Light and Landscape

THE CANVAS – June 2014
By Jamie Thompson

The Maine landscape has a special quality of light that has enchanted—and frustrated—countless artists. In finding beauty and inspiration in Maine’s atmospheric changes, they also strive to capture that which is fleeting and elusive. Painters Abbie Williams, Gary Akers, and Stephen Hodecker all find that magical light and render it with a featherlight touch.

Abbie Williams was “born an artist” and always had a sketchbook in hand. When she was growing up, her family split their time between Maine and New York. She spent 10 years living in Taos, New Mexico, before moving back to Maine in 2004. She returns to Taos every year “to visit, paint, and soak up the incredible cobalt blue New Mexico sky,” she says. “When I moved back to Maine it became clear to me that my challenge was to find the color in this more muted light.” She spent a brief sojourn on Monhegan Island, which she says was a turning point. The island’s fog turned out to be a blessing. “At first glance, fog seems to be gray, but the more I looked at fog the more I saw the different colors it takes on depending on the type of light above it,” she says. “From there I started to see color in low, subtle light.” It was what she had been searching for. Figuring out how to paint that particular light allowed Williams to come through her own fog to find clarity.

The effects of light on how we perceive our everyday surroundings is an area of great interest to Williams. “My favorite time of day is when the sun is low and streaks across an area or lights up a far bank of trees,” she says. For her, color and light are inextricably linked. “I want to push color to the point of almost unreality. I love when a painting lives in that space between magic and reality. That is my goal,” she says. Williams paints with an impressionistic style—her brushstrokes are textured and full of vitality. Her paintings allow the viewer to feel the atmosphere of the landscape as much as see it. One can almost hear the breeze rustling leaves or see shadows dance and clouds drift.

She painted Two Trees on location at Pemaquid Point. On that day there was a veil of thin fog that had just started to burn off. Williams captured the moment when the sunlight broke through in spots, making the water sparkle. Her hazy brushwork lends the painting a dreamlike quality. The vibrant orange tones in the foreground contrast with the cooler blue hues to create a sense of depth. Monhegan, where Williams learned to paint that inscrutable fog, can be seen at the horizon line.

Gary Akers is known for his mastery of egg tempera and watercolor. Egg tempera is an ideal medium for illustrating “the transforming power of light.” Akers notes that egg tempera “has a radiant quality” and that, even as it is built up layer by layer, “each coat of underpainting glows through subsequent layers.” Says Akers, “By using the ancient medium of the Old Masters, I can capture the illusion of light and create a richness of color.”

His winters are spent painting in his restored nineteenth-century log cabin studio in Kentucky and summers are spent on a private island in Spruce Head. For Akers, Maine’s St. George Peninsula is a rich source of inspiration. He spends much of his time wandering the woods and coves and has come to know “every lighthouse, boathouse, and farm.” He absorbs his surroundings, spending weeks on location studying the subject he wants to paint. Only when he has achieved an emotional connection with a subject can he put brush to paper. That dedication and investment in the work is clearly evident in Akers’s meticulously crafted paintings.

Dories at Pemaquid depicts a quintessentially New England tableau. It is not contrived; rather, it gets to the essence of place: a feeling of belonging. This is a scene that Akers knows well, and it feels as though he has invited the viewer on a walk with him through his beloved landscape. The sun is bright, sharpening the edges of the lighthouse and the boats. Akers’s attention to detail results in a crisp representation: the lighthouse is drawn with precision, and where ocean meets sky is a perfect line. But the spectacularly subtle treatment of light takes the breath away. Touches of gold throughout the piece emanate warmth. “My paintings are all about light,” says Akers. “I look for the decisive instant when the drama inherent in quiet moments can be glimpsed.”

Stephen Hodecker’s Remembrance series explores the flag and its place in American culture. The series exemplifies a central theme of Hodecker’s work: history and tradition. Hodecker’s grandmother grew up in Deer Isle, which he says is at the root of his connection to the state. “That connection led to Monhegan, where I have worked for 25-plus years,” he says. Hodecker’s formative years in New Hampshire also helped establish his appreciation for New England. “I grew up in New Hampshire, and we were always living in old farmhouses with barns; in fact I live in one now,” he says. “Those places always stayed with me, the rural New England life, how simple and hard the existence was and how resilient the people were.”

That work ethic has translated into Hodecker’s own creative process. “I am always endeavoring to improve the quality of my work and the quality of my choices,” he says. “The older I get the harder I work.” Hodecker sketches out small watercolors and oils as studies on location. Back in the studio, he uses those to develop the final compositions. Lately, he notes, he has been working with more “internally generated material.”

In Green Door, darkness most effectively illustrates light. There is light in the brightness of the white clapboards and light in a bright pane of glass, but the dramatic angles of dark shadows prove the strength of the sun’s rays. The shadows, the windows, and the lines of the wooden boards slice up the picture plane into exquisite shapes. Equally as intriguing is the symbolism of that piece. Contemplating what may lie behind the door is irresistible. “I do seem to be drawn to these old doors,” Hodecker says. With his reverence for history, Hodecker could be asking the viewer to open a door to the past, remembering and respecting what came before.