THE CANVAS- August 2010
by Suzette McAvoy
Bjorn Runquist, Connie Hayes, Philip Frey
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”
Bjorn Runquist, Breakfast at Moody’s, 2009, oil on linen, 24” x 30”
Summer, for the artist Bjorn Runquist, begins with a journey to Maine. Since 1980, the artist has driven from his winter home in Kent, Connecticut, to the house and studio he built on Wheeler’s Bay in the small coastal town of Clark Island, just south of Rockland on the St. George peninsula. Facing due east, his summer residence affords sweeping views across the water, punctuated by several small offshore islands and moored lobster boats.
This familiar scene and other sights typical throughout the midcoast region provide a seemingly endless source of inspiration for Runquist’s art. Although he admits to being “a bit of a romantic,” he eschews nostalgia, which he says “tends to distract from the essence of what is in front of me.” Like Edward Hopper, whose work he admires, Runquist seeks to portray an “element of truth” in his paintings, even if it sometimes leads to the incorporation of modern visual clutter into his compositions.
Telephone poles, electrical lines, road signs, cars, and pickup trucks—things so commonplace and ubiquitous that they are often overlooked or filtered out by other artists—are embraced by Runquist. To him, they offer the opportunity to reflect on the details of a place, to paint not the “disappearing Maine,” but the Maine that he has come to know and appreciate through intense observation.
An example is his painting Breakfast at Moody’s, which depicts the well-known Route 1 restaurant on a foggy morning, its parking lot full of vehicles and its familiar form shrouded in a lavender veil of mist. “I was struck by its romantic transformation,” says the artist. “It was that sense of mystery I was after, the barely legible sign and the transformation of the familiar into something striking.”
Skillfully balancing light, color, and atmosphere, Bjorn Runquist’s paintings of coastal Maine are direct yet poetic interpretations of place.
Connie Hayes, Route 129 at the Bridge #2, 2002, oil on canvas, 36” x 36”
Visitors to Maine might wonder what all the enthusiasm is about if all they did was see Maine’s Route 1,” says artist Connie Hayes. “But if they take any of the many roads down the fingers branching off Route 1 that lead to the lacy tips of the coastline, they would see what I seek as a painter—a dynamic, improvised marriage of natural and built forms.”
Hayes is one of Maine’s best-known contemporary painters. Her lushly executed, richly colored paintings express her profound connection with her chosen subjects—whether they are the “borrowed views” she has made her own or newly discovered sights along the Maine coast. Venturing out from her home and studio in Rockland to offshore islands or down the peninsulas that frame the state’s jagged coastline, Hayes is always on the alert for an arresting image.
“South Bristol on Route 129 is one of my favorite small towns and it has a swing bridge across what locals call ‘the gut,’” she says. “The double-yellow road stripe that goes across the bridge section moves with it. These yellow road lines are the spine that this painting is built upon and I love knowing a segment of that stripe is movable. It reminds me of the malleable state of painting where pieces of color are open to being repositioned.”
Her paintings, as evidenced in Route 129 at the Bridge #2, are known for their careful compositions—a purposeful balance of geometric and organic forms. Her harmonious orchestration of color, light, and mood conveys an almost palpable sense of atmosphere. And her love for the physicality of paint is expressed in her luxuriant brushwork. In Hayes’s capable hands, even the most humble and commonplace subjects are portrayed with sensuous beauty. “When I examine my surroundings, I listen for the calling to paint a certain thing,” she says. “When I find it, it is like a familiar face I recognize. I know it is home. I know it is one of mine.”
Philip Frey, Opera House, Stop, Stop, 2009, acrylic on linen, 18” x 24”
Artist Philip Frey creates paintings of Maine that are noted for their vibrant color and exuberant sensibility. “I’m an artist who is trying to joyfully express the surroundings I love through color and a sense of place,” he says. An admirer of the French Fauves—the group of late-nineteenth-century artists who used bright, high-pitched colors to liberate art from strict representation—Frey expresses his vision of Maine with a similarly bold palette.
A painter of diverse subjects, from pure landscape views to townscapes, interiors, and still lifes, the common denominator in Frey’s art is the simplicity and vitality of his vision. “Seeing that we tend to complicate things with so many ideas and strong emotions, it takes some work to keep things simple,” says the artist. It is often the ordinary and everyday that he finds inspiring, such as a particular cast of early morning light or the play of shadows on a bend in the road.
In Opera House, Stop, Stop, it was the building’s “bold presence, color, and shape” that initially drew him to the scene. Located at a crossroads in Stonington, the opera house is a familiar local landmark. “I wanted to create a playful piece with a limited high-key palette, accentuating the building’s iconic stature,” says Frey. “In the process of taking photos and sketching, I happened upon a view that had three stop signs, two of which are depicted facing the viewer in the painting. Stop. Stop. Twice—just in case the driver didn’t get it the first time. That became the playful part and made the piece.”
Frey’s lively, expressive paintings reflect his personal optimism and delight in his surroundings. Color and light and the physical act of painting are his principal interests, and he generously shares his fondness for them with the viewer. “Subject matter must be normal in the sense that it does not appear sought after so much as simply happening to one,” said the artist Fairfield Porter—a statement that seems equally applicable to Philip Frey’s art.