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Artists Contend with Social Distancing and Darkened Galleries

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When she was a small child, Calais painter Susan Wahlrab recalls, “I told my mother I could see air.” She has a different interpretation of the experience now. “What I’m seeing,” she says, “is energy.”

She conveys it in her artwork. Using materials and a watercolor process possibly unique to her, Susan, who is 63, creates vivid scenes of nature that are striking in their depth and which, while they portray lovely, somewhat Impressionistic images (trees, fields, flowers, streams), seem almost to be more about what’s happening underneath. 

Becky “Becks” Parker, a 32-year-old painter living in Montpelier, describes a strikingly similar childhood experience — an intense stimulation in response to movement. 

“I remember, since I was a little kid,” she says, “being in situations where, moving fast, my brain is like fireworks, trying to take in all this information that’s flying by.”

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Her art is largely an effort to capture those sensory responses to movement — slowing it, stilling it, summoning forth the colors she perceives within it. She finds it therapeutic. Through painting, Becks says, the movement (the energy?) “is less overwhelming and there’s more a deep feeling of gratitude and appreciation for the beauty that passes us by.”

“Not just the beauty,” she adds. “Sometimes it can be shadowy and scary. But I like to explore both of those.”

The COVID-19 pandemic seems a shadow upon our lives. Masked, we make our way through the world as required, but nearly in a state of suspended animation, waiting for the pandemic to end. Through it all, however, artists continue to see. Judging from the five central Vermont painters profiled here, “seeing” and being driven to explore more deeply what the eye and senses perceive, is a lifelong compulsion.

“I was one of those kids who drew on clothes, on walls…I was always doing that,” says August Burns, a portrait artist from Middlesex, who is known for, among other subjects, creating the painting of former Gov. Peter Shumlin that hangs in the Vermont State House.

“I could draw from the git-go,” says Frank Woods, of Montpelier, whose paintings — whether of people, objects, or nature — drift back and forth across a spectrum of abstraction, here more literal, there abrupt, provocative, puzzling. He remembers the encouragement of an art teacher in Montreal who had something of a pedigree: She was a niece of A.Y. Jackson, one of Canada’s renowned Group of Seven landscape painters.

As for Mark Berry, of Berlin, “I liked drawing from childhood time. My mother was a painter who did a lot of landscape work, and my uncle, Keith Ferris, was a major artist for the Air Force.” (His renditions of military airplanes are displayed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.) “I was fascinated with books, studying artists all the time, and doodled endlessly — to the point of being told not to [by irritated teachers].”

Mark’s paintings are of the forms and faces of (usually) women, and, as much if not more, of the colors he coaxes out of their hair, their skin tone, and the shadows playing upon them.

These artists are a small sampling of the many who live and paint in Central Vermont, and who in ways of their own are navigating through COVID Time. 

August Burns

Why is it that, often, when we wish to honor someone’s personal complexity, we turn not to a true, captured image of that person — a photograph — but to an artistic rendering by another human being: a portrait?

August Burns has mused about it.

“A photo is a moment,” she says. “A painting is a relationship that takes hours of intense seeing to accomplish. [That] creates a deep love of the humanity of the person being painted.”

Thus, her practice, since she entered portraiture as a profession just six years ago, is to engage with the person as they pose in August’s studio, to study how their thoughts, emotions, and character are reflected in their visage. “My goal is to find that person through portrait and share their story through their gaze,” she writes on her website (augustburns.com).

When she was a teenager her mother persuaded a local artist, near their northern New Jersey home, to give her lessons. August sings his praises to this day.

“He taught me the fundamentals of painting — mixing color, using oil paint.” But she was in for a jolt when she sought to study art in college.

 “I went to one semester and found out about abstract expressionism.” Suffice it to say she did not swing in that direction. “I just left. I never went back to it; nothing, for 25 years.”

Instead, she earned a master’s degree in public health and embarked on an impressive career providing reproductive, midwifery, and other healthcare services in underprivileged communities worldwide.

“Then, about 15 years ago, I had this flash that I needed to open up my life. I took a [painting] class and discovered that it” — her eye and her ability — “was still there.” She made connections in the art world as she traveled, and learned that classically inspired realism, her technique, had made a comeback. In 2014 she left public health to dedicate herself to art.

Her rise has been notable. She has exhibited widely and placed well in juried competitions. Commissions for portraits have been her bread and butter. 

Then came COVID.

“I had requests for 16 commissions that I had to walk away from. Because I paint from life, I really need to know people” to paint them. 

Such personal interactions, nowadays, are verboten. 

Yet she has found a way to continue. In fact, she feels liberated. She invites clients to pose, move, and converse, in her studio while her husband, Elliot Berg, videotapes them — windows open, August and Elliot masked. Afterward, August paints from those materials. The reason this is liberating, she explains, is that she has also changed her business model. Clients pay just 10 percent of her price up front, and the rest if they like the results. Thus, she feels a greater freedom to respond to her own ideas as she wields the brush, by herself, on her own time.

August Burns’ work can be seen and purchased at Roam Vermont in Montpelier, and online through the Moretown Artisans’ Sale. She donates her earnings to social and environmental causes.

Becks Parker

When she was a student at Wellesley, Becks Parker sometimes coped with the stress of her college workload by boarding Boston city buses at night and taking photographs out the window. The bus was moving, people on the sidewalks were moving, the traffic was moving. The photos would be blurry, which was fine; they captured the constancy of motion — which, as noted above, had fascinated her since childhood — and provided material for Professor Daniela Rivera’s painting class.

“I felt so much energy in those blurry photos,” that Rivera, says Becks, “understood what I was trying to convey and helped me learn to do that.”

“Truck #8 (Departed),” by Becks Parker.

After graduating in 2010 with degrees in psychology and studio art, she traveled west, living for a year in Boulder, Colorado, and then Berkeley, California. Those long hours of highway travel were fodder for her creativity, again using her camera to catch the juxtapositions she describes on her website (becksparker.com): “… massive trucks rushing along the interstate against the wide-open sky and far-stretching fields at twilight…the in-between moments, the liminal spaces…”

Once she returned to Vermont, she had plenty of material to work with. And while the categories of paintings displayed on her website nearly all refer to motion (“Motion: Trucks”; “Motion: Trains”; “Motion: Abstract”), they are anything but repetitive: abstract city skylines viewed from afar, the stanchions and buttresses of a traffic-congested bridge, a dim figure loitering on a metro platform, parallel trains passing, sloping escalators, softly focused rows of buildings behind an indecipherable blur of traffic. We know those scenes ourselves, but in Becks’ telling they take on new, hurried, and intense colors; shapes we recognize fade into the air as they speed, or even walk, past. Her abstracts, her wine glasses, also are strikingly imbued with movement, even if they are still.

“I try to convey this sense that everything is connected,” says Becks, “and everything is fluid.”

The COVID pandemic, surprisingly, finds Becks not painting.

“I don’t have time for it right now,” she says. “But I’m channeling that energy toward other things.”

Specifically, she is preparing food — sushi and spring rolls — at her mother’s establishment in Montpelier, the North Branch Café. Still the artist, she uses the translucent rice-flour wrappers to frame the colors of the vegetables within. Painting, she says, will return.

“Even though it’s been tough [with COVID], there have been so many positive things,” says Becks. “I’m focusing creative energy into different avenues. I think it will show to be a good thing.”

Susan Wahlrab

Susan Wahlrab has a vision, a plan for what she’ll do when COVID finally lifts.

“I want to create a garden,” she says, “like a room where you’re completely surrounded by images of flowers.” Unlike a linear gallery presentation, the viewer would stroll among these paintings as on a garden path. “It would envelop people,” she says.

“And I’d like to incorporate poetry. And music. I’m working on the paintings; I’ve done at least seven of them.”

While any accomplished landscape artist could construct such an envelope, it could be particularly compelling if the art were Susan’s because of the unique appearance of her work. Her medium is watercolor, but several years ago she changed from painting on paper to painting on what are called archival Claybord surfaces. Most people, she says, would find it difficult to control watercolors on such a surface, but her experience with similar materials, in a highly selective printmaking graduate-degree program at the Rhode Island School of Design, gave her practice.

“New Day,” by Susan Wahlrab.

 “It’s unusual for watercolors,” she explains. “I have these translucent layers of watercolor that I build over time — literally, sometimes, hundreds of layers. When it’s done, because it’s on a panel, I can actually varnish it.”

The sheen protects it and also enlivens the strata of images, some of which are so faint they’re more suggested than real.

“My inspiration is nature,” Susan says, “and nature is energy.”

Susan’s practice has been deeply affected by the pandemic. Galleries where she displays her work have been shuttered for safety reasons; similarly, one of her main activities — a “Color of Nature Workshop” that attracts dozens of participants to venues such as The Garage Cultural Center in Montpelier — is not feasible indoors in winter. 

The Color of Nature, for Susan, is a willing adaptation to living in Vermont. After earning her MFA at RISD, she taught art at Brown University, a state college in Boston, and Maine College of Art in Portland. When she moved here in 1992 to start a family with husband Peter Perkins, she couldn’t earn a living through art alone, but found ready audiences for her energy-centered workshop, originally developed for her college students. It incorporates yoga; Flower Essence practices; and Ayurvedic medicine, an ancient, Indian healing modality.

At the moment, it, too, is stilled. So Susan spends what time she can find figuratively planting her visual garden for a world after COVID. 

Mark Berry

Mark Berry jokingly drives home a point: “There’s no such color as flesh.” Despite the crayon with that label, he insists, “It doesn’t exist.”

What does exist, to the refined and practiced eye, is a palette — no, not the tray of colors at the artist’s hand, but a panoply of shades and hues implied by the subject’s hair and skin tones, the lighting that illuminates parts of her face and body and casts shadows elsewhere that are not simply black but a spectrum of muted colors.

“Untitled,” by Mark Berry.

“Billy used to call me a colorist,” Mark says, for his quest to blend colors effectively and apply them in creative, sometimes startling ways. 

“Billy” was Bill Brauer, of Warren, one of Vermont’s finest and most-beloved artists. He died in February 2019, but for more than 30 years hosted a painting group that met Thursday nights in Montpelier, often with a model. Mark began participating in 1996. As noted above, his fascination with art had started early, and his mother sometimes carted her nine children to the museum at the Art Institute of Chicago, “looking for things to do with us!” he says. He pored over books on artists, studying their techniques.

Mark went into the food-service industry, which leaves zero spare time, but it brought Mark, his wife, Kathy, and their growing family to Vermont in 1989, where he attended NECI in Montpelier, and then taught there. Later, he commuted to Boston for restaurant jobs.

It was a family tragedy — the death of their sixth child, at 14 months — that led Mark back to art. “We got into a family depression,” he says, “but my wife heard about Billy’s drawing group and thought it would do me good. It was a designated couple of hours a week for painting, and that’s what I needed.”

As a painter, and a still-infatuated observer of other people’s work, Mark is particularly attentive to the details of execution, appreciating the sparse but effective use of brush strokes — “a few lines that really get that person, who they are” — and the composition of the under-painting colors behind the featured image. He quips, “Some people have told me, ‘Your people are nice, but your background is so good you should just paint the background.’”

The COVID pandemic, unfortunately, has stilled Mark’s brushes. The weekly group continued after Bill Brauer died, but cannot gather under present restrictions. Like the figures in the painting Les Glaneuses (The Gleaners) by Millet, he still toils in the demanding fields of food service. Additionally, to Mark, painting “seems irrelevant right now.” The rampaging disease and current political turmoil are disheartening. 

Yet his paintings, leaning against the walls at his home, beckon. 

“I have probably 100, because I never feel like anything’s finished. Painting,” he says, “is kind of like a diary.”

Frank Woods

Painting near Mark Berry frequently on those Thursday nights with Bill Brauer was Frank Woods, a librarian by profession, an artist by passion. A Canadian by birth. Artistically, his ties to Canada have benefited him greatly. His wife’s stepmother, Betty Galbraith Cornell, a well-known landscape painter, owned a home on the exotic Gaspe Peninsula, and on summer visits she would take Frank to intriguing spots where they would set up their easels and paint. In 2002, Frank and his wife (also named Betty) purchased their own place in that area; they travel there every summer (yes, including this one, thanks to their dual citizenship).

It was there that he developed a painterly practice he admits is obsessive. He noticed three white Adirondack-style chairs on a green lawn, touched by shadows from nearby pine trees. 

“I would arrange the chairs like a still life, rearrange them, and paint them over and over.” With repetition, the chairs — and later other objects, such as barns, highways, kimonos (!) — would alter; their shapes remained recognizable but their colorings, and contexts, were wholly other, inviting new musings and interpretations.

“Barn,” by Frank Woods.

Landscapes were not spared. “I would look at a landscape and think, ‘I don’t have to do the colors that are there. It’s my party… I can paint the way I want to. So the landscapes, over time, become more abstracted. It’s a pattern. I may start out doing stuff pretty realistically, and it goes more abstract.”

His studio paintings at Bill Brauer’s workshops were equally imaginative. In the aggregate, this has produced a large and quite varied Frank Woods “oeuvre.” (website: frankwoodsartist.com.)

Boston, too, had a role in this. He earned his library science degree at Simmons University and then found employment at Harvard and other reference facilities. He had visions of becoming a sculptor. “But I decided I needed to train my eye first. So I enrolled in an evening drawing class at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. From day one, I loved it. I took the same class for four years.”

He and Betty moved to Vermont in 1975, and he began a career with the state Department of Libraries. He retired in 2005. 

Amidst COVID, he hasn’t felt a direct, conscious effect of the pandemic upon his art, but he hasn’t painted as much lately as he’s used to. However, he managed to get fixated on a particular bush this summer in Quebec. It will, no doubt, go through the same myriad metamorphoses as his other subjects, for as Frank confesses, “I’m no nearer to figuring out what I’m really doing, or why.”

Frank Woods is among a small group of other artists featured in a show at the Furchgott Sourdiffe Gallery in Shelburne, which opened on December 4.