"The true painter strives to paint what can only be seen through his world." ~André Malraux

After a year of intermittant "painter's block"  I am working again in my studio, and feeling in a tentative positive state. Painting is a solitary activity, and as artists, we are often working in a vacuum. Unless we have a show hanging, reaction to the work is minimal. With several pieces underway, I decided that perhaps if I write about what I am doing or am attempting to do, it might act somewhat as a muse for me as well as give me some feedback on the work I am creating -- hence the establishment of this blog. 

As for the blog title, traditional, representational painting is a language for expressing what’s visible. But I feel my work is the most successful, and most interesting, when focused on things not entirely visible. I paint what I see but also what I sense and feel by utilizing my interior and unseen world --- in other words, the invisible world. Plein air work or  studio work from photographs are only touchstones or landmarks which guide me to other inner spaces. By so doing, I find that I am pushing the boundaries between representational and abstract work.

You can enlarge the images in this blog by clicking on them.

Mar 29, 2011

Houses from the Past

37 South Maple Avenue
"Clover Hill" 
As a child, I grew up in houses rich with history. My first five years were spent living with my grandparents in a beautiful, large, pre Civil War home in NJ (left), torn down when a highway came through the town. It had a wonderful barn behind, where my grandfather kept his automobile, treating it as well as a person who grew up on a farm would treat his horse. Much to his elegant wife's horror, he manured the grass every year. During this time, after the war, my parents' also bought a very old farmhouse in Goshen, NY (left) and used it as a weekend/vacation place. The neighboring farmer plowed a huge vegetable garden for my parents; we picked up milk, butter and shortbbread from the farmer's wife down the road; and I could watch cows outside my upstairs bedroom.  Wondrously, because in this country we tend to tear down so many of our fine old houses, it is still there, although the surrounding farmland is not.
Me on our porch, and my woods behind.

When I was six, we moved  to a building that had been the original schoolhouse in Essex Fells, NJ  (left and below) where I spent my childhood. It too still stands, but no longer surrounded by woods that were my playground, and so exciting to a little girl. 

We raised our own kids in a 1911 Queen Anne house in Montclair, where I once "saw" an Irish woman dressed in turn of the century clothes, in one the third floor bedrooms -- the old servants' quarters.
The house where I grew up

Probably as a result of these particular old houses, I have always loved them and the thought of the lives once lived within their walls. When they are abandoned, I find it hearbreaking, but fodder for wonderfully evocative paintings.

 One of my very favorite books was The Little House, written by Virginia Lee Burton. (Sorry the clicking option from this Amazon image will not work here!) This classic childrens' book which won the Caldecott Prize in 1943, is still selling strongly. It begins "Once upon a time there was a Little House way out in the country. She was a pretty Little House and she was strong and well built."  Amazon describes the book:  

"The rosy-pink Little House, on a hill surrounded by apple trees, watches the days go, by from the first apple blossoms in the spring through the winter snows. Always faintly aware of the city's distant lights, she starts to notice the city encroaching on her bucolic existence. First a road appears, which brings horseless carriages and then trucks and steamrollers. Before long, more roads, bigger homes, apartment buildings, stores, and garages surround the Little House. Her family moves out and she finds herself alone in the middle of the city, where the artificial lights are so bright that the Little House can no longer see the sun or the moon. She often dreams of 'the field of daisies and the apple trees dancing in the moonlight.' Children will be saddened to see the lonely, claustrophobic, dilapidated house, but when a young woman recognizes her as an old family home and whisks her back to the country where she belongs, they will rejoice. Young readers are more likely to be drawn in by the whimsical, detailed drawings and the happy ending than by anything Burton might have been implying about the troubling effects of urbanization."   

But this book stuck with me, and also with my daughter who says it influences her still today. It is probably one reason that I began a series of paintings of the disappearing barns and farmhouses in Vermont a few years ago, and why,from time to time, such as now, that I am still compelled to add to this series. As I watch this farming heritage disappear from the New England landscape through neglect, the elements, vandalism, fire etc., I feel a great sadness, and in my own way try to preserve a little of it at least on canvas. Because even the memories of lives lived in them are fast disappearing, and the only way these buildings will survive is through photographers and artists. 
 Here is one which I may have posted earlier.

Windows Filled With Vanished Days  20" x 20"         oil on canvas

My children, when small, used to call them "sad houses." Often known simply as "the old so-and-so place," these remnants of the once-thriving farmsteads -- houses, barns, corn cribs, ice houses, root cellars --  have slowly gone fallow, like the land. Often all that remains is a stone cellar, some lilac bushes, old apple trees, tumbled down rock walls, rusted old plows, all speaking of lives once lived there. But many of the old wooden buildings themselves also still cling precariously to the land. 
As well as a loss of historical and architectural legacy, these old houses and barns also speak to me of the loss of personal history. As I work on these pieces, I imagine the rich life that once inhabited the buildings --- the sturdy work horses and cows in their stalls, the sweet smell of the hay, the sounds of milk pails clanking, cattle lowing --- and in the houses, open windows with curtains blowing in the breeze, the smell of dinner cooking, kids in tire swings hung from trees, the lives lived there, all gone, all gone.

This is the painting I have been working on this week -- of a fragile, old house  with nothing left of its past except a tattered lace curtain in one window. Soon I imagine only the brick of the foundation and chimney will be left.

All Gone, All Gone  20" x 20"  oil and graphite on canvas

Detail, All Gone All Gone
Historical note: Defection from the hills attest to the exodus after the Civil War in New England: large numbers of men hearing from army mates about the fertility of the readily available Midwest land, with no rocks to clear, never came home. And people who did not go west moved down into the mushrooming factory towns where livings might more easily be made. With the farmers' daughters going to work in the mills, and their sons off to fight in the war and then to other parts of the country where farming was so much easier, by the 1870's, farmers all around Vermont were abandoning their farms wholesale. Deserted farmhouses and barns became increasingly conspicuous in the cleared farmlands (now often given over to reforestation.) When a family decided to leave, there were few takers for the farm. Many simply moved out and, one imagines, after a some difficult and sad farewells to their home itself as well as to family and friends, they shut the doors and left their places to the forces of nature. And then came the Depression leaving more farms in its wake. The increasing presence of these buildings today bears silent, and sad, witness to more recent problems-- farm consolidation, rural depopulation and the present travails of trying to keep alive the family farm in New England.   

No comments:

Post a Comment