Window On Her World
In Cushing, New York City, and New Jersey, Lois Dodd paints just what she sees
Lois Dodd’s studio in Cushing is like a giant’s shadowbox, layered with treasures. Bleached animal bones rest on a beam, well-used palettes mottled with bright splotches of paint hang from a nail, and a vase holds spiky dried flowers, collected, no doubt, from the lush garden outside. Dozens of the artist’s paintings and drawings are casually displayed against the whitewashed walls of what was once a barn. Canvases of various sizes are stacked on handmade shelves, organized as a bibliophile might arrange a collection of prized books. Dodd has been painting here for more than 50 years, or, more accurately, she has painted outside these walls, capturing the ordinary beauty in her Maine landscape: a pink towel on a clothesline against the green shingles of a chicken coop, bright yellow sunflowers with a backdrop of blue sky. “I go out there with my folding French easel and my folding chair; I like being outside, because you have to be more rapid and not fall asleep on the job,” she says with a chuckle. “Inside I can dicker around with something for days and I’m not sure I’m improving anything.”
At 91, Dodd is a celebrated American painter, and an elected member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Academy of Design. She has taught at Brooklyn College, Colby College, and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and her paintings are in the collections of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, the Colby College Museum of Art, the Farnsworth Art Museum, and the Portland Art Museum, among others. Her work is regularly shown at the Alexandre Gallery in New York City and the Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland. Dodd is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Maine in America Award, an award previously given to artists such as Andrew Wyeth, Dahlov Ipcar, and Dodd’s good friend, Alex Katz.
It was Katz, a longtime resident of Lincolnville, who introduced Dodd to Maine in 1951, when they drove up from New York with Dodd’s husband, Bill King, and Katz’s wife, Jean Cohen, to spend the summer. The group of artists had become friends while studying at Cooper Union, and Katz, Cohen, and King had all been scholarship students at the Skowhegan School. “We began by renting cottages from Bill Cummings of the Lakewood Theater colony [across the lake from the Skowhegan School, which Cummings also owned],” Dodd recalls. She and King had a son, Eli, in 1952 and were divorced not long afterward. In the summer of 1954, Dodd purchased a house with Katz and Cohen in Lincolnville. About a decade later, she bought her house in Cushing. “It was the first place I looked at,” she says. “My son was 12, and he wanted to have a sailboat, and the Saint George River is right there.” Now Dodd is in residence in Maine from early June through much of October. She spends the rest of the year at her loft on Second Street in lower Manhattan, decamping to a house in Blairstown, a rural corner of her native New Jersey, on the weekends. In all three locations, Dodd paints what she sees. “Everything just near at hand has become a subject,” she says. “I’m not very good at imagining anything—I have to see it.”
When Dodd and I talk on the phone in January, she is in Blairstown, staying in the country for a bit while her loft is being renovated. A recent cold snap has created an ice jam in the Delaware River where it winds through the Delaware Water Gap near her home. She’s inspired to paint the scene from photographs. “It’s cheating, but it’s that time of year,” she says. “When you look at the sides of those big chunks of ice, they’re really turquoise. I’m drawn to those strong shapes.” When I ask what’s on her easel at the moment, the answer is no surprise. “The window right here,” Dodd replies. Painted in numerous ways, windows are her signature subject. “Sometimes I’m inside of them, sometimes outside,” she says. Shed Window (2014) highlights the geometry of an old six-over-six window with missing panes, centered on a shingled exterior wall mottled with moss. The squares where the glass is missing are painted black, revealing nothing of what’s inside the shed. In Night Sky Loft (1973), a cityscape is visible outside the corner of a window in a sparsely furnished room. Bisected by bare tree branches, the view includes illuminated windows in nearby buildings and the moon in a gray sliver of sky. “Windows are a frame; the scene is already composed, you don’t have to decide where the edge is going to be,” says Dodd.
Another recurring Dodd subject is flowers, often painted in close detail as if viewed through a magnifying glass. Earlier in her career, she was drawn to the patterns on black and white dairy cows. While figure paintings are rare for her, they sometimes result from figure drawings she does in the summers in Cushing. “We have a model who poses outside for a group of us who meet once a week, including Susan and Tim Van Campen [husband and wife artists who live in Thomaston],” she says. “We’ve used the same model for 20 years.” Continuity and pattern are central to both Dodd’s work and her character. “She finds comfort and variety in the familiar,” writes author Faye Hirsch in the book Lois Dodd. In a few months, Dodd will be back in Cushing for another summer with her easel and folding stool, out in the landscape she knows so intimately. “I don’t paint well away from my own stomping grounds,” she says.