One Wednesday evening per month, a circle of Montgomery County residents gathers in the richly paneled, chandelier-lit library of the Mansion at Strathmore in North Bethesda to talk about art and literature.
Exhibition Manager Lesley Lundgren started the Artists in Fiction Book Club in 2017. She worked for 16 years as a librarian before landing the curatorial job at the Mansion. “Fiction is a gateway to learn more,” she said. “Strathmore seems to be real comfortable for people to learn about art.”
First inspired by Tracy Chevalier’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” Lundgren built an entire program around the popular genre of fictionalizing the lives of well-known artists. Chevalier’s take on 16th-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer and his iconic portrait of an unknown woman kicked off the series and encouraged book club participants to see the exhibition of Vermeer’s work then on view at the National Gallery of Art.
Individuals in the group come from various backgrounds and levels of knowledge about art. Artists, writers and government retirees listen to each other with respect. “I enjoy art,” said regular attendee Kathleen Carrey, “but I know very little. So, when I saw this advertised, I thought, ‘This is great!’” She appreciated the friendly and accessible approach to the topic of fine art. “If you listen, you can learn so much,” Carrey said. “It made me look at things a little differently.”
While the group analyzes the plot and methods of storytelling, what sets it apart from other book clubs is the focus on art. Discussions move toward art making (how Vermeer mixed his paints), era and setting (Monet’s turn-of-the-century French countryside), politics (Nazi occupation during WWII) and the changing roles of women throughout history and locale. Lundgren prepares a set of questions in advance to guide the group, but much of the topics “come out organically.” After the meeting, Lundgren takes them through the Mansion to tour the art on view.
Lundgren sets a warm, open tone to the meetings, encouraging every voice to speak up. In April, the group read Susan Vreeland’s “The Passion of Artemisia,” which fictionalizes the real-life rape trial and artistic career of Florentine painter Artemisia Gentileschi in 17th-century Italy. She is one of the best-known female artists in history and enjoyed great success during her lifetime. Lundgren posed questions about setting, as the author went to great pains to set the scene. “The landscape is still there,” Lundgren said. “We can go there, see Brunelleschi’s dome, which existed during Artemisia’s time.”
“I loved the details,” said writer Roxaun Torres Kamles. “I could smell the terrible smells. I could see the mosquitoes.”
Painter Sonal Goorha admired the artistic confidence expressed by Gentileschi despite her hardships. “She was a woman who knew her worth,” she said, “even in the 1600s.”
Lundgren plans her reading lists a year in advance, ensuring a wide variety of interests and topics are addressed and so attendees have plenty of time to find and read the books. She intentionally selects books that can be acquired in multiple formats—library, audio book, Kindle and purchased through bookstores. The group takes one month off in August, when arts summer camp is active at the Mansion and when the house closes for deep cleaning and maintenance. She has already developed the book list for the 2018-2019 season, which starts in September. “I’m tickled that there’s an interest in book clubs,” Lundgren said. “They seem to be having a resurgence.”
On May 16, the group discussed Sara Houghteling’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which follows a man’s quest to recover his family’s masterpieces that were looted by the Nazis during the occupation of Paris. On June 20, the selection was “Blindspot” by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore, about a Scottish portrait painter re-starting his career in 1770s Boston. The next book, Newbery medalist Cynthia Rylant’s “The Van Gogh Café,” is a collection of vignettes set in Kansas and written for children.
Participation in the Artists in Fiction Book Club is free. RSVP is recommended as seating is limited. Visit www.strathmore.org/events-and-tickets/art-book-club to RSVP and find more information. The Mansion at Strathmore is located at 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda.