By Rosemary Carstens
You might say landscape artist Joe Paquet is thirsty. He eagerly drinks in life and savors it, greeting the world with both arms open wide. Yet there is nothing naive or sentimental in Paquet’s paintings.
His work extends beyond romantic notions of man and landscape and digs deep to evoke the more lasting, genuine beauty to be found in endurance and grit. In his words, “the majority of my subjects originate from the Midwestern factories and neighborhoods surrounding my home, where I find earnest harmony in the unrehearsed reality of the working class.”
Paquet, who is based in St. Paul, MN, is often inspired by scenes of industrial decay set against an urban skyline or a middle-class neighborhood on a gray winter’s day. He is the working man’s artist, and his paintings speak of the honesty and utility of ordinary things, the glory of nature as it is, not as we might want it to be. “I believe the depths of nature can only be plumbed through humility. The moment the ego overrides that, the door to true understanding shuts,” says Paquet.
Calling himself a “contemporary American scene painter,” the artist always works from life, generally creating oil sketches and field studies on location that he later translates to large canvases. At times, he even works quite large right on location. “He’s one of the few painters who does this,” says arts writer and curator Susan Hallsten McGarry. “Paquet has a great ability to imply detail with an economy of strokes and colors. Part of what is so special about his work is that he really wants to paint something that has meaning to him.”
Years ago, Paquet visited an exhibition of Russian painting and iconography and saw Isaak Levitan’s EVENING ON THE VOLGA. Paquet was mesmerized by its subtle power and how it claimed attention “with a whisper” through its exquisite tonality. He found Levitan’s work “almost painfully poetic” and was struck by the artist’s ability to represent nature’s magnificence without romanticizing it and to present “the universal in the particular.” In his own work, Paquet strives to create this quality of genuineness in things that might be outwardly unremarkable and unpretentious but, upon closer viewing, retain a unique beauty of their own. “I am painting my world as it is today,” he says, “portraying the utilitarian nature of things that have ‘had a life’ and reveal a subtle character all their own.”
As a plein-air painter, Paquet vigorously fights to freeze time, to work fast enough to “capture shadows, the character of edge and shape, and prismatic light and color as value”—all of a single moment. This often means being outdoors in extreme weather, battling cold and heat, rain, snow, or wind. It can be physically demanding but also exhilarating. It engages all of the senses and informs the work. Paquet tells of being on a painting trip in Italy with days of driving rain. He spent a miserable day searching for a sheltered place to set up his easel and paint. He slipped on a rock, slid down a muddy hill on his backside, landed with his feet in the freezing river, and cracked his easel box. He was completely frustrated yet determined to paint. As night began to fall, he bundled up against the cold, grabbed a large canvas, and climbed up to the Piazzale di Michelangelo, which overlooks the Arno as it flows through Florence. The weather was heavy and intense, the dampness eating through his clothing, but he painted for five hours, finally returning to his hotel, victorious and happy.
Paquet feels there is no substitute for being “in front of nature,” quickly and passionately stroking paint, making rapid-fire decisions about hue and value, and fighting against time to fully capture what he sees and feels. “These days,” the artist says, “what I really try to do is see more deeply—and see color more honestly.”
Born and raised in New Jersey, Paquet grew up in a busy, creative household with two brothers and two sisters. He says he loved to draw “as far back as I can remember” and feels fortunate that his parents let him follow his dreams. His father worked for the railroad, but at heart he was an artist, painting and sculpting when he could manage the time. Both his parents encouraged him in his painting and drawing. Though he loved sports and was a jock in high school, Paquet knew he wasn’t destined to play pro ball. Both his coach and his art teacher recognized his artistic talent and pushed him to go to art school. He went on to earn a bachelor’s of fine arts at New York’s School of Visual Arts.
Paquet mentions several artists who have influenced his work: American impressionist Willard Metcalf, French landscape painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and American realist Edward Hopper. “Hopper had a gift for distilling to an essence, a very personal roux,” notes Paquet. He also mentions two mentors who have been key to his artistic growth and development. While at the School for Visual Arts, Paquet studied with John Foote, who, he says, “opened my eyes to the exquisiteness and joy of drawing the human figure.”
After graduating, Paquet wanted to continue his study of figurative drawing. One day he saw a small sign in a window: “Sketch classes on Wednesday nights.” There he met painter John Osborne, who worked in an old train station that served as his classroom and studio. Paquet was stunned by the large, powerful landscapes Osborne produced from memory. “Osborne gave me the keys to outdoor painting. He was humble, deliberate, and sincere. He knew more about light and color than all the teachers I had had before,” says Paquet, who apprenticed with the painter for four years.
Following his apprenticeship, Paquet did nothing but paint for an entire year—one of his most productive periods. He soon married and became a father and embarked on a career as an illustrator, graphic designer, and art director to pay the bills. Still, painting was his passion, and he followed that muse wherever and whenever he could. In 1997 he took a teaching position at the Minnesota River School of Fine Arts in Burnsville. He enjoyed teaching, but it was an emotionally difficult period for him because he was going through a divorce. In time, he met his present wife, Natalie, and opened a studio in downtown St. Paul, where he began his own painting workshops. “I love teaching as much as painting,” he says, noting that he strives to develop each student’s skill set “so that he or she can speak more eloquently.”
Paquet has grown to treasure living in Minnesota, which he describes as a “visually quiet place.” He often travels to both the East and West Coasts to paint, but Minnesota helps keep him centered. In California, the brilliant colors and contrasts continually stimulate him, calling for a different palette. In his home state of New Jersey, slight differences in color values become critical. This intrigues him, as beauty is found in those subtle differences. The austerity of the weather provides balance and frames the excitement of new experiences elsewhere.
Paquet’s time spent tramping through and driving along the streets of St. Paul, walking coastal beaches, or exploring new regions abroad is in sharp contrast to his quieter hours, yet one nourishes the other. He is an avid reader—especially of poetry, art history, and books about artists and their work. He quotes poet Rainer Maria Rilke about the importance of authenticity: “…try to say what you see and feel and love. . . . what your everyday life offers you . . . go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows: at its source you will find the answer to the question of whether you must create.”
Paquet has received both the Artists’ Choice and Collectors’ Choice awards at the annual Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational, as well as the 2008 Alden Bryan Memorial Prize from New York’s Salmagundi Club. His reputation is notable among fellow landscape painters, gallery owners, collectors, and students. Fifteen years ago, well-known collector Roy Rose was struck by the high caliber of Paquet’s work when he discovered him painting on the streets of Avalon, a small village on Catalina Island in California. He continues to be amazed by the artist’s passion for his craft and his knowledge of art history. Says Rose, “Everything around Paquet interests him. He sees painting subjects everywhere. Traditional landscapes, unique architecture, industrial scenes, or old neighborhoods with all their defects and signs of life strewn about. You can’t help looking at the places in his paintings and have a sense of the people who inhabit them.”
Paquet is a storyteller and poet, crafting his tales of life and landscape with his brush, revealing to all the subtle, nuanced beauty of the ordinary scenes around us. For Paquet, there is “such great beauty in things being simply what they are.”
Knowlton Gallery, Lodi, CA; Roger’s Gardens Fine Art Gallery, Corona del Mar, CA; Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ; Kelley Frame & Fine Art Galleries, Woodbury, MN; Tree’s Place, Orleans, MA; www.joepaquet.com.
American Legacy: Our National Parks, The Haggin Museum, Stockton, CA, October 2–January 10, 2010.
Featured in August 2009