“Community Garden New Year’s Day” by Bethann Moran-Handzlik was the First Overall Winner in the bi-monthly Plein Air Salon (June/July 2019). Here, the artist tells about how the oil painting came to be.
Community Garden New Year’s Day: An Oil Painting
BY BETHANN MORAN-HANDZLIK
Each year I anticipate my first painting of the New Year. January plein air work in the Midwest has its challenges, but I love the cool blue shadows and muffling effect of the snow. As the New Year approaches, I like to know what my subject will be so I can get right to it on New Year’s Day. Sometimes it is a small painting that I will complete in a couple of hours; other years I am so busy I cannot paint on New Year’s Day.
A couple of years ago I knew I had some time on my hands so I set out looking for my subject. I drove around our small town; it was getting dark and I was feeling like nothing was going to work. I parked in front of the Community Garden to think. I thought about the poem “Winter Garden” by Pablo Neruda, and I knew my subject was close. I got out of the car, and as I walked the garden paths of snow-buried plots, I came across several stands of Brussels sprouts.
I looked more carefully, and there was a profusion of sprouts left on the frozen plants! The subject became clear — it was a symbol that on New Year’s Eve everyone in our small town was fed: there was an abundance! These strange and beautiful plants half-buried in the snow were the subject I would start my new year with.
I riffled through my prepared panels and found a perfect 42 x 48. New Year’s Day it was quite cold, but I went out and got my start. As I began painting, I realized the temperature was plummeting; there is no shelter at the community garden. I had a great start, though, and so I went home anticipating coming back the next day.
Upon waking, the temperatures were much colder and the 10-day forecast was grim. I whined to my husband, “I have such a good start but I think I might have to give up on the Brussels sprouts.” Not putting his mandolin aside, he said “Yeah, I guess so.” A moment later he sensed my deep disappointment and said, “Let’s go take a look.”
We drove over to the garden, and he came up with the brilliant idea to go home and get some shovels. We dug up the plants, put them in the van. The warm air animated the decay, and my husband proclaimed the plants “a barn of gassy cows.” The odor was potent.
We got home and stepped them into our own garden and for the next week and a half I painted running in and out of the house to keep warm. On very cold days I taped my brushes to my glove so I could curl my fingers inside and when my paint got too stiff, I had a second warm palette waiting inside so I could go right back out.
The scale of the painting evokes verisimilitude; the audience stands in the snow looking down, seeing the plants at life scale. Like the shifted perspective in Antonio Lopez Garcia’s “Sink and Mirror,” this painting draws the viewer to look down and then out at the ever-upright plants. I have been exploring this type of perception for several years and I find it so intimate. It induces a direct relationship with the subject that is markedly different from my vista plein air work. Each type of space occupies a specific emotional and intellectual state of experience.
I have been thinking a great deal about painting as a prosthetic of vision — not sight, but vision. Vision is filled with the optical / perceptual, but it is also anticipatory and relies on past experience. Painting is a prosthetic of vision because it enables both the artist and the audience to “see” the subject. One of the greatest compliments I receive from people is “I never really saw it like that before” or “ I didn’t think Brussels sprouts could be so moving.” The painting becomes a prosthetic of vision which at once carries the image and all the intended and unintended reverie.
Painting for me is a relationship with the subject. My paintings are slow — filled with wind, changing light, fluctuating temperatures, and animal sounds. While in the field, much concentration is needed. The work is at times arduous, at other times like a meditation.
I have been painting nearly all my life, but this was the first time I entered the Plein Air Salon, and I am grateful to Plein Air Magazine and Michele Marceau Ward, who selected my work for the bi-monthly award. “Community Garden New Year’s Day” is available. As for my painting this New Year’s Day, I know what my subject will be and I can hardly wait to get out there to paint. Happy New Year!
Painting “The Peace of Wild Things”
Painting “Shared Solitude”
Painting “White Boat House 3”
Painting “Weston’s Orchard”
More from Bethann Moran-Handzlik
Painting is mesmerizing. The complexity of tracking the edge of a leaf or plowed field in changing light into daubs of color is endlessly engrossing. I become transfixed by the subject and the technique and my mind wanders. My mind wanders toward teaching, which I feel so fortunate to do. It wanders toward my aspirations for my family and for the world. My mind is drawn into the intricacy and perfect rhythm of nature, the beauty of it all. And then language leaves me altogether and the work is beyond words. The paintings are done with care. I sit and look a long time, each element accounted for so that as the painting comes inside, the viewer can first take in the broad theme but then be drawn repeatedly into a satisfying contemplation of everything that is on their mind and in their heart, and they can leave the painting feeling refreshed.
I have been fortunate to be able to teach and paint for many years now. I was awarded a Hudson River Fellowship in 2014 and a La Napoule Artist Residency in France in 2016. I have painted during our family’s travels to Scotland, and I had the privilege to copy master works at the National Gallery, Scotland, and the National Gallery, London, among others. Painting at the Aldo Leopold Foundation Center, Baraboo, WI, is one of many plein air adventures I enjoy. I teach at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater and will teach a workshop this summer at the Peninsula School of Art, August 19–22, 2020.
ART COMPETITION CALL FOR ENTRIES: Did you know? The Plein Air Salon accepts both plein air and studio works! Categories include best Acrylic, Oil, Pastel, Watercolor/Gouache, Floral, Landscape, Nocturne/Sunrise/Sunset, Figure/Portrait, Outdoor Still Life, Water, Animals/Birds, Western, Plein Air only, Buildings, and Vehicles. The next deadline to submit art is coming soon. You could win up to $15,000!