Thursday, November 17, 2011

REVIEW: Phyllis Chase at Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier

By Theodore Hoppe

Being an artist is a curse, or so I've heard. While I consider myself artist I don't make a living as one. My art is little more than a hobby. It is difficult to be an artist. An artist needs to be prolific, producing a body of work in order to be recognized, but even this does not guarantee success. Struggling and starving for appreciation and acceptance of ones work is a lifelong struggle. The image of the struggling artist might well apply to Phyllis Chase, a local Vermont artist for the last thirty years, but she doesn't view being an artist as a curse at all. She welcomes the challenges and struggles that creating art for a living can present. When I spoke to Phyllis to ask her about the current exhibition, Vermont: Inside & Out, at the Kellogg Hubbard Library in Montpelier, she told me, "I am delighted I get to be an artist in this lifetime. I love to paint and do silkscreen more than I can say."

Success in the art world can depend on the many moments of tedious labor; organizing showings, loading and unloading art work, the hours spent hanging exhibitions, and self promotion, as much as artistic ability. Chase seems to have forged the right balance.

Saturday mornings in the summer and fall months one can find Phyllis at the Montpelier Farmer's Market hawking her wares: prints of her paintings and silk-screens. The business of art is arguably the less rewarding, but the financially necessary side; the long hours of setting up and standing around in the hopes of earning some money, enough to pay the bills and to buy more art supplies. This is the struggle. But there is a positive side to the marketing and selling. Phyllis gets to hear first hand from the people that admire her art, and about how they are as moved as she is by the Vermont landscapes that has been preserved around us. She gets to share stories about the creative moments when, standing in a sun-drenched field, this deep sense of place that eases itself out of her brushes and paints form a red barn and field of golden grasses on the canvas. The ultimate compliment to how well she has captured this unique place we live in is when someone buys a painting or a print.

Her current exhibition at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library is a retrospective of both familiar and some unfamiliar landscapes, interiors and still-life. Chase has included over fifty pieces of art in the exhibition, an ambitious number for the space the library provides, but presentation is well laid out, thoughtfully display and does not feel crowded.

Chase, who started out forty years ago silk-screening, has included a small grouping of seven silkscreens in the Holmes Room that are an homage to the evening hours. Ranging from twilight to early morning, they depict simple landscapes: sliver of a moon rising, maple trees at sunset and sunrise, and moonlight on white birch. All contain a five pointed star somewhere in the print, a signature of Chase's silkscreens.

There are thirteen prints from the collection of Chase's paintings. All are landscapes that define the four seasons. Some of the prints, such as Autumn Afternoon, Mt. Mansfield, and Kent Corners Spring, will be recognizable to the viewer, but others are more personal and universal; Winter Sunset, moonlight shadows stretched across the snow, Boulder Creek, Autumn"reflected light on the moving water.

The paintings are the main body of work in the exhibit and the include several themes. Among the landscape paintings there is a strong sense of light in each. More than red barns and white houses, the paints capture the light of a time of day, or time of year. This is easily detected in the winter landscapes where the approaching spring light casts a more promising brightness on the snowy scene, as in the painting Kent's Corner, Winter, or in the pale mid-winter mood of the blue-gray sky and orange-pink sunlight of the painting Stan and Elaine's. One may also want to note the unique differences between painting and print, as both versions of Kent's Corner, Winter are part of this show.

All of Chase's paintings have an impressionistic style that employs a liberal use of paint and suggestive strokes that blend together in a seamless fashion. The Copper Beech is a fine example of Chase's plein air technique. The red barn with its seamed metal roof is carefully detailed with white window sill framing, yet the beech tree mentioned in the painting title is only hinted at with ochre and burnt sienna brown, vaguely outlining a large tree that is dotted with copper-orange to imply leaves that held on past autumn. Purple shadows of trees not depicted fall in the foreground on the blueish-violet snow of a late afternoon in winter.

The highlight of the exhibit is prominently displayed on the second floor, a painting titled The Kellogg Hubbard Library. It is a interior scene of an antique couch in the sun-drenched new addition to the library where the atrium is. The detailing in the painting, such as the eleven delicate squiggles evoking the words in a open dictionary are just exquisite. Chase lovingly paints in over one hundred and fifty single brush stokes of various colors that chain together to form the books that line the rows of shelves. It is a painting that belongs in the library and perhaps a benefactor will come along to see that remains at the library.

As much as I admire the landscape paintings, it is the still life and the interior paintings that demonstrate Chase's growth as an artist in an intimate and emotionally compelling way. Painting like Autumn Still Life and Winter Still Life stand out as classic exercises in traditional painting in both subject matter and style. My personal favorite is among the interior scenes located in the Louis P. Peck Foyer, Slice of Montpelier with Coffee. It is simple yet elegant: two empty parlor chairs set in front of a window. Chase's eye has knowingly selected a particular setting both warm and inviting in its detailed appointments of blue on blue. The blue printed drapes and sheer curtains, the stripes of the upholstered chairs, and the way the light dances on the edges of the wood chair makes the painting come alive.

Returning again to the business of art, Chase's success left her with a need to give back to the community she has been a part of for so long. "This year, I conceived of the idea of partnering with institutions whose work I admired, and mounting exhibitions that would in part benefit those institutions by donating 20% of the sales to them." Chase explains. The exhibition at the Kellogg Hubbard Library is the second institution Chase has selected to benefit from this arrangement. The first was the Vermont Law School this past summer.

Additionally, the library has arranged an event titled "An Evening with Artist Phyllis Chase" on Tuesday, November 29, 2011, at 7:00 P.M. The evening will be an interview with Phyllis as she discusses plein air painting, her hand-cut silkscreen process, and what it's like to be an artist in Vermont. The event is free and Open to the public.

Phyllis Chase – “Vermont Inside and Out” is on exhibit from November 1, 2011 – December 21, 2011. 20% of all sales benefit the Kellogg-Hubbard Library.

Photographs by Theodore Hoppe