By Bonnie Gangelhoff
The weathered red barn door stands ajar, and the sounds of Mozart’s “Exsultate Jubilate” drift through the damp Vermont air. Inside, the smell of oil paint wafts through a room where 20 artists and their easels are arranged in a semi-circle surrounding a model, who is dressed in white and posed against a white background. The painters glance intently from their easels to the model. No one speaks.
Welcome to the world of the Putney Painters, a passionate group of artists who call themselves a family. “I always have a sense of excitement and anticipation as soon as I approach the stone steps of the barn. I can’t wait to get inside,” says member Stephanie Birdsall. “I know the day will be full of serious painting along with plenty of excellent conversation, beautiful music, and the laughter and joy that always accompanies a group of like-minded artists getting together.”
The cadre of artists known as the Putney Painters was started in 1998 by prominent painters Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik, soon after the couple moved from Colorado to New Hampshire. While living in Colorado, Schmid and Guzik had organized similar group of artistic souls for regular gatherings. When they settled in New England, they found they missed that camaraderie and decided that resurrecting the idea was a good way to get to know other representational artists near their new home.
Schmid and Guzik are both quick to point out that their regular painting sessions are not to be thought of as classes, nor are the two of them to be thought of as the teachers. They prefer to think of themselves as mentors, or the “leadership core” of the group. “I don’t teach in any formal way, because I don’t want to be responsible for anyone’s successes or failures,” Schmid says.
In the winter the artists paint in a quintessential New England barn; in the summer they fan out and paint en plein air within a two-mile radius of the barn, which is situated amid rolling hills and gardens in Putney, VT. The Connecticut River runs through the heart of the picturesque village, located seven miles north of Brattleboro. The artists, mostly from New England, make their way to Putney every two weeks, usually on a Saturday, so they can paint not only with Schmid and Guzik but also with each other.
An observer of the creative world they inhabit, whether it unfolds in the barn or at a nearby waterfall, might describe their meetings as an atelier of sorts. But Schmid says that’s not exactly right. “This is a different situation than a workshop or school because it is more like a whole family of artists getting together,” he says. “There is a free exchange of ideas.”
Indeed, artists say Schmid and Guzik participate informally, often somewhat spontaneously, by walking around the room, critiquing, and answering questions. Painter Katie Swatland recalls one day recently when she was sketching lilies and struggling with the curve of one of the petals. “Richard came over in response to my distress flare, and rather than explaining what to do, he showed me in paint how he would solve the problem,” Swatland says. “It was a wonderful learning experience to watch him solve my problem on my canvas. I learned not only what to do, but also how to fix a mistake.”
When the lily painting, titled THE LESSON, was finished, Swatland asked Schmid if they both could sign it. Schmid agreed. Swatland says she likes to keep such studies hanging in her studio because they serve as great memories of lessons learned. She also keeps in mind one of Schmid’s mantras from that day: “Have no fear. Anything is fixable in oil paint. It is a most forgiving medium.”
“Watching Richard paint is like watching a conductor lead an orchestra,” says John Potter, another Putney Painter. Member Lori Woodward carries the musical metaphor even further, saying that when Schmid decides to do a short demonstration, the artists collect around him to soak up information and watch a live performance by the “maestro.”
Swatland, 29, along with Kyle Stuckey, 23, are among the youngest of the Putney Painters. The other members fall mainly in the over-40 age range. Some have returned to painting after raising families while others have pursued successful art careers for a number of years. Carol Arnold, who has been with the group for four years and is a former commercial artist, has four children from 8 to 14 years old. She regularly drives to Vermont from Northbridge, MA, sometimes bringing her children, who have become enthusiastic models for the Putney Painters. Two of them posed for Nancy Guzik’s recent work, GRACE AND DILLON. “I love my family, and I wanted to include them. They are growing up to be part of the whole process,” Arnold says.
The painting sessions start at 10 a.m. sharp, and Schmid describes the atmosphere as “free-wheeling.” During one session there may be jokes flying around the room, and during another the mood may be intense, with only the strains of a Mozart sonata audible.
In fact, Schmid says he is particularly fond of playing one of his Mozart CDs while the group paints. “I guess I am going through my Mozart period again. I really identify with that boy,” he says, explaining that while other Baroque composers stayed within the accepted standards of the day, Mozart showed them the full power of the piano and orchestra in innovative ways. “Other composers, like Haydn, were only using part of their palette, so to speak. I try to get across that in painting, when we look at our palette, it is one of the most powerful things in the world. And we need to get the most out of it.”
If the music changes from Mozart to Beethoven, or the tempo of the room switches from joke-y to intense, one thing remains the same: It’s a place where artists say they feel safe to make mistakes. They describe the gatherings as non-competitive, with people willing to help each other figure out answers to difficult problems without being condescending. “You feel comfortable sharing triumphs and disappointments,” Lori Woodward says. “We are mutual advocates for each other.”
Lunchtime arrives at the stroke of 12:30. That’s the cue for the painters to put down their brushes and gather around a large, round table in the barn. Some bring sack lunches from home, while others may pick up a sandwich at the nearby Front Porch Cafe. Carol Arnold brings a homemade chocolate cake for dessert each and every time. The lunch chatter usually centers on art. “It could be a discussion about the art world or the New York art scene. Or Nancy and Richard could ask a profound question like, ‘If you could only paint one more painting, what would you paint?’” Stephanie Birdsall says.
Birdsall and other artists say that increased self-confidence and a commitment to personal excellence are some of the most important benefits they receive from painting with the group. “It’s an exceptional opportunity to explore thoughts, ideas, and questions about painting and creativity. We discuss practical applications—such as edges, color, and compositions—but we are not limited to these issues,” says Birdsall. “We look at all the elements involved in creating a successful painting.”
As a landscape painter, John Potter adds that Schmid has helped him in very specific ways. “He has shown me how to find the beauty of small, intimate settings within a larger scene, and to direct my best artistic energies toward helping the viewer see and appreciate those settings,” Potter explains.
As for Schmid and Guzik, the rewards of painting with the group are many. “Both Richard and I have grown so much in being able to verbalize better and speak in creative ways when critiquing and helping someone,” Guzik says. “As a group we have grown closer and closer, and yet in our paintings we are becoming even more who we really are—unique and individual.”
Both point to the successes of the various members like proud conductors of a finely tuned symphony orchestra. For example, Schmid says that everyone has so many show and gallery commitments that they’ve had to scale back the meetings from once a week to twice a month. The couple boasts about awards the members are winning, too, mentioning a recent exhibition at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, OH, where Carol Arnold won a top award for a portrait of her son, Dillon.
“Some people in our group have become first-rate painters. A few came in never having used oil paint and are now fine oil painters,” Schmid adds. “What’s wonderful is to see how it has turned their sights high. They always come up to us and say we changed their lives. Art is such a vital part of them now. And before they came, it was all just a dream.”
Putney Painters and Friends, Susan Powell Fine Art, Madison, CT, through December 4.
Featured in December 2010