Sunday, December 2, 2018

My Love of Landscape – Part 8

Part 8 of My Love of Landscape: A Return to Vermont

Barn 9x12 Pastel
I loved this barn

The law firm that asked me back had several offices, and I was told I could choose among them.  I chose the St Johnsbury office.  Housing was cheaper in the Northeast Kingdom, and because the St Johnsbury office was more casual, I wouldn't have to wear a tie.  We'd also exhausted our interest in the Champlain Valley; the Northeast Kingdom would be a new adventure for us.  Some romantic notion of the tumbledown landscape, broken up with streams and ponds, beckoned me.  Now that I was a painter and seeing the landscape with fresh eyes, I looked forward to exploring this new territory.

The Northeast Kingdom could look like this...

...or like this!


Vermont's Northeast Kingdom feels like a very remote place as you drive through it, especially in winter.  Sandwiched between the Connecticut River to the east, the Green Mountains to the west, and Canada to the north, it's a region of hills, carved out by small rivers.  Two Interstates run through it—91 and 93—but there's very little traffic on them.  You wonder why they are even there.  Partly, it has to do with the now-gone hopes of St Johnsbury being a major trucking center; unfortunately, St Johnsbury Trucking drove its last load in 1993.  Today, 80% of the area is covered in forest, and its major industries are maple syrup, dairy farming and, not surprisingly, tourism.  When we moved there, the ski area at Burke Mountain was going through a rough patch; the Kingdom Trails, a network of mountain biking routes, was just getting started.  Today, though, both are thriving.

Church in Burke

Burke Mountain

We moved to Burke Hollow, a tiny, historic village with a classic New England feeling.  Indeed, it has a little white church with a steeple, and many of the houses, mostly versions of the Cape, were built well before 1900.  The Hollow is created by two streams that run through it, Roundy Brook and the west branch of the Passumpsic River.  Just down the hill from us, along the brook, was a hobby farm with a couple of Arabian horses; through our upstairs window, we could see them grazing in a pasture adjacent to us.  Behind us, and just up the hill, was an old barn with hayfields, which were edged with sugar maples that glowed in the fall with red and orange.  From our house, we could walk easily to snowmobile trails that opened up miles of country for hiking in summer or skiing in winter.  A little farther out, we had the Kingdom Trails and Burke Mountain for skiing and hiking.  And all of this was close to Lyndonville, where there was a college, restaurants and a video store, but more importantly, not one but two used bookstores, which will play a role later in this story.

Our house had been built in 1820.  Although it had started as a Cape, a porch and an ell had been added, and a one-car garage attached.  The original foundation was still intact (somewhat) and consisted of a series of granite blocks a yard long.  Inside, the house was simply designed with a very comfortable feeling.  The upstairs had been renovated by the previous owner to make a master bedroom suite.  It was from here we could watch the horses.  A "dug" well in the backyard provided water.  This well was only a few feet deep with four inches of water in it, but surprisingly, during our one summer there, we never lost our water—although it was a very, very dry summer and two neighbors lost theirs, one of whom had to drill and hydrofracture to get water again.   Although our lot was small, much of the land around us was pasture or woodlot, so it felt quite private.  Many trees, maples and locust, edged the property.  We had a beautiful old sugar maple where our short driveway met the road.  The tree became a hazard, and we ended up having to take it down.  Worse yet, we discovered hornets had built a nest the size of a large wastebasket in it, and that had to be dealt with first.  We were sad to lose the tree, but not the hornets.

My favorite barn again

Fall in Burke

Painting near the Kingdom Trails

I made one room in the house my studio.  It was the darkest room, but it sufficed.  Mostly, I was trying to make the outdoors my studio.  I purchased a used Stanrite 100 easel, a delicate, aluminum thing, that had a problem with one of its legs.  I also got an ArtBin case for my pastels, which at the time were mostly NuPastels and a selection of Rembrandts.  I could place the case on the easel's three-part center hinge, which made a kind of shelf and also held the legs apart.  When the weather was good, I'd hike this kit out to the West Branch of the Passumpsic, where I'd fight my way through the willows and other brush at the water's edge to get a view.  Or, I'd take it up to Burke Mountain, where I could paint the vista of the Northeast Kingdom hills.  I shot countless photos of the landscape.  Although I painted outdoors as much as I could, I worked from the photos in my studio when the snow was too deep or the weather, too cold.

I was dedicated to my job at the law firm, but I was more dedicated to my progress as a painter.   Although Trina and I explored much of the Northeast Kingdom—viewing the spring flowers near Newark Pond, hiking the shore along Lake Willoughby, snowshoeing in the Victory Basin, visiting Stephen Huneck's "Dog Chapel" on Dog Mountain—I tried to get out most weekends to paint.  I also looked at going more "professional" by joining the local arts group, Catamount Arts, and the Vermont Pastel Society.  I even had a one-man exhibit in St Johnsbury.  (When I went to get the work framed locally, the framer asked if I would be interested in buying a frame shop; I said no, but I wonder where the path would have led had I said yes?)  I began also to focus on my resumé, looking at joining other art organizations and entering shows—I may have already joined the Pastel Society of New Mexico but can't recall exactly—and to continue to generate ideas for Pastel Journal.

During that time, I won a scholarship for a special residency for Vermont artists at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson.  For me, that was a big step forward, partly because it was an honor to receive that so early in my career, but also because it gave me time to focus entirely on my craft.  In exchange for a little work—the task assigned to me was painting the floors of a couple of rooms—I was given two weeks at VSC,  my own studio room plus lodging and all my meals.  Painters weren't the only artists in residence, but potters, sculptors, installation artists and writers were there, too.  Not all of the painters worked in a representational way, either; some of them were die-hard abstract expressionists.    I enjoyed meeting them all, and especially at mealtimes I felt the creative energy that surrounded me.  Although I was assigned a spacious studio in an old, desanctified church VSC owned, I spent most of my time outdoors, painting.  (I loved the gentle landscape around Johnson and particularly the Gihon River.)  I reserved the studio for looking at and adjusting my plein air work and the occasional large painting.  I even sold one of my large studio pieces to another resident artist.


My studio at Vermont Studio Center
(I was in the church studio)
Bold Coast 24x24 Pastel
One of the large studio paintings I made at VSC.
A fellow resident artist purchased it.

Gihon River 9x12 Pastel

As much as we loved the landscape of the Northeast Kingdom, the winter was hard.  It seemed a good ten degrees colder than the Champlain Valley and lasted a good two months longer.  When I finished my project for the law firm, we knew it was time to head west again.  We were fortunate in selling our house quickly and to locate one in New Mexico.  After having six yard sales, back-to-back over the weekends, we were able to squeeze everything that didn't sell into a 15-foot truck.  Oh, and about those used bookstores—they took most of my collection of thousands of books, and I shipped my beloved LP collection to a buyer in Arizona.

This time, we were headed for the southern Sacramento Mountains and a community with the odd name of Timberon.

Our final yard sale before heading west

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