I recently moved to the village of Fredonia in western New York State. It’s a small college town of about 11,000, just south of Buffalo. In my first week here I met a painting I really like. I ran into it unexpectedly on my second day in town over wine and cheese at a colleague’s house. A small group, including the artist, were assembled to suss out the best spot to hang a recently purchase landscape by Tom Annear featuring the College Lodge, a SUNY-Fredonia outpost, in the home of its new owner.
Tom Annear, “Landscape With Mist, College Lodge,” approximately 9 by 12 inches, oil on board.
I had a chance to talk to the artist about his work before the painting was unwrapped. Annear is a plein air painter who stresses the importance of working from nature, whether it’s his wife’s garden or the woodlands of Chautauqua County.
When the painting was unwrapped for hanging it surprised me. Instead of a work in Monet’s palette of bright white, sunny yellow, lavender and blue, which I had expected, the painting was a little spooky and reminded me of the 19th-century American Romanticist Albert Pinkham Ryder. The stylized clouds, stormy seas, and moonlight often featured in Ryder’s landscapes echo the passions of his symbol-laden foreground figurative scenes.
Albert P. Ryder, Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens, c 1890. (National Gallery Washington)
Of course, Annear’s work is very different from Ryder’s, but his College Lodge painting reminded me of Ryder’s turbulent stylizations more so than a quickly painted work from life. I’m thinking of the way that milky waves twist upward from pockets of angry blue water and break into clouds of mist that rise across Annear’s scene. The colors in Annear’s painting are moody and a little dark–the trees on the horizon are done in brownish tones and muddy greens, and the late evening sky has an apricot glow.
Annear gives stability to his scene of churning water by laying in a series of short dark vertical marks that lead the viewer through the pictorial space. Do these marks signify saplings sheered off for a clearing, random broken branches, or are they cattails? I can’t really say, but they do form a pleasing visual bridge from foreground to background in a beautiful but somewhat forbidding scene.
Detail, waves twisting upward.
Detail, apricot sky.
Detail, vertical pattern of lines.
Annear’s painting stuck with me in the days following my introduction to it. Knowing Annear had painted it from life made me curious about the place. In a move very unlike me, I decided to go to the College Lodge to look for the scene depicted in the painting.
Driving southwest through the countryside on Rt. 20, which runs parallel to the eastern shore of Lake Erie past vineyards of concord grapes and farms, I took a sharp turn left before the town of Brocton. East of the lake the road climbs and becomes wooded. Before long I came to a sign for the College Lodge.
As I turned onto a heavily wooded access road, the trees thickened and the light dimmed. I was surprised that as I entered the woods I felt a wave of memories, about a car camping trip I must have taken but can’t remember, wash over me.
College Lodge access road. Photo taken from the driver’s seat of my car.
There were no other cars in the Lodge parking lot.
I was alone.
It was raining.
I got out of the car and walked past a few modest buildings and through a clearing that led to the woods. Following the perimeter of the clearing I searched for a path or opening into the wild growth. Soon, I stumbled across a small amphitheater made of logs that took me to muddy trails. With Annear’s painting in mind I walked down the incline thinking it might lead me to the water pictured in his landscape.
College Lodge woodland in low light with soft rain and mist hovered in the trees.
I worked my way through the woods. My shoes slipped in mud. I heard the rain falling. Twigs broke under my feet. There was mist, like in Annear’s painting, but I couldn’t catch it with my camera.
Rich growth all around.
Ferns, ivy and seedlings grew everywhere around me. Lush, wet, alive. Was looking for the spot where Annear had worked searching for a needle in a haystack, or would I just know it when I saw it?
Wherever I looked, branches, seedlings, and tree trunks stood out dark against illuminated greenery. Were these the inspiration for the pattern of vertical lines in Annear’s painting? I think so. Deeper in the woods I saw shallow pools of water and eventually a true pond, too heavily wooded to approach. These must have inspired Annear’s watery scene.
As I walked back to my car, I realized that I had it wrong when I went looking for the particular spot, or more precisely, the particular picturesque view. Working from nature for an artist isn’t necessarily about sight and documentation. Annear hadn’t looked for a picturesque view to document it. Instead, his landscape is an amalgam of views–growth, branches, saplings, mist, water, dim light, marsh. Annear isn’t driven by the search for a view to depict but rather the desire to get out of the protective capsule of modern conveniences, get mud on his shoes, smell earth, be surrounded by lush live growth. I got it.
I went looking for a picturesque scene that day but didn’t find it. Instead I found the thing that more likely drives Annear’s practice of working from life: being alone without a map in the woods. It’s a testament to the power of Annear’s little painting that it got me to that place. Instead of bringing nature to me, it took me to into nature.