A New Slant on Thoreau

Huff and Puff at deCordova Sculpture Park & Museum

By: - May 08, 2024

This provocative installation at the deCordova Sculpture Park & Museum is a “dystopian meditation on the lives of marginalized groups, debt, the challenges of home ownership and living in a climate-stressed world today.”

You see it almost as soon as you enter. It is strategically placed on a green open space on your right. Oddly, it seems to have always been there. Though it is set at the creative intersection of art, history, environmentalism, philosophy, and current events, the term ‘transcendental’ might also fit its familiar presence. Part of the public art collection at the deCordova Sculpture Park & Museum, this Thoreau-inspired public art piece is titled “Huff and a Puff.”

Created by Texas-born and New York-based artist Hugh Hayden (b. 1983), it is a 15 x 10’ significantly slanted (20% angled) one-room English style house, a visual — but significantly symbolically distorted — full-scale copy of Henry David Thoreau’s temporary dwelling that he built near Walden Pond. He lived, wrote, and entertained there for two years, two months and two days from July 4, 1845 – September 6, 1847. There is an exact copy of the original Thoreau house located about a mile and a half from the DeCordova on Massachusetts Route 126 near Walden Pond. There are also several similar replica Walden Pond houses located around the United States including in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, and New York.

As with the best in any visual art, public art is supposed to be provocative.

And this piece succeeds. The installation exudes a sense of mystery through the adroit use of technical, spatial, and even aesthetic abstraction. It makes a visually strong statement whose somewhat awkward but undeniable magnetic tension is layered with irony, surrealism, and American history.

Approached from one side, Hayden’s installation appears to be a standard small, shingled cottage. But, looked at from all its other sides, each façade is noticeably angled. The experience is disconcerting, yet also more than a little amusing. Viewing this tilted little house, so serenely sited, is pleasurable. But it also poses questions — without answering many of them.

Hayden constructed the sculpture in 2023 out of mostly recycled materials, including old wooden shanty boards, used shingles to cover its roof and exterior walls, plaster, lath & horsehair for interior walls, two second-hand windows, and a thousand old bricks for the chimney and the fireplace. Like Thoreau’s original, it is “tightly shingled and plastered.” This askew cottage is beautifully crafted; a piece of very elegant fabrication.

Trained as an architect at Cornell and having earned an MFA at Columbia, Hayden draws on an aesthetic and intellectual methodology that transforms various familiar and well-known objects; he manipulates forms in ways that challenge our perceptions of ourselves, of others, and, most importantly, of our shared environment.

He strongly feels that his work is inspired by his deep connection to nature and its organic materials. Like many of his past projects, “Huff and a Puff” utilizes wood as his primary medium. The origins of this and other of his art pieces and installations are strategically loaded with multi-layered histories to reflect on complex cultural contexts and significances. Elegantly crafted metaphors for human existence, Hayden’s work also asks viewers to examine their place within an ever-shifting and highly sensitive ecosystem.

According to deCordova’s website, “the commission advances Hayden’s innovations as a sculptor who forges conversations around the myths and markers of American identity.” With “Huff and a Puff,” Hayden reimagines and reamplies Thoreau’s cabin’s connection with the writer’s environmental philosophy. The Thoreau cottage has become an emblem of American self-reliance, political activism, and ecological consciousness. Given today’s skewed political divisions and the topsy-turvy ramifications of the climate crisis, Hayden’s wonderful artwork probes Thoreau’s approach to nature — and how it is faring in our often bewildering times.

In the cottage, Thoreau lived in relative isolation. Based on his experience at the cottage, he wrote Walden: Or A Life in the Woods in 1845. In that book and others, Thoreau anticipated what some would  characterize as today’s ecological consciousness. His writings were generated from a preternaturally close observation of nature, personal experiences, pointed practical observations of society, wide reading, and historical lore. They also display, at their best, a vibrant poetic sensibility. As for his politics, Thoreau was a lifelong Abolitionist who delivered lectures that attacked the fugitive slave law; he also defended the violent actions of abolitionist John Brown. A staunch believer in civil disobedience for the sake of defending political and moral principles, his philosophy was venerated by Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, and Martin Luther King and scores of others.He was, at times, a vegetarian.

A replica of Thoreau’s cabin, owned by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, has become an international pilgrimage site. The state presents it as a sparkling image of American self-reliance, spirituality, and ecological consciousness. According to the artist, “Huff and a Puff” sets up a dialogue between his aesthetic vision of the cottage and the resonances, historic and literary, of Thoreau’s famous DIY cabin. This provocative installation is a “dystopian meditation on the lives of marginalized groups, debt, the challenges of home ownership and living in a climate-stressed world today.”

Hayden’s piece is part of the deCordova Sculpture Park & Museum’s constantly changing landscape of large-scale, outdoor, modern, contemporary sculpture and site-specific installations. The largest outdoor public art reservation in New England, the deCordova displays more than 60 works, most of them on loan. Hayden’s artwork, which will be on view until November 1, 2026, sets a high standard.

Reposted courtesy of Arts Fuse.