A giant white doily spans two beech trees on the front lawn of Highfield Hall & Gardens like the web of a magnificent spider. You might suspect you’re arriving in fairyland. Look closer and you’ll find more mammoth doilies blanketing boulders and wafting in the leaves overhead.
It’s art — nylon fiber crocheted by Ashley Blalock, titled “Queen Anne’s Lace” — and it matches the Stick-style Queen Anne architecture at the restored Falmouth estate, originally built in 1878 by the Beebe family, merchants of Boston.
Art exhibits often take place in sterile white-cube galleries, or artists tailor site-specific works to their habitat. Entire exhibitions rarely synch with their venues, but shows at two Cape Cod museums, Highfield Hall and Heritage Museums & Gardens, in Sandwich, deliberately chime with their environments — the architecture, the grounds, the beguiling gardens. The museums highlight the art, and the art highlights the museums.
Oh, and there are fairy houses at Highfield Hall and a carousel at Heritage Museums — not to mention a riot of hydrangeas — so take off your thinking cap, take the kids (or don’t), and go play.
The two museums share some DNA. In 1967, Falmouth philanthropist Josiah Kirby Lilly III bought a Sandwich farm and built exhibition spaces to house the collections of his late father, opening Heritage Museums in 1969. Lilly owned the Highfield Hall estate in the 1970s, and donated the acreage to Falmouth and the buildings to a local arts agency.
Heritage Museums makes a straightforward equation between art and site: landscaping outside, landscapes inside. “Painted Landscapes: Contemporary Views” is in one of three museums on the grounds — there’s also an auto museum, and one displaying congenial Americana such as carved wooden birds and legions of miniature soldiers.
The show in no way challenges preconceptions about landscapes or painting, but curator Lauren P. Della Monica has stocked it with canvases by excellent artists working today. She nods to the past with an introductory wall showcasing works by Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, and more.
The contemporary paintings range from strict realism to flickering expressionism and layered abstraction. Realist Sam Cady sets us directly beneath an ailing tree in “Cypress, Pacific Coast.” He fills the canvas with intimations of mortality and extraordinary movement, as if death is a launch, not a landing. Frances McCormack’s strong “Upright & Rooted” overlays translucent trunk-like verticals with graffiti-like loops.
Good landscapes, like any good art, can awaken inklings of larger, less predictable spaces, of sweeter colors. They are glimpses beyond our contained, routine worlds. When you step outside “Painted Landscapes” and wander down a gravel path like the dirt road pictured in T. Allen Lawson’s “The Road Home,” inside rhymes with outside. That’s a blessed experience.
Similar poetry occurs at Highfield Hall. The museum is holding its biennial “Storybook Fairyhouses of Highfield Hall & Gardens” show, for which it invites local artists to create cabins and castles described in their favorite books. These small wonders are scattered throughout the grounds and in the house.
With that backdrop, the larger-scaled art in other exhibitions transfigures the estate into a human-size fairy house. Blalock, whose “Queen Anne’s Lace” festoons the beeches out front, has similar giant doilies — red this time — cascading down the house’s stairwell over the grand piano, like a Brobdingnagian hankie fluttering to the ground. On another staircase, Kristina Goransson’s felted wool piece “Searching” winds around the banisters like ghostly, overgrown roots.
They’re part of the fiber art show “Interwoven: Art Meets Nature.” Fiber artists are crafty and can lean toward whimsy. That affect can cloy, but it works like magic here. Soldiers scramble out of the hatch and down the ladder of Kathryn Leighton’s scrupulous and comic “Trojan Tea” made of clay, beads, fabric, and sequins, and Al Krueger’s vintage teapots decked out in “Alice in Wonderland” themes are gaudy dreams.
Upstairs, a girl leads us into the woods toward a cozy cottage in “Come and Follow Me,” the centerpiece of “Once Upon a Quilt: 3-D Quilts by Dominique Ehrmann.” It’s an enchanting, large-scale, four-tier tableau made entirely of quilts with telescoped perspective that sucks us into its fairy-tale setting.
Not everything is imps, elves, and mad hatters, though. Much of the art is abstract, but tethered to nature by its materials, and to the house by an installation alert to palette and architectural detail. Katherine Glover’s “Chaco,” a lustrous wall work made of torn, layered paper painted with acrylic and topped with gold leaf, resembles overlapping gold tree rings. Glover makes an arcing cut across the top, revealing the leaves of paper, like wood cut across the grain.
Highfield Hall fell on hard times after Lilly, and in the 1990s community activists saved it from being razed. Pieces such as “Chaco” make a grounding counterpoint to the more fantastical art. But it all evokes the secret life of a house and its history, forlorn and fortunate. Art, like ghosts and fairies, reflects the dreams, aches, and fears of the people here — including us visitors.
INTERWOVEN: Art Meets Nature through Sept. 6
ONCE UPON A QUILT: 3-D Quilts by Dominique Ehrmann through Sept. 4
STORYBOOK FAIRYHOUSES OF HIGHFIELD HALL & GARDENS through Sept. 4
At Highfield Hall & Gardens, 56 Highfield Drive, Falmouth. 508-495-1878, www.highfieldhallandgardens.org
PAINTED LANDSCAPES: Contemporary Views
At Heritage Museums & Gardens, 67 Grove St., Sandwich, through Oct. 9. 508-888-3300, www.heritagemuseumsandgardens.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.