Berkshire Botanic Garden Showcases Works from Monterey Artist’s 50-Year Career | Arts-theater
STOCKBRIDGE – Gold leaves take flight at the Berkshire Botanic Gardens – but not in the landscape, now sleepy at the end of the season.
Instead, they adorn the walls of the rustic galleries of the artfully renovated historic Center House Leonhardt Galleries, which are part of the “The Magic of Nicholas Mongiardo” exhibition, on display until November 30.
Large and small paintings fill the rooms with low ceilings; glossy paneled screens and distinctive art tables.
Mongiardo, 75, a Monterey resident and a Brooklyn native, painted lacquer, a rarefied material he learned to master over a 50-year career restoring first high-end automobiles and then furniture vintage.
His early works, inspired by art deco legend Armand Albert Rateau, depict stylized creatures – cats, squirrels, lovebirds, fawns – underlined in gold on multi-layered backgrounds polished in vibrant blue, red and black.
Two side tables perch on long, tapered legs, one topped with “shagreen” skin, the other in red leather embossed with circles reminiscent of bubbles on a Mongiardo mirror frame on display at the Cooper Hewitt Museum from New York.
Sitting on an imposing oiled African bubinga wood observation bench, Mongiardo explained that he painted his 2020 series “Birth of a New Planet” after “COVID intervened [and] I was so angry with the state of the planet and the humanoids that live on it.
The dozen images displayed include turbulent blue and brown prints of the early creation “almost like divine intervention”, dark moonlit scenes, as well as harmonious and dramatic natural vignettes.
Mongiardo makes the frames himself from materials such as wood and parchment. He’s always built things.
As a child, he played with his older brother’s discarded construction toys, then created detailed model train plans for the holidays. His father called him “a perfectionist”.
“I didn’t know what it meant, I was so young,” Mongiardo recalls.
Using scrap materials, along with friends, he built a two-story dovecote and learned how to restore a 1955 Chevrolet.
He was drawn to the decorative eggshell lacquer work on furniture and panels during his first visits to the Brooklyn Museum with his mother.
He merged the two while working at Porsche Mercedes. “I started out in the machine shop learning race cars,” he said. “I was drawn to the meticulous and advanced.”
Their body shop “taught me how to hammer and straighten metal. I was always chasing as much knowledge as I could get [from] mastery. “
In his early twenties, while browsing Brooklyn antiques, Great Parkers owner Pony Circus Antiques persuaded Mongiardo to forgo cars and instead restore furniture they imported from England.
Mongiardo focused on the top art deco designers from the 1925 Paris Exposition. “I wanted smooth, clean surfaces,” he said.
At the age of 30, he moved his young family to the Berkshires to rebuild a client’s house. By purchasing a 13-acre property in Monterey, he constructed five buildings using materials salvaged from the Barbieri sawmill in Housatonic. “I have always been oriented towards architecture,” he noted.
When a bedroom he displayed at the 1975 Art Deco exhibition at Radio City Music Hall attracted considerable attention, he started his own antique and custom furniture restoration and reproduction business in Berkshire.
Known for his “extremely meticulous” work, Mongiardo “was approached by the fashion industry – Armani, Calvin Klein – and then celebrities. [like] Brad Pitt, Yoko Ono.
“They wanted reproductions because they couldn’t get 16 chairs. Some pieces were very rare. We were all over the world.
Clients included Wolfgang Puck in Bahrain, Michael Chow in Korea, and most recently the Tiffany company and business mogul David Geffen.
In 1997, he collaborated with Trai Nguyen, owner of Truc’s Orient Express restaurant, to create eggshell lacquered panel screens, made by artisans in Nguyen’s native Vietnam.
Three displays on display show photorealistic zebras, giraffes and water lilies against backgrounds in turtle-scale hues that appear black.
A fourth screen represents the Garden of Eden in shimmering and matt gold. “It’s very technical [and] took a year to make, ”Mongiardo noted.
Organic lacquer is harvested from cuttings of urushiol-producing trees, Mongiardo said. Because it is “dark amber like molasses and translucent,” crushed eggshells have been used to lighten it for millennia.
The noxious resin “is really aggressive like poison ivy, so you have to be very careful,” he warned. “I figured out how to copy it with synthetic lacquers and I became a master at it.”
“It’s from a kind of tree called a toxicodendron [related to poison oak] Greek words for poison and tree, which are part of the sumac family, ”said Thaddeus Thompson, acting executive director of the garden. “The technique [Mongiardo] employed in this process is fascinating.
The exhibit “received a tremendous reception,” said Thompson, noting that some 150 people attended the opening reception, many of whom traveled far enough for it.
He added that even though the grounds are closed for the winter, the gallery exhibits artwork year-round and off-season shows often spotlight local artists.
“It’s a wonderful feature of the garden, a huge building and a gallery. All exhibits are related in one way or another to horticulture. It’s all part of how we share the importance of plants and stewardship of our planet.