Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Field Report from Smuggler's Notch Inn, Vermont

"When you climb to the top of the mountain
Look out over the town.
Think about all of the strange things
circulating 'round." - Bowie

At 4,393 feet, Mt. Mansfield is the tallest mountain in northern Vermont. I'm told that after a certain chilly point in the year, the clear days are vastly outnumbered by the cold, gusty, gray ones. There's snow all winter, of course, which is why the area (Stowe) is known primarily for skiing (Stowe's also the home of The Alchemist brewery, producing the majestic Heady Topper, one of the highest ranked beers in the world, and certainly America's most coveted brew - but that's a story for another day).

Generations of American landscapists have gathered about the base of this mountain, often en masse, since the early 20th century, major names in mid-century landscape painting like Aldro Hibbard, Chauncey Ryder, Emile Gruppe, and John Carlsen.

Aldro Hibbard in Vermont, dressed for success.
Lugging big easels and bundled in greatcoats and hunting caps, they tramped through the hills and valleys (where extended gusts of icy wind can reach 120 mph). In the evenings they huddled near the fireplace at "base camp," aka, the Smuggler's Notch Inn in Jeffersonville, VT.


Intrepid winterist Stapleton Kearns has continued the tradition. He knew many of the painters I'm talking about and works within that genre. This March, he sent out word that a group was again to convene at said tavern for a week of working outdoors. It wasn't a workshop, just a gathering of landscapists willing to set up and paint in some of the poorest conditions possible (the names of all on Stapleton Kearns's FB page). The camaraderie was great, and the landscape was spectacularly inhospitable.

Stapleton Kearns listing off the names in a toast to the Great Ones in whose snow-prints we were walking.

I went out solo the three days I stayed, because early on I found a spot that felt right and decided I'd have a better shot getting to what I wanted to say about it by painting it multiple times. I learned later it was one of the classic views that several of the old-guard guys painted from pretty much the same spot. Here are two of them, the first by Gruppe, the second by Hibbard.

Mt. Mansfield, Aldro Hibbard

Mt. Mansfield, Emil Gruppe

I may have been further up the rutted mountain road than those guys. At any rate, it was all raging winter and cloud cover on the hilltop. It felt like floating around in a cold, primal soup.

 Mt. Mansfield from my chosen spot.
Every now and then a blizzard-like gust of wind would come roaring by and last for several minutes, during which time I'd "shelter in place" in my faithful Eurovan.



 The way I've been working with the landscape lately, I'll go for a sort of campaign in one spot, returning to the same location to paint it several times. You could call these studies, but while I'm doing them, I think of them as complete paintings. Each one embodies its own ethos, its own set of parameters and aspirations. The process helps me work toward a more complete articulation of what I'm feeling or think I'm trying to say. It's like each new painting shines a light into another corner of the cave.

My set up for the first painting.

All this, though, is preparation for a much larger painting (or if I'm lucky, a series) that I'll undertake in the studio from memory and imagination, without looking at the smaller "studies" made on site.

This 16"x12" is as far as I got on that first one. I'll try finishing this one in the studio.
The plein air paintings are usually 12x16 inches or 14x11 or so. I'll work up in scale in the studio, starting in the 20-30-inch range and go larger if it turns out there's enough coming through to justify working it out further at scale.

This 14"x11" is the next one from the same spot the next day. It's even further from what I wanted to say, but at least it's done ;-)
This time though, the larger studio painting still didn't get all the way to what I thought needed to be said.


This 24"x24" is what I did in the studio from memory, without looking at the plein air studies.

In desperation, I tried it again at a smaller scale in charcoal. Finally, the charcoal piece came closest of all to where I wanted to go. It captures that sensation of "primal soup" I had when I was out there, coupled with a sense of foreboding, I guess, that's part of my personal baggage. I'm not sure I can translate it into a large studio painting, but I'll have to try.

This 8"x8" charcoal interests me the most of all of them so far, but I have doubts about translating it into a large-scale oil. 
While I found myself doing the patchwork-like strokes in the charcoal drawing, I realized I was recalling Cezanne's paintings of Mont St. Victoire. 

Cezanne, Mont Sant Victoire
Now that's a great "mountain painting" - primarily because it's NOT "a painting of a mountain" so much as a testament to what in his Cezanne's time was a wholly new order of beauty. For me, just knowing that's possible makes painting worth doing.

4 comments:

  1. This is good stuff! You're so right about the charcoal one. If Spring ever comes, let's do another outing.

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  2. I so admire the "outside" painter. I love the immidate response, just wonderful!! Thank you for sharing the experience! I loved what you said, and your images.

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  3. I can relate to where you set up, with a deeper focus on foreground than making the mountain the focus. The whole charcoal thing and the emotional impetus to go there...sounds like good coffee talk! It's nice to follow a "full time" artist, who's always busy at his craft. Thx.

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