A highlight of the current “Portrait Exhibit” at the Wired Gallery in High Falls is a series of 43 portraits of Woodstockers arranged in a large grid. Posed against backgrounds that consist of a single, often-bright color, which give the paintings a pop punch, the faces achieve an uncanny likeness; anyone who hangs out in Woodstock would instantly recognize some of these characters. Many look directly at you, others look slightly to the side and a few are in profile; these variations, along with differences in lighting, skin color and hair color and style (this being Woodstock, they include a Mohawk, a topknot and Willie Nelson-style bandana) preclude any sense of a formula. Each portrait, which was painted in a single session at the Woodstock Library and finished in the studio with the aid of a photo, has a fresh immediacy, both in terms of capturing a moment in time and the application of paint; the facial features, hair and clothing are conveyed in broad, articulated shapes of color.
Artist Claire Lambe, who worked on the portraits as artist-in-residence at the Woodstock Library for six months in 2015, said that she picked subjects at random from those who signed up as a way to bridge the gap between the town’s insider artists’ community and everyone else living in the village. (Concurrently she was also painting a series of portraits based on photographs of residents from her native Ireland, a tandem project that culminated in an exhibition last summer at the South Tipperary Art Center in Clonmel, Ireland.) Lambe’s success in pulling off the project is a testament to her willingness to take risks, her openness with both friends and strangers – a quality that endears her to her portrait-class students at the Woodstock School of Art – and most especially, her powers of observation.
It’s a talent and skill that she began honing decades ago when she was a student at art school and spent the summers in Italy and Greece. The first summer in Italy, after the friend she was supposed to meet didn’t show up, Lambe “had to find a way to survive,” and so she began drawing people in the street. In Sardinia, “The bank manager in a small town heard I could draw portraits, and so he asked me to draw him. I spent the whole afternoon drawing everyone’s portrait at the bank.” On subsequent trips to Greece, “I went back to the same village and became more confident. People would loan me chairs and other supplies, and I’d find a spot on the street with good light and spend the summer drawing portraits.”
Lambe’s art shown earlier this spring at Cross Contemporary Art in Saugerties was an entirely different body of work: tottering, gridded high-rises under construction, painted in watercolor, which she observed while spending the winter in Costa Rica with her husband, author and playwright Carey Harrison. Some of the fantastical buildings are dusted with glitter; the cheerful, confettilike colors, signifying the infantile, oblivious holiday spirit of the invaders, imbue the works with bathos. The structures are silly, extravagant but bare-bones, and sinister. They are follies: high-rises being constructed for the tourism industry, some of which are unfinished due to bankruptcy, others luxury apartments under construction in prime areas along the Pacific Coast that obstruct locals’ access to the beach and spoil the view. “The question I ask is: Can that industry be maintained and grown without compromising the beauty of the country and its ecology, without compromising the quality of life of those who live in those coastal areas, without falling victim to the Midas touch?” she notes in her artist’s statement.
Yet another body of work is currently on display at the Falcon, the popular music club in Marlboro. The group of large, loosely painted and collaged canvases express the nebulousness of memory and the ephemerality of life, which were inspired by the death of Lambe’s sister in 1999. Bits of drawings, photographs, letters, newspaper snippets, maps and other found printed material are collaged into the surface, suggesting mysterious communications, residual memories and metaphysical journeys. The works, many of which incorporate the human figure, were made between 2000 and 2014.
Lambe didn’t expect to be so busy (she’s also working on a project overseen by curator and arts writer Linda Weintraub at the CHRCH Project Space in Cottekill, and had a piece in the recent annual juried show at the Woodstock Artists Association, “Far and Wide”), but her energies remain unflagging: From 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 11, she will be setting up her easel at the Wired Gallery in High Falls to paint small portraits in acrylic on the spot, which will sell for $100 each. “I’ll do between six and nine portraits total,” she said, noting that people who are interested in a commission can contact her through her Facebook page or website.
Lambe, who was born in a small provincial town in South Tipperary, always drew, which was a blessing to her mother, who had nine children. “My mother used to say I was her easiest child, because all she had to do was give me some crayons and she could ignore me most of the time,” Lambe said. “Drawing was the one quiet and private place to which I could retreat and had some control over.”
When she was 11, she won a national art competition and was given a set of oil paints, which made her feel “maybe I was more of an artist.” But due to a lack of instruction, she was ill-prepared when she began attending art school in Cork at age 17 and signed up for a graphic design course, thinking that she would learn to draw comics (DC Comics and R. Crumb were inspirations). Instead, it was about designing logos and matchbooks. “Bored out of my head,” she dropped out, met some hippies from England who were hanging out in the west of Ireland, joined a commune and traveled around Europe, living briefly in Amsterdam and London.
She gave birth to a daughter. After the relationship with the baby’s father ended and she found herself a single parent, she felt the need to “get back to doing art.” Slightly younger than the other people in her crowd, she was also turned off by the hippie itinerant lifestyle, in which inevitably “The women had babies and cooked rice and beans, and the guys talked about engines and guitars. Most of my youth was about separating myself from the traditional roles my parents had, and living this so-called alternative lifestyle was looking a lot like my parents’.” (Her father ran a clothing store, and when her mom tried to get into the business, he “would try to circumvent that from happening.”)
She went to Dublin and got a full scholarship to the National College of Art and Design; as a single parent, she also qualified for a government allowance and made ends meet by doing odd jobs, such as sign-writing and working in a nightclub. After graduating, she continued making art and exhibiting and got a job teaching art in a German high school in Dublin. Although some of her portraits were included in the Irish National Portrait Exhibition, “It was hard putting together a body of work with a full-time job,” she recalled. “I was caught between trying to have an art career while supporting my daughter. Exhibiting was a way of keeping my hand in.”
Her life changed after she met and, shortly after, married Carey Harrison. After the couple had their daughter, Harrison, a writer who had won the Encore Award for his novel Richard’s Feet, wanted a day job; but back then, creative writing was not part of the curriculum at universities in England and Ireland, so instead he looked to America and got a job at Brooklyn College. In 1996 the family moved to New York. For the first time since she was a teenager, Lambe had the opportunity to pursue her art full-time and got an MFA at Brooklyn College. In 2001, the family moved up to Woodstock, where they’d spent weekends, with Harrison commuting to the City.
She hadn’t done portraiture for ten years, but while attending the live-model painting sessions at Brooklyn College, her interest in it had revived. Since then, “I’ve always done it in parallel with other work.” Right around the corner from their house was the Woodstock School of Art, and after attending the open-studio life sessions with a model, Lambe became monitor and ultimately began teaching portraiture at the school. She also began exhibiting in the area and participated in “Hudson Valley Artists 2012” at the Samuel Dorsky Museum at SUNY-New Paltz and “Peace & Justice” at the Muroff/Kotler Gallery at SUNY-Ulster in 2015. She also periodically writes art reviews for the online publication Roll.
She’ll have yet more new opportunities to develop her art this fall, when she and Harrison will leave for nine months in Berlin, where Harrison has been awarded a writing fellowship at Wissenschaftskolleg. “For me it’s an opportunity to be in a new place,” she said, noting that both her older daughter and Harrison’s children from a previous marriage live in London and will be closer by. “I’ll wait and see when I get there.”
Claire Lambe’s work can currently be seen at “Portrait Exhibition” at the Wired Gallery at 1 Mohonk Road in High Falls, through July 3 (www.thewiredgallery.com); and “Paintings,” a solo show at the Falcon at 1348 Route 9W in Marlboro, through July 31 (www.liveatthefalcon.com). From 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 11, she will be setting up her easel at the Wired Gallery in High Falls to paint small portraits in acrylic on the spot, which will sell for $100 each. For more info, visit www.clairelambe.net.