Conversations in Landscape Painting

A long, long time ago, on a crisp, cool morning, I sat outside, breathed in the clean Vermont air and proceeded to paint the World's Worst Painting. Ever.

Before this momentous occasion, I had been making art-type stuff for a couple of decades. I adored figure drawing, mixed media and dabbled in the 3-d, creating life size paper mâché figures that populated my home like  drunken party guests who never leave.

I had supported my habit and education with a line of low-paying, but rewarding jobs. (me in a job interview: "of course, I can do that thing you just said.  I have lots of experience at that thing you just said.")

That interview technique led me to stints as a magazine editor, bartender, gallery curator, newspaper illustrator, lifeguard, theater creative director, set designer in Moscow, Russia, TV broadcast designer, courtroom artist, and teacher. 

Mostly teacher.

I found teaching to require as much cunning as any painting on canvas.  Never just a means of support, teaching continues to be the way, I hope, I may leave a small impact. I continue to teach Art History at UNCC, workshops at Ciel Gallery and lead  groups of painters to Italy every year.

My father, too, was an educator.  A French professor and artist, he gave his wonderful portraits to his sitters.  When we lived in Italy, he sought out a "face with some character" to paint and brought in a garbage collector wearing a bright green sweater and leather cap. I still have that painting. Maybe the garbage collector did not take it because it showed too many wrinkles.

One of five children, I was unbelievably fortunate to have a mother who, with her great joy of life, and Cajun accent, repeated a mantra of "Honey, you are not going to conform."  This was her directive for creativity.  Like many big families, creativity and humor became survival skills. Self worth was in direct proportion to how funny and/or loud you could be.

Later, I loved every minute of being a student at NCSU, ECU and James Madison University where I maintain a vague memory of professors dismissing landscape painting as a hackneyed subject whose hay day happened several chapters back in the Big Book of Art. 

However, on that Vermont day, I pushed those memories aside and for the first time, at the urging of my friend, set out to paint "on location."  I gathered my paints in a plastic Harris Teeter bag, found a plate for a palette and perched on a rock next to my friend, Kathy (who, greatly experienced at this art form, used a Julian easel exactly like Van Gogh's).

"Just shut up and paint," was the only advice I got that day.

After some red, green (lots and lots of green) and mountains that looked like piles of boiled spinach, I had my creation; along with a sunburn and  a few "I swear to god, a bug just crawled up my shorts!" moments.  But more importantly, I experienced a sensation of having just absorbed my surroundings in a more intense way than I ever had before.    I felt a connection to everything around me that went far deeper than merely observing.

But the painting? A smart person would have recycled their Harris Teeter bag with the painting in it.  But I was not that smart person and I continue to be grateful to my friend who not only introduced me to landscape painting, but who also conveniently neglected to tell me just how teeth-grindingly, gawd-awful my painting was.  Twenty years later and she's still biting her tongue.

It didn't matter.  I was hooked. And I was persistent.

Since then, plein air painting has served as my classroom.  Like the Barbizon painters, it is where I study, challenge, learn to see and enjoy a real conversation with nature.
A chat sounds like this:

"How dark does that shadow want to be?"
"Is that tree trying to overwhelm the house beside it?  protect it?  dance with it?"
"This sandy road is happy to share bits of orange with those trees."

I confess to almost a workman type approach to condensing what is before me. "Eliminate the obvious, exaggerate the essential" (Van Gogh). All this while striving to paint in a way that suggests energy, spontaneity and life.  This is not unlike the dancer who works for years just to make a beautiful leap look easy.

I've been so humbled and fortunate to receive awards, exhibitions, and recognition for my work, both in plein air and my studio paintings. I'm especially happy to be a part of the Ciel Gallery family. (I tell people that "the energy at this gallery forces me to pedal harder!").

But my secret is that ever since Vermont, landscape painting has never become the "effortless leap" for me.  Each painting is a new puzzle.  But I hope to happily spend all my years not quite 'figuring it out,' and looking forward to our next, imperfect, conversation.


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