Mark Boedges celebrates the landscapes surrounding him in rural Vermont
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the April 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art April 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
The 18-by-30-inch oil on canvas entitled OUR START may be atypical of the lush New England landscapes that have been gaining more and more collectors and growing acclaim for painter Mark Boedges. Yet, this recent and very popular work may speak most eloquently of his background and of his evolution as an artist.
The painting depicts a late-autumn day on an ordinary working-class street in a Vermont town—in fact, the very neighborhood in which Boedges and his wife, Rebecca, lived from 2008 to 2011. Small 1950s ranch-style bungalows are painted cheery pastel shades of butter yellow, mint green, and pale pink that look incongruous against the brooding sky, the bare branches of mature trees, and the patches of snow that fringe small, browning lawns. Subcompacts and pickup trucks jam the driveways.
And yet, for all the humble grittiness it reveals in detail, the result feels undeniably appealing. The artist’s harmonious composition and confident brushwork, in a style he describes as “painterly realism,” somehow expresses a peaceful community completely at ease with itself. At a glimpse, the painting alluringly invites the viewer to enter. “When I finished it last December and put it up on my Facebook page,” Boedges says, the flood of positive comments showed him that “it resonated with a lot of people.” Said one follower, “I’d give anything to move into one of these homes.” Added another, “I could walk down this street and feel at home.”
Born in St. Louis in 1973, Boedges got his own start in a house and a neighborhood very much like those he depicted in the painting. He doesn’t remember ever dreaming of becoming an artist during his childhood, even though his grandfather John Boedges showed aesthetic flair in the oil paintings and charcoal sketches he created as a hobby, along with crafting historically accurate muskets and model airplanes from scratch.
Still, Boedges loved to draw. And, from his earliest school years, he did so with great skill. “I would do elaborate scenes in pencil of World War II fighter planes and dogfights over aircraft carriers. And then, as things progressed, I started making complicated mechanical drawings of the Transformers,” he says, referring to the popular robot-that-transforms-into-vehicle toy, comic book, cartoon, and movie franchise that first swept through the imaginations of American children in the early 1980s. Later, in high school, “your average, pretty basic art classes” introduced him to oils and just a taste of painting.
His fascination with all things mechanical, however, eventually led him to enroll as a civil engineering major at the University of Kansas. But after two years, he says, “I just had enough of all the math, and so I switched gears into a philosophy degree, curious about all the big questions.”
Whether Boedges was grappling with equations and formulas or the meaning of life, in his spare time during college he began to “tinker a little bit” with plein-air painting. He continued to paint after graduation, while working first at a computer consulting firm that specialized in helping companies avoid possible “Y2K” problems with the dawn of the new millennium, and then at other jobs with Internet-related firms.
After four years of full-time employment and part-time painting, Boedges came to a realization: “Hey, I do love art enough that it’s something I want to do,” he recalls thinking. “I needed that little gestation period, and I decided to check out of the business world and really focus on the art.” He enrolled in the studio arts program at the University of Colorado at Boulder and reckons that over the course of two years he “literally spent 3,000 hours actually drawing,” in the process developing strong foundational skills. Such in-depth work also brought him to another realization: He felt no need to finish a degree in fine art, especially in a program that, like those at so many universities today, emphasized modern art.
So, in 2002, he left the university with the goal of making it as a plein-air landscape painter—while also doing part-time computer work to help pay the bills. Two years later, his girlfriend and future wife, Rebecca, who was earning a master’s degree in clinical psychology, encouraged him to display some 25 of his mostly Rocky Mountain landscape paintings at a tent sale organized by the Art Students League of Denver. “I sold out all my paintings, which opened my eyes that this could work,” Boedges says, with warmth brimming in his voice. “And I bought Rebecca her engagement ring from those proceeds.” They married that same year.
In 2006, while Boedges continued to develop his skills as a painter, the couple relocated to Burlington, VT, a move prompted by Rebecca’s desire to live within driving distance of her family in Connecticut. Together, the couple opened Mark Boedges Fine Art Gallery, which is also home to his studio, close by Burlington Bay. And his work continued to grow in reputation and gain more gallery representation.
Nonetheless, Boedges remained on a quest to improve his work, particularly after he entered the 2007 Plein Air Easton Art Festival in Maryland, a large and prestigious juried competition. The pieces he completed during the eight-day event, he says, “didn’t show very well. I got schooled pretty hard by that event. It was a real eye-opener. I was thoroughly upset.”
One thing Boedges wasn’t, however, was discouraged. Instead, he resolved to take away from the experience a pair of concrete lessons on plein-air painting. “I learned to work as big as I can while still painting outside,” a result of noticing that larger canvases had been better received. And he also realized that the most successful paintings “felt finished entirely across their surfaces. I’d been capturing the essence of a scene without finishing the surface of the painting.”
Boedges redoubled his efforts to paint even better. As part of the process, he determined to learn from the best. In 2010, he took a workshop on color taught by Daniel Keys at Village Arts of Putney, VT, the home and school founded by the great realist Richard Schmid and his wife and fellow artist, Nancy Guzik, just two hours south of Boedges’ home. “I learned that I wasn’t being as rigorous about color as I needed to be,” he sums up. He’s also attended painting demonstrations there and had his work critiqued by Schmid himself. “He has certainly been a big influence on me.”
Gradually, steadily, recognition has come. In 2011, he won not only the Herbert and Rosetta Bohnert Memorial Award from the Hudson Valley Art Association but also the Joseph Hartley Memorial Award from the Salmagundi Club in New York. The next three years brought Best of Show and Artists’ Choice awards at plein-air events in Vermont, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, along with a 2014 Best of Show from the American Impressionist Society. Last year saw him selected for the Best Architecture award at Plein Air Easton—a vindication for his poor showing seven years before. And at last, since 2011, he’s been able to call himself a full-time fine artist.
Today, Boedges feels happily in command of his life and his art. He and Rebecca, parents to almost-2-year-old daughter Ella, live a happy if hectic life in Burlington, where she has a private psychology practice while he works out of the gallery and paints scenes along New England’s byways. “Things are pretty scheduled now,” he says with a chuckle of his work and co-parenting responsibilities. “I get Monday and Tuesday to paint outside, then half of Wednesday, half of Saturday, and Sunday if I need it.”
That locked-in schedule, he’s found, actually tends to enhance his paintings of a region where the weather isn’t all that predictable. “A lot of my work is overcast rather than bright sunlight,” he observes of paintings like GREEN MOUNTAINS, a scene of farm buildings in a lush landscape beneath glowering gray skies. “When you aren’t chasing the sunlight as much, you have time to actually nail down your elements in a painting.”
He’ll haul his big but portable Gloucester easel out to a setting that appeals to him and set to painting in a process he’s found that works well for him. “I’m right in there slapping on those middle dark colors, just letting the painting happen,” he says. “It starts out looking very abstract, with wild brush strokes.” As his composition coalesces, he’ll begin to find the edges he wants to refine and bring into sharper focus—maybe a rock, or a tree, or a farm building. “Then, I’ll start to radiate out from that point, moving back and forth. I tend to work all over the canvas, which helps me bring everything in the painting to a more or less even finish.” A smaller piece may take just a few hours, a larger one as many as four in the open air. Then, he’ll often bring the canvas back to his studio for several more hours of refinement before he considers it completed.
Though he now has a process that works for him, and the techniques to bring his imagination to reality on canvas, he believes that more challenges lie ahead. “I have plans to do a ginormous, 4-foot-by-8-foot plein-air painting,” he enthuses, and he notes that he’s just discovered a new way he likes to paint trees in layer after layer of paint. Clearly, at the age of 41, Boedges continues to feel as if each day, each artwork, is a fresh new start.
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