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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

A sense of place


I can’t get a painting out of my mind. That means the artist did an unusually good job.
Lobster dock, by Carol L. Douglas, watercolor on Yupo paper.
In September, our days often start with fog, as the cooler, longer nights of autumn dance with the warm ocean. “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” John Keats called it. It’s exquisitely cool on the skin and a delight to paint. But I was having none of that joy on Sunday. In fact, I was miserable.

As the sky cleared, the day emerged perfect. There is a limpid, golden light from now until March in this latitude. Still, it’s not cold; a warm, gentle breeze floated across Damariscotta Lake. September is the most glorious month in Maine, and the knowledgeable holiday-makers know it.

They were out in force, zipping along the water on their jet skies, in power and pontoon boats. I like boats, and don’t generally begrudge them their fun on the water, but the engine sounds were drilling neat holes in my temples. After six hours, I capitulated to my awful headache and packed up my brushes.
I'm not a crank, I have hay fever. Really.
Yesterday morning I noticed that my eyes were swollen. The penny dropped. I used to have fierce autumn allergies when I lived along the Lake Plains. Here, my bedroom overlooks a hundred-acre hayfield. I have hayfever again.

I’d planned on meeting Bobbi Heath to paint in the pickerelweed above Damariscotta Mills. When I showed her my eyes, she suggested that we go, instead, to the shore, where the ocean breezes could clear my sinuses. That is how we ended up at Round Pond, and it suited me to a T.

Private Island, definitely unfinished, by Carol L. Douglas
I’m having fun with Yupo, and doing some interesting work with it, but the medium is driving my painting, rather than being subservient to any sense of place. That’s shifting, but it’s a slow process.

“Sense of place” is difficult to define. Most geographic places have strong identities, although some (like shopping malls) are interchangeable. But sense of place isn’t merely geographical. It’s also perception, based on history and feelings.

A sense of place needn’t be positive. Charles Dickens opened Great Expectations in a miasma of graveyard, swamp, and convict hulks on the river. Charles Burchfield has a tremendous sense of his adopted hometown of Buffalo, and it’s threatening. But in painting, sense of place is generally a positive thing.

In the national imagination, Maine has a strong place identity. That is why gazillions of ceramic lighthouses are flogged here every year. But a sense of place is deeper than simple media coverage and souvenir shopping. Digging to its essence is one of the trickiest jobs in landscape painting.

View from Mount Pisgah, by Deborah Lazar, has a tremendous sense of place. It comes from the brushwork as much as from the forms.
I’ve thought a lot about a painting I saw last month at Adirondack Plein Air that has a stellar sense of place. It was a tiny gem, almost unnoticed in the crush, but it’s resonated with me ever since. I asked its painter, Deborah Lazar, if I could share it with you.

Deborah has captured the Adirondacks’ essential color and form in simple terms. I can practically feel the wind in the looseness of her brushwork. She couldn’t have done that had she focused on style rather than content, because her mark-making would have overridden the movement of the wind. 

Style is often what's rewarded by jurors. But this painting has stuck with me long after the prize-winners have faded from my memory.

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