit includes 22 pieces from a private collection on loan and marks the first time they’ve been on public display
Unless you’re a Butler local, you’ve probably never heard of Mary Philips. And unless you were a watercolor fan in the 50s in America, you’ve probably never heard of Ran. Although he had some American acclaim at the start of Cold War, Ran remains pretty much unknown here in the US. At home, Taiwan, it’s a different matter. Ran’s work is considered a national treasure of Taiwanese art, winning the National Art Prize In 1959 from the Chinese government the highest honor an artist could be given at that time in that country. But here in the US, his reputation has largely languished, even with the increasing interest (or perhaps because of) in contemporary (rather than Modern) Chinese Art.
And that’s too bad because the work is spectacular. Ran’s work has an energy and vibrancy that captures the clash of Taiwan's European influences and Chinese tradition.
“Beauties on a Summer Day”
There’s a great focus and delight in empty space and the concept of separation. Gates are a common motif in these paintings, working metaphorically to separate the spirit world from the material and the contemporary world of Taiwan from the old world of Formosa.
Even though Ran’s using watercolors, the paintings feel open and alive.The technical expertise is amazing with a combination of wet and dry strokes, layering, and a combination of colors that are breathtaking.
And yes, my haul at the shop included a coin purse, two gold maneki-neko, and four replica brass Chinese coins. I’ll use them to throw the I Ching to see what museum I should drop by next.
Ran In-Ting’s Watercolors Exhibit runs from June 1st through August 31st, 2014. The Maridon is at 322 N McKean St, Butler, PA 16001 (724) 282-0123 and is open Wednesday through Saturday from 11:00 AM -4:00PM. Admission Fees: $4.00 – Adults, $3.00 - Seniors and Students, Free - 8 and under. The Maridon Museum is ADA accessible.