At Concord’s Mill Brook Gallery, spring is a reality with pastels exhibit
Along with spring come the pastels . . .
A host of golden daffodils beneath the trees, drifts of bluebells in spring green meadows, pale pink cherry blossoms along the mirrored banks of a pond, perfumed lilacs by the dooryard.
It’s a season for dreaming . . .
Despite being more than a month, calendar-wise, into Walt Whitman’s “ever-returning spring,” the world around us here in New Hampshire remains not quite, but almost, bereft of color. Other than a solitary daffodil, a sprig or two of forsythia, and a few waterlogged crocuses, the pastel season has not yet broken in my backyard. While I see the promise of pale pink and alabaster apple blossoms in the buds on the bare branches outside my kitchen window, the current reality is the wet, black, unadorned asphalt that leads to my garage.
Which is why, if you’re like me, you’ll satisfy your pastel passion by backing your car out of your garage and heading it in the direction of the Mill Brook Gallery & Sculpture Garden, at 236 Hopkinton Road in Concord. Sunday was the opening of the ninth annual members’ exhibit of the Pastel Society of New Hampshire.
There are 83 creations by 49 members, all in one room – truly a passel of pastels that will continue through the end of the month.
“Pastel can create extremely rich and diverse paintings,” said Kitty Clark. Clark, a Pastel Society member from Stratham, is one of the show’s organizers. “So often people think of ‘pastels’ as being a dainty and quiet medium, which couldn’t be further from the truth.”
The word “pastel” actually refers both to the tool and the product, the chicken and the egg, of the medium. It means not only the chalk-like drawing stick but also the drawing or painting it produces. Perhaps pastel’s reputation for being “dainty and quiet” comes from the dictionary definition of pastel as an adjective, meaning pale in color. The genre also carries art history associations: romantic renderings of flowers and fruit by such 19th-century French artists as Jean-Francois Millet, Eugene Delacroix and Edouard Manet; impressionistic ballet dancers by Edgar Degas; portraits of mothers and children by Mary Cassatt.
Historically too, many artists have considered pastel a medium for preliminary sketches or field drawings for final paintings completed in oil.
But as Clark implies, the conventional image of this medium tells only part of the story. James McNeill Whistler did nearly 100 pastels of Venice’s decay, many of them in somber shades of brown and gray. More recently, Colombian artist Fernando Botero has gained a reputation for his depictions of exaggerated, oversized figures, often in carnival bright colors that are, actually, pastels.
Times have changed. In the past 20 years or so, pastels have seen a renaissance, partly because of advances in technology. With newly formulated crayons and papers, and improved framing techniques to preserve the final art, more artists and collectors are discovering the medium.
“In viewing this current exhibit, the paintings demonstrate the power of pastel, the ability to render all types of subjects with diverse strokes and application techniques,” Clark said.
“Mocha,” the best in show, is a portrait of a cat by Maryann Mullett of Dublin, N.H. The animal’s coloring is in subtle contrast to his perch, a highly textured, richly upholstered couch. Most impressive is Mocha’s expression, a feline Mona Lisa.
Other works are more abstract. Pam Short, whose “Incoming” close-up of a crashing wave won the Seacoast Pastel Painters Award shows great movement of the water, the judges said. They also said, “It evokes a mood without being tight.”
Short used the word in another way, saying “mood” is what often inspires her.
“When I don’t have a mood, I tend to overanalyze,” she said. “When I’m in a mood, I just paint and don’t think about it. If I like it, I’m done; if I don’t, I keep going.”
Music also helps, Short said. As she recalls, the work on this painting was accompanied by Celtic Christmas songs.
Short, who spent 22 years working as an electrical engineer, now stays home with her three sons, a 15-year-old and 13-year-old twins. She began painting with pastels about three years ago. Laughing, she said she initially took a class to relax.
Randy Knowles, also laughing, said his original motivation was similar. His foray into painting began with a night class for stress relief. Seventeen years later, with a fine arts degree from Notre Dame College, Knowles is now both landscape architect and art instructor, teaching several courses in pastel and oil at E. W. Poore in Manchester.
Knowles’s second-place painting, “Artist’s View,” is of a woman standing sideways in front of a row of paintings at an art exhibit. It’s based, Knowles said, on a photo he took at a Pastel Society show in Portsmouth a couple of years ago. Although the woman’s face is not visible, somehow her stance reveals the intensity of her attention.
Knowles insists that such subtleties are easy; simply simplify the subject by thinking about it as shape and color. Drawing from his experience as a designer, he tells his students not to consider how to render their subjects as people but rather as blocks of light and dark.
“I tell them to turn the work upside down to check on what’s right or wrong,” he said.
But in the world of pastels, not a lot is wrong. As the 100 or so guests at last Sunday’s reception discovered, if you’re searching for spring, this Mill Brook Gallery exhibit is an oasis of color.
The Mill Brook Gallery and Sculpture Garden is located at 236 Hopkinton Road, Concord (2 miles west of Concord Hospital on the right). Gallery hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., or by appointment. Call 226-2046 for more information.