I was fortunate enough to spend another week with the Nanatuck Group, a loose group of painters gathered by Mary Erickson that live for a week at a time in a rented house on the St. George peninsula on Maine’s mid-coast. Here are some of my pieces. (I also interviewed two artists for feature articles and finished up my book on art in the Wind River Mountains during my week there.)
I was thrilled when Tony Winters asked if I would like to join him and artist Robin Kappy in an exhibition in the East Village. That neighborhood is in my top 3 in NYC—lively, and still gritty and diverse like much of NYC used to be. But our art is hanging in the lounge area of a theater, and I didn’t know what that would look like.
When Tony and I went to the space to patch the walls and touch up the paint, I got a good sense for the joint. TNC Gallery is in the Theater of the New City, a community theater complex that hosts off-off-Broadway plays ranging from classics from Chekov to radical political pieces from local playwrights. I met Crystal Fields, the woman who has held the whole crazy thing together for 40 years, and immediately loved the vibe of the staff and the building. Shambling, creative, energetic…suddenly things changed from an exhibition in which I felt lucky just to participate, to something really cool that seems beyond a typical art show.
I have 12 pieces in the show, an even dozen that are decidedly uneven–in that some paintings will please some people and others will please a different crowd. There are triangle paintings and quick plein air studies and large atmospheric studio landscapes. It’s a bit varied, but it is an accurate snapshot of where I am currently in my painting. My fellow artists are wonderful friends and better painters than me–so check them out. I wrote about us, here. I’m goosed for the opening, which is this Tuesday night, March 20, from 5:30-7:30 p.m.
When I mentioned the exhibition to my friend Ray Rizzo, he immediately said he wanted to be a part of it, somehow. This was and is a thrilling prospect. Any project Ray picks up turns out to be unpredictable, creative, and somehow utterly professional while staying in the precarious moment. He will be out of town on Tuesday, so he suggested a closing party. My fellow exhibitors OK’ed the idea, so Ray will be playing some music and doing lord knows what else from 4:30-6:30 p.m. on April 30.
I hope you can come see the show, whether it’s at the opening, the closing, or some time in between. Ω
Beauty is an experience. Beauty is subjective. Beauty is a kick in the pants.
The definition of beauty is elusive, but for many artists, beauty is a siren song, a guiding star, a raison d’être, a passion. The three artists participating in the exhibition “Along the Hudson River: Three New York Artists,” on view at the TNC (Theater of the New City) Gallery March 20 through April 30, all have different ideas of what beauty is, but those views are sympathetic, consonant, mutually supportive.
Robin Kappy actively seeks beauty. It’s not just what she finds in nature, fodder for her artwork. It’s also what she sees and responds to in her clients. Kappy’s day job is working as a psychotherapist.
“I used to struggle, going from painting and drawing to the different perspective of being present and listening to clients,” says Kappy. “But I slowly integrated myself as a therapist and an artist. In a way, it’s the same thing—listening and observing, looking for and seeing what is beautiful in the model in front of me and the client in front of me. I have discovered that this is what my clients come to me for, though they may not realize it: I find the beauty within them.”
But what is beauty? “I think about that all the time,” she says. “It’s a complex question. Beauty is an experience. We can think of what’s beautiful and what’s not, but if we open ourselves up… there is beauty all around us, every day. By not being open to it we miss balancing ourselves, we miss seeing that there’s beauty all around us. I did have this fleeting thought that we are all moving toward beauty, even if it is a movement, a quest for something, toward making a perfect gadget, for example. We strive to reach our highest potential. That is beauty.”
So what is the role of artist for her? A means of expressing this beauty?
“I don’t know that I’m trying to communicate anything other than I love to draw and paint, and I think it’s because it gives a language to something that doesn’t have words,” she says. “That’s my experience of whatever it is that I’m painting. Kids act out their feelings. They don’t say ‘I’m angry,’ they act out their feelings. They giggle when they see something they like. It’s experiential, not yet put into words. It’s an expression of someone’s felt sense.”
Kappy points out that Eugene Gendlin is the origin of this concept of “felt sense,” which says that our mind and body experiences the awareness of progress or a next step based on a feel that is beyond the five senses. Perhaps this is the land where true beauty resides–a land that encompasses the entire universe, if we are willing to focus on it.
I, the writer of this post, am another of the trio featured in the show “Along the Hudson River: Three New York Artists.” In my paintings I try to suggest the way a scene feels to me, a way that sometimes demands exaggeration.
Sometimes a scene seems to call for a representational reading, and in those cases, I paint more tightly. But over the last year, I’ve often found myself breaking down scenes into triangles. Working on location, I try to accurately capture the colors of the landscape in front of me. The basic shapes are blocked in, but within them, I find the sub-shapes breaking down further into triangles. It is an exploration of how light (and thus color) is fractured, refracted, reflected, and suggestive of movement. Triangles signify many things for me, including directional arrows. Triangles have served as symbols for humans for millennia. I leave that additional research to anyone who wants to explore it, as I did when this natural urge to paint triangles took over a painting back in March 2017… and I wanted to figure out why.
I want my paintings to communicate the harmony and beauty of nature—and also to explore the intersection of human-made elements and natural forms, the place of humans in nature, and conversely the role of nature in the human world. Where I live, at the confluence of the Harlem River and the Hudson River in Inwood, Manhattan, nature and monumental structures (bridges, buildings, shipping channels) live in peace. I hope my paintings suggest the energy, movement, light, and peacefulness that pervades a nature-kissed Manhattan.
Tony Winters is the connector of this trio. In demand internationally as an architect, Winters has a keen interest in the Hudson River School of painting. His dedication to painting has taken him through the acclaimed Grand Central Academy, and he was the recipient of a Hudson River Fellowship. (His friend Kappy lives in Chelsea, in view of the wide Hudson; Winters lives south of her in the West Village. Winters and I are painting companions.)
Whereas Kappy is intent on presenting the beauty in both people and places, and thus is represented by many of her portraits in this show, Winters selected landscapes for “Along the Hudson River: Three New York Artists.” He, too, is concerned with the beautiful, and from another direction, making this show three views of beauty.
“I am trying to convey a feeling–a feeling that elevates the spirit,” says Winters. “Nature teaches us we’re part of a much bigger world, way beyond human culture, and that is inspiring. The world of rivers, mountains and trees has a magic I’ve loved since childhood. Part of that magic comes in the form of beauty: You notice nature never makes an aesthetic mistake, whether in the shape of mountains or clouds, ripples on water, color combinations on a beach – it’s always harmonious. To convey that feeling of connection and harmony is the height of artistic achievement in my opinion.
“Where does the experience of beauty come from?” Winters asks. “Our brains and our minds have evolved, so a lot of it goes back to instinctive survival mechanisms—the search for food, reproduction. But we also have an aesthetic response to something a tree or flower is doing. Why would that be? Why do we respond aesthetically to signals from plants? It seems that nature, having endowed us all with free will, uses emotions to guide our actions through persuasion. We’re not just stimulus-response robots, nor are other living things. If we were, we’d all live just by reflexes, we wouldn’t need strong emotion. But we do, and plants and animals provoke it–nature decided to give us a kick in the pants. Fear, obviously, has a survival value for our bodies, but what about beauty? I believe we are more than our bodies, we have an inborn need to feel wonder and awe, and beauty is our gateway to that experience.”
For Winters, making art is an antidote for the stress (and illusions) of daily life, but once he’s there–making art from life, from nature–art becomes something more than a mere antidote.
“Human society is so charged with primate responses like aggression, territoriality, sex and pecking orders we easily get overwhelmed and pulled into that familiar state of mind, rooted in survival instincts, basically. Nature, like meditation, gives us a chance to disconnect from that mindset for a while. And when we do, suddenly the world seems much bigger, and we see our place in it from a different perspective. So art is not just an antidote—it’s an active way of connecting with dimensions of life we may fail to notice, day to day. We are part of nature. We constantly forget that because we make our living as a species by controlling nature. But nature is our ancestral home, and when we connect, it’s like discovering long lost relatives. Practically speaking, painting is a great way to connect–we like to be out in nature, but we also like to be doing things. Painting, fishing, hunting–in all these situations, we have to adapt to the pace of nature as opposed to the pace of human society. Nature is slow and cyclical. It lends itself to meditation and slow contemplation. Painting is well suited to this pace; it matches up well with that. The meditative quality of painting is a chance to really slow down and connect.”
So we are left with a premise that sounds like the start of a joke: An architect, a psychotherapist, and a journalist walk into the world of art…
And each of them discovers that beauty is beyond the literal elements. Each of them does something different with this topic. And each of them brings with them an ongoing, personal encounter of “the rat race,” day jobs that inform them and allow them to explore how humans truly move through the world, a path that encompasses both raw nature and human constructs and hierarchies.
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TNC Gallery is located in the Theater of the New City, at 155 First Avenue between 10th and 11th streets, in New York City. There will be an artists’ reception for “Along the Hudson River: Three New York Artists” at TNC on Tuesday, March 20 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. For more information, go to theaterforthenewcity.net.
A few months ago, a friend of mine asked for advice on what materials to get his girlfriend for plein air painting. His last name is not Rockefeller, so I put together the least expensive list of things I could find, without sacrificing quality too much. For $110 you can dive headfirst into plein air painting.
I didn’t address the easel issue, because that is where one can really go off the rails. One could buy a new Soltek easel for $600+ or one could use painter’s tape to secure a cheap canvas panel to an old board and lay it on a picnic table, against a rock, or in one’s lap.
The paints I chose were acrylic because they are arguably easier for a beginner, and solvents present another issue. I didn’t address the water issue, because it’s really not that big of a deal. Frankly, if you can’t solve the issue of having a water dish for your acrylics, you are toast. Painting itself requires a lot of improvisation. Get your Macguyver on. Cut a disposable water bottle in half, dip a cup into a stream, fish a coffee cup out of a garbage can–rarely is a painter left flat-footed for water or a container. I’d worry about dehydration and thirst if water is that scarce where you are.
Anyway, here are the basics, including a split primary palette–a warm and a cool of each of the primary colors, plus a few other key colors. Hope this helps some people. Ω
Every once in a while, fortune truly smiles upon me. An example is meeting Mary Erickson, an artist, a connector, a lovely person. I met Mary at a painting event in the Adirondacks, and we got along well, in part because most people get along well with Mary, and in part because we shared a love of birds, nature, and painting.
Mary likes painting Maine, but she likes to do it with friends. So she started renting a house called Nanatuck outside of Port Clyde, and inviting painting friends to stay for a week and share the costs and cooking. This expanded into six weeks, and a rotating cast of characters.
It’s impossible to describe how Mary manages to stay out of people’s business, encourage their endeavors, smother any emerging drama, foster fellowship, and in general create an environment that is productive, fun, and drenched in beauty. For a week at the end of August, I was a part of the Nanatuck tribe–there to write about artists, but also to be a part of the whole experience.
Painting-wise, I was a guppy among whales. Don Demers was there, and I was reminded how no matter how good a photo of his work may be, it is even better in person. I don’t know of another marine artist who is better at capturing water, sky, and atmosphere. Everyone else was also represented by high-end galleries and enjoying considerable success with their art.
Unless you drive to a bigger town to shop, you will find that chicken costs more than lobster in Port Clyde. So what is a hungry artist to do? I sampled lobster rolls from various shacks, and came away the most impressed by the roll at The Happy Clam. I must admit that the delicious spätzle that was an option for a side dish swayed my opinion somewhat. On my last full day in Maine, I came close to a lobster hat trick–I ate leftover pasta with lobster for breakfast, and had a lobster roll for lunch. Alas, no lobster at dinner. Tough luck, huh?
Maine. The ocean is manganese. The rocks are volcanic, with folds and layers forming ridged granite with much personality. Fog coming off the ocean is grey and cool. Cormorants, American goldfinch, mergansers, gulls, and blue jays are common. Kingfishers, osprey, cedar waxwings, eiders, Canada geese, and chipmunks abound. Pines turn the landscape a deep dark green. The sun can be brutal. The people are friendly. The blueberries are small and flavorful.
My first painting was pretty bad. I was just getting used to the colors. I was trying to figure out how to get verticals into the vistas. The weather was so changeable, and the tide was dramatic and seemed quick.
I soon realized that paintings of any size at all would require two painting sessions at the same time of day. Two of my paintings were completed that way. I painted one triangle painting 80% on site, and it might be my favorite of the trip. On my last day at Nanatuck, I started a painting that went nowhere. But when I finished it up back home in NYC, it turned out well.
The renewal of old friendships and the development of new ones, the art-making, the food, the beauty of Maine, the simplicity of our days were fantastic, but the most important aspect of my week at Nanatuck was being Bob Bahr. At home, I am Daddy. I am a husband. I am a writer known only on the phone and online. I am a painter who posts to Facebook and Etsy. At Nanatuck, I was a person, relatively unknown, free to be me, free to be social or antisocial, free to be generous and gregarious or reclusive and resting, free to experiment or to paint traditionally, free to let my personality come out. I am loved at home, but I am old news, seen in one way. Being around supportive people, creative people with little experience with me, allows me to reestablish what makes me, me. I don’t know if this makes much sense, but I can’t stress how important it is.
So, thanks, Mary.