Tandem paintings shine in “Looking Forward” show at Kingston’s Storefront Gallery
Most people think Fran Sutherland is a landscape painter. But while the natural world is always at the heart of her work – even her most abstract images – she considers herself to be an experiential painter. “I have never painted a place I haven’t gone beyond seeing,” she says. “It’s always been a place where I experienced it. A place that I walked in, around, through…if you look at my paintings, they’re all like that. It’s like a journal of my life.”
Sutherland has lived in the Hudson Valley since 1958. She resides half the year in Port Ewen, overlooking the Hudson River, near her family, and the other half by the Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona. Her artwork is informed by her life on both sides of the country, but she also travels a great deal, all over the world. The places that have inspired her include Ecuador, Mexico, Italy, Greece, Peru, China and Japan. And that Asian aesthetic has influenced her strongly; her Master of Science degree in Education from SUNY-New Paltz in 1967 had a concentration in Eastern arts and her work since often synthesizes elements of Asian painting with a Western approach.
The Storefront Gallery in Kingston’s Rondout District will exhibit a selection of paintings from Fran Sutherland’s most recent series inspired by nature in “Looking Forward,” on display from November 7 to 21. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, November 7 from 5 to 8 p.m. The gallery is open by appointment or 24/7 through the storefront windows.
The works on view are hung in pairs in an Asian-styled, vertical composition that reads very “scroll-like,” as Sutherland puts it. The two paintings are presented and suspended as one work of art. “I try to get you to have the same physical experience I had when I painted what I saw,” she says. “The upper painting of the set is usually what I see when I look consciously where I’m going: ‘looking forward.’ The second painting is what I see below, at my feet where I’m grounded or where I’m about to place my oar in the water.”
But “Looking Forward” has a dual meaning. The interplay between the two images, grounded in the moment in the lower view and looking forward to what lies ahead in the upper painting, symbolizes something deeper than just recreating a physical experience. “We’re all trying to stay grounded,” Sutherland says, “but you can’t just be where you are in the moment; you have to imagine what’s out there, too.”
About a year after she began this series, Sutherland was diagnosed with cancer. “It was one of those moments when you do a very positive reevaluation of where you’ve been and where you’re going,” she says. The paintings reflect her experience of life after going through major surgery. “And for two years now, ‘looking forward’ is how I’ve been approaching life. I look where I’m going.”
This is not to be “Pollyanna” about it, she adds; it’s just a reflection of a very positive attitude that she has always had about life. “This is where we’re going; let’s deal with it,” has always been her way, she says. Fortunate that a tumor in her lung was caught early and the cancer did not spread, Sutherland is now cancer-free and an advocate of early diagnosis. “I can’t say enough about the superlative treatment I received at the Dyson Center for Cancer Care at Vassar Hospital in Poughkeepsie,” she said.
The show at the Storefront Gallery will include the first work done in the series two years ago – at Parker Lake on the border of Arizona and Mexico – along with more recent works inspired by the Hudson Valley and her travels. The titles of the paintings on exhibit are all plays on words and give clues to their deeper meanings, Sutherland says. “For me, painting is a form of meditation. And because of my appreciation of Eastern philosophy and aesthetics, I also realize how insignificant I am in the big picture.”
The works are done in mixed media. “I believe that the medium is part of your message,” Sutherland says, noting with a laugh that she’s not referencing Marshall McLuhan. “I just mean that the physicality of the medium and how you apply it can further enhance your idea and your feeling. I used oil sticks for these, from R & F Handmade Paints in Kingston, applying them in a calligraphic way, an impasto way, then spritzed the canvas and stained it with acrylics. This creates a translucent effect where I want it for a sky or water, and yet it gives me the textural context of the earth and the ground.”
One piece in the show came out of a trip to Ecuador, where Sutherland hiked up to 16,500 feet in the Andes. “You’re in the clouds and then you come down,” she says. “This is my favorite place in the world; it’s gorgeous hiking.” Most of their hikes were down along streams, on very steep slopes, and in front of her was a woman wearing a blue backpack that became a blue dot in the abstracted landscape painting that resulted. The blue dot also references the style of Asian painting in which the human figure is depicted as very small amidst the grandeur of the landscape. Crossing over a stream during the hike is represented in the grounded view of grasses and stones in the lower canvas.
After spending time on the mainland in Ecuador, Sutherland went to the Galápagos. Here she was intrigued by the patterns in the lava flow on which they walked: a sort of ropelike textured surface. In the paintings inspired by the experience, that emerged as tiny dots of yellow, signifying the small yellow flowers that manage to bloom on the lava, bright against the blackness.
This type of abstraction is what calls to Sutherland. “Some people take abstraction to mean only lines, forms and colors – very Mondrianesque – but I refuse to lose my sense of mark. To me, abstract means taking from things, whether they’re physical or emotional.” She says that she plans to continue to work on the series, but observes that the paintings are becoming more abstract since she started, although never to the point of being non-objective. “I do a lot of paintings from what I remember of flying in airplanes that show atmospheric things, but somehow you know there’s still ground there.”
When Sutherland was a teacher at New Paltz High School – a 30-year career – she tried to teach her students the difference between the subject and the idea. “To me it was more important that I share with them how to experience and interpret a great work of art,” she says. “Why was it done?”
She has also applied her creative instincts to restoring historic houses in the Hudson Valley, most of which she lived in for a time before moving on to another. “It’s just a process,” she says. “Where you are is just the space you’re in. It’s not a thing. The first thing I do when I live anywhere is look out the windows. What’s my view like? Then I redo the house and try to respect its historical integrity.”
And once she’s done with the project, Sutherland moves on to look out of new windows. “But I don’t go looking for them,” she says when that’s suggested. “There’s just something in my life that pushes me to move on to the next project.”
Fran Sutherland “Looking Forward” opening, Saturday, November 7, 5-8 p.m., free, through November 21, Storefront Gallery, 93 Broadway, Kingston; (845) 338-8473, www.thestorefrontgallery.com.