LEWIS BRYDEN

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©2011 LEWIS BRYDEN

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Rostros de Mexico

Stephen Lockwood, 2008



ESTER

As a visual artist, Lewis Bryden looks for something unique and striking: a truly exotic landscape or an amazing and unique face. Observing a great diversity of people and places constantly inspires him. For Bryden, the racial mix of people is aesthetically beautiful, romantic and mysterious.

Lewis Bryden began going to Mexico annually about fifteen years ago. He has traveled throughout Mexico with a home base in Acapulco. While doing portraits of friends in Acapulco, he hit upon the idea of recording, representing and exemplifying, in a series of paintings, the average, everyday person in Mexican life.

Traveling with friends to remote, mountainous areas of Guerrero, Bryden continued to capture the faces of typical rural Mexicans. He also painted portraits at the markets in the heart of Acapulco. As an artist interested in texture and color, Bryden became fascinated with the variety of facial structures and skin tones he found among the people on these local and regional trips.

Although, he wanted to paint random strangers observed on the street, it was difficult for Bryden to break through their natural reserve and the Spanish-English language barrier. He began working with a local guide named Poncho. Through ordinary conversation, Poncho was able to make each sitter comfortable and learn a bit of each sitter's personal life story.

Mexico is the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world. Sixty to seventy per cent of its population is a racial mix of Amerindian, European (mostly Spanish), African and Asian. After independence from Spain, the concept of the "mestizo", born from the combined culture of the new and the old worlds, became the identity of modern Mexico.

Mexico's Guerrero state is particularly diverse culturally and racially. During the viceregal period in Mexico (1520-1820), many Africans arrived as slaves. Chinese and Filipinos arrived on merchant ships from Manila to Acapulco. Even though the majority of Mexico's population is mestizo and Amerindian, Iberian-born Spaniards have traditionally been at the top of the social, political and cultural system. Generic portraits from the viceregal period often attempted to create an imagined ideal social order in the Americas through an intriguing series of “caste paintings," which meticulously delineated Latin American racial groups.

Portraiture is an art form with which most of us identify. It is a visual expression that provides valuable insight into the lives and minds of the artist and sitter, as well as their time and place. Portraits connect the individual to the family, the family to the community, and the community to the nation. They bind together disparate populations and help establish national identity.

Lewis Bryden has an interest and affection for the people of Mexico. His series of twenty-nine portrait paintings can be visually read as a group, but the qualities of each painting can also be appreciated separately. Each portrait is a character and psychological study of a unique person. The first picture Bryden painted in this series was his goddaughter, Lupita. José, a taxi driver, was the subject of his second portrait. Some of the sitters are related to each other: Don Beto and Santa are husband and wife. Hipolito and Maru are father and daughter. Maria and Rosa are mother and daughter. Catalina and Irma are also mother and daughter. Antonio and Rosalinda are brother and sister.

Every picture in the series is very direct, there is little for the eye to focus on, other than the facial characteristics of the subject. The directional gaze of each sitter is varied: some look directly at the viewer, others look off to left or off to right. The different position of each head has the effect of changing how engaged or disengaged each portrait is with the observer.

There are an equal number of women and men, excepting the triptych of Miracle. Young and old people are both well represented. Certain faces seem to float in front of tropical foliage (palm, torch ginger, philodendron), which in some way helps to further define the mood or character of the composition.

The skin tone and facial landscape of each portrait is different. Some are very smooth with bright highlights from the light source. Others are very lined and careworn with flat or no highlights. The use of color throughout this portrait series is bright, but flat, like the way Diego Rivera and other artists from the United States and Mexico used color in the 1930's.

Among the younger sitters, all of the clothing is very casual: tee-shirts and sweatshirts. The portraits of older men often feature long sleeve collared shirts and hats. The shirt Juan is wearing could be an Amerindian pattern with the colors of Mexico 's flag.

The “Miracle Triptych” is exceptional among the series. It is the only set of portraits painted in Bryden's studio in New York. The sitter comes from a Mexican family that has lived in Texas for several generations. The people and culture of the United States and Mexico have been inextricably linked since North America was first “discovered” by Europeans. In two of the three pictures, Miracle is wearing jewelry and clothing brought back from Mexico by Bryden's wife, Elizabeth. These two pictures are full of artifice and staged to show a beautiful, young American girl in tradition Mexican costume. The dark background of these pictures highlights this beautiful clothing and jewelry. Miracle's hair is tied back away from her face. The third of the three pictures is more casual and informal. Miracle wears a bright red modern blouse. This picture reminds us that the sitter is really contemporary and American.

Miracle's face is very expressive and essentially Mexican. Each of the three pictures shows a different mood and facial composition of the sitter. “Miracle Watching” highlights the curiosity of the sitter. “Miracle, Hand on Chin” is more pensive and reflective. “Miracle with Pearl Necklace” has a mysterious feminine quality, not unlike classical portraits from the Renaissance, such as da Vinci's famous Mona Lisa or later, Vermeer's Girl with Pearl Earring. This picture best reflects the Renaissance ideal of female beauty and deportment.

In his heart, Lewis Bryden seeks to create the best picture possible. His desire to master the art and materials of oil painting is extremely strong. This portrait series is about Bryden's involvement in the community of Acapulco and Guerrero and his love of painting. Lewis Bryden reminds the observer that, “It takes attention and skill to appreciate a quiet painting, a kind of skill that comes from reflection and rumination, not confrontation and agitation.”

—Stephen Lockwood

 


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Glimpse of Havana Today

By Lewis Bryden
August 9, 2003



BAHIA DE LA HABANA

The short plane ride into Cuba did not prepare me for the changes I was about to see. It was as if time had stopped and I had entered into a dream, and nothing was the same. True, I had grown up in South Florida, so I was accustomed to this kind of weather and vegetation. Also the architecture looked familiar, although they were the buildings of fifty or more years ago... And of course there were the cars—relics from the fifties, old Chevy's and Fords and Buicks that I had not seen since my childhood. Everywhere I looked I got the feeling that this is a place very different from our own. There are no neon lights, no billboards, nor even very many traffic lights. There are no stores, and no advertisements. There are no highways clogged with traffic, no shopping malls, no motels, nor fast food outlets. While the rest the world rushes on to whatever awaits it, Cuba seems to remain motionless, as if it were lost in slumber. And this was only a forty-five minute flight away from the bustle of Miami.

Havana itself is drab and decrepit. It looks like one of those East European capitals before they emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, albeit one with palm trees and tropical vegetation. There is a crude level of industrialization here—just enough to put smokestacks up against the skyline. Its elegant old buildings are now occupied by multiple families, or else simply falling down. I was astonished to notice that there are no signs. The very few shops in evidence do not advertise their presence or their wares. There are barely any road signs or even traffic signals. In the U.S. we are accustomed to a barrage of printed information in our city streets, but here there is nothing.

I am not saying that any of this posed a problem for me as an artist. On the contrary, artists look for the unique and striking, whether it be depressing or otherwise. In Cuba there was plenty to catch my eye. I felt like the Romantic painter who finally found himself in a truly exotic landscape. It seemed as though there was something meaningful and unique wherever I looked.

Somebody told me that the Revolution had been made by the “campesinos,” and that they had a clear prejudice against the city, and were content to see it neglected. The countryside, however, was a different matter. It was left in a pristine condition. Picture if you can, miles of highway without any traffic, going through a lush, tropical landscape, with no gas stations, billboards, motels, or peasant shacks along the way. Where do the people live? There was no evidence of them, nothing but agricultural land, mostly in sugarcane, and the mountains in the distance. Whatever effect the Revolution has had in Cuba, it was good for the scenery.

I must say I expected that the work done by artists on the island would be very different from paintings by artists living elsewhere, since conditions in Cuba are so unique, and I looked forward eagerly to seeing how this was going to be expressed. As a rule I anticipate that art will reflect its surroundings and that it will give some explanation of what it is like to live in a particular culture. What I found, however, was that Cuban art looked remarkably like what you would see in Lower Manhattan. How could this be, I wondered? Surely there could hardly be a bigger difference between two environments than that between the neighborhoods of Soho or Chelsea in the heart of New York, and Cuba. And yet I did not see any of this reflected in the artwork. There was perhaps an Hispanic flavor to it, but not one especially different from that of a Latino living in New York. I did not know how to talk about this with the artists themselves, but the explanation for it happened to occur to me one day after a conversation with one of them.

In Cuba everything is a state-run proposition. There is no private initiative. The state picks applicants for art schools and then trains them. Without a diploma from one of these schools an artist cannot get a gallery showing. Thus Cuba is treating its artists as if they were something analogous to an Olympics sports team. The officials select what they consider the best talent. They then hire coaches well-versed in the newest techniques to train them. When all is ready, they promote it to the world. The whole idea is to have a world-class artistic product. In a sense they have succeeded, because Cuban artists can exhibit all around the world. However, the thing that is missing, and which I regretted not seeing, is any sense that Cuba is at all different from the rest of the world—which it certainly is. The artists who are not part of the Cuban system, whom I did not get a chance to meet, are left isolated and unsupported. They cannot exhibit their paintings or sell them openly. I learned that they have difficulty even getting art supplies, and that some end up in prison because of their work.

The most interesting person I talked to in Cuba was an American who was married to a Cuban artist. They had both decided to live in Havana, although they had arranged to have their son born in the U.S.A. so that he would have an American passport. As a young couple they had done pretty well. The husband had inherited some property and although he was not allowed to sell it, he was able to arrange a swap with some people who had a house that he wanted. The Cuban government permits these kinds of swaps. It is an enormous advantage to start out with something you can trade; there was no other way the family could have gotten their dream house. They were working on fixing up the house and studio for themselves with the help of friends. Their son was enrolled in the local school where he learned revolutionary songs and slogans. The family felt a part of the system, even though the system had many inconveniences. There was one thing, finally, that the wife said that struck me more than anything else. When I asked her whether she felt a lack of freedom, she said that for her there were different kinds of freedom. The freedom she enjoyed was a freedom from economic and social insecurity. Politics did not matter so much to her as everyday life.

I wondered, does the Cuban government really give its citizens economic and social security? I was not there long enough to know the answer. In my minimal observations I saw such things as groups of happy, healthy children walking to school each day in clean uniforms. I noticed that the streets were devoid of homeless persons or beggars. I did, however, see a lot of people standing around without much to do. Some told me they were desperate, but most of them seemed complacent with their condition. I could not see any glaring social inequalities, although they may exist. Instead I witnessed a kind of egalitarian spirit. Every man and woman considered himself or herself an equal to everyone else. It would seem to be very bad form to set yourself apart in Cuba. Carlos, our guide, made a point of respecting everyone he met. He indicated that his advantaged position as a guide (they make ten times the amount of income of ordinary Cubans because of the tips from foreigners), was used mainly to help his community and his family. He wanted to avoid any appearance of being privileged. I believe this ideal was genuinely important to him.

Fidel Castro, of course, is the big topic in Cuba. Whether or not people want to talk about him, his presence looms large. I wondered what the relationship was between Castro and the inhabitants of the island. I could not get much information from anyone I talked with, but one incident gave me a surprising view of Cuba 's longtime leader.

We had gotten tickets to see the opening of the ballet season. There had been rumors all day that Castro himself might attend. When we arrived at the theater there was a crowd of people gathered in front and in the park across the way. We went through a brief security check at the door—about the same as you would find at Lincoln Center these days. When we were seated, we noticed that the atmosphere was charged with excitement. There was a microphone on the stage, only twenty feet from our seats. In the audience were all different types—young couples and older people, blacks and whites. I suppose they were all privileged in some way, but they did not look like a government claque. Then Fidel Castro walked out onto the stage. I was shocked to see this. There were no security guards standing near him armed with automatic weapons. He was all alone and vulnerable. Instantly the audience rose to its feet and gave him a standing ovation that lasted about ten minutes, and which seemed very heartfelt. I do not think any of this was scripted or planned. I think the audience accepted him as if he were an elderly relative. Castro himself looked very healthy and well-dressed, hardly the image we have of him. He spoke clearly and eloquently about the importance of the arts to a nation's independence, and then left to take his seat in the audience. It shattered every view I had of a savage, aging tyrant, isolated from his own his people.

So, what is Castro, I wondered? He is a dictator, that is clear from everything I saw and heard. No one is allowed to criticize Castro or to try to remove him. But is this perhaps a different kind of dictator? Does he care about the general health and well-being of his country? Nobody knows what will happen to Cuba after Castro, whether the state machinery will survive him, and a new dictator without the conscience of the Revolution will take over; or whether, perhaps, Cubans will make an attempt at the uncertainties of democratic government. Cuban history is the record of long periods of calm and stagnation followed by brief moments of immense change. It happened when the British opened the port of Havana, when Marti's forces won independence from Spain, and when Fidel managed the Revolution. After forty-five years of Castro's Revolution, what is next?

The following is a discussion of some of the locations where I did the paintings, and more information about them: In the nineteenth century hundreds of thousands of Chinese were brought into the country. Cheap labor has always been a problem for Cuba. The Spaniards swiftly destroyed the local Indian population and had to replace them with slaves from Africa. When that was outlawed, the owners brought in laborers from China. There is still a large Chinese population in Cuba, and there is even a Chinatown, which I depict in the painting, “Barrio Chino.” In this district, as in other parts of town, old cars from the fifties are used as the main source of transportation. A man called a “buquenque” stands nearby and calls out the destination of each car, so that passengers can catch a ride.

Some distance out of town is a nature preserve called Las Terrazas. In one part of the preserve are communal workers' housing and a tourist center. The painting “Encuentro” depicts the road to this settlement, which passes by a reservoir and a tropical landscape. Another painting, called “Las Terrazas,” shows the unspoiled countryside with a lake in the foreground.Back in Havana, the center of town is occupied by the old capitol building and the state theater. Across the way is the central park, and between them is the main boulevard, as is shown in my painting “Capitolio.” The street behind the capitol, in common with other back streets, has very few cars. The painting “Fabrica Upmann” shows how this street is turned into a sort of mall. But it is not a street dedicated to buying or selling, as it would be in other Latin countries. Here there were just crowds of people, either socializing or on their way to someplace.

“La Bahia de la Habana” is the name for the old harbor. This is where so many events of Cuban history took place, and its importance is emphasized by the several forts still in existence around its periphery. There is a quiet and calm about the harbor now, even though we know it as the location of the sinking of the “Maine,” and the beginning of the Spanish-American war.

Havana has a district that many years ago was an equivalent of Fifth Avenue. It is called the Prado, but its former glory is completely faded now. Elegant old townhouses are falling down along its streets. I saw this district several times, but riding past it at daybreak one day was the most memorable. My painting, “Amanecer” shows this scene in the very early morning light, signifying the hope of a new day among the ruins.

The only buildings to escape the ravages of time are the government and cultural buildings. The Museo National de Bellas Artes is one of them, and it has been beautifully and lovingly restored. There were very few patrons there to experience it on the day that I sketched for the painting, “Conversacion.” It shows what I imagine the Cuba of the past was like, with its Spanish heritage and its tropical mystery.

I had permission from the Treasury Department to go to Cuba on a kind of cultural exchange, and I intended to use the time to do as many plein air paintings as I could, even though I only had five days. My impressions were quick and sketchy; it is hard to say how much they might have changed with more time spent there. Although I do not know a lot about Cuba, it has always formed a part of my imagination. My youth spent in Florida was filled with stories told by people who had visited it as tourists before the Revolution and by refugees after the Revolution who remembered it as their lost homeland. I always had a very vivid image of the island in my mind. My short visit there both confirmed, and contradicted that vision. Now, in my mind there are two Cubas—the Cuba imagined or remembered from stories, versus the Cuba seen and experienced. The tension between the two, finally, forms a theme for this series of paintings.

—Lewis Bryden


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The Search for Light

By Martha Hoppin



AN HIGHER VIEW, 30" x 50"
Courtesy Forbes Library, Northampton, MA

I'm looking for light," says Lewis Bryden, whether he sits atop Mt. Holyoke or in his boat on the Connecticut River. Bryden paints the light in space, and then he fills the space with nature. Sometimes his light is sharp with afternoon sun and sometimes softened by atmospheric haze. It is the different quality of light that attracts him.

Bryden paints three basic types of landscapes. The best known of his works are panoramic views, usually from Mt. Holyoke. An Higher View, for example, presents a peaceful scene of Hadley suffused with a silvery light. Despite the variety of greens and browns in the landscape, the light, gray-green tone predominates. Similarly, despite the varied types of tree in the scene, the sense of rounded shapes predominates. Bryden also emphasizes the light-filled space by placing a narrow dark stage in the foreground and abruptly moving to the lighter distance. These ways of ordering nature (the unifying tone, the repeating shapes, and the abrupt transition to the background) are so subtly managed that they create, not destroy, a sense of informality and unstructured space. Bryden's scenes seem so natural, in fact, that the absence of roads, cars, and telephone wires is scarcely noticed at first. Bryden emphasizes nature over man, but in a comfortable, unthreatening way. He does not depict the forest primeval. "Nature up close is wild and brutal," Bryden has said, "but from a distance it is serene and ordered." What intrigues Bryden—and what he paints in these panoramic views is this contrast or paradox of nature up close and nature at a distance.

In painting the view from Mt. Holyoke, Bryden aligns himself with a long-standing tradition. In the nineteenth century, this site was the most popular single subject in western Massachusetts for landscape painters. The view (two views really, looking south to the Oxbow and looking north to the town of Hadley) became famous in the 1830s through widely published engravings after the English artist William Bartlett, and through the large canvas by American artist Thomas Cole (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). Bryden greatly admires nineteenth century American landscape painting and is well aware of past depictions of, and from, Mt. Holyoke .

Such a tradition makes the subject both easier and more difficult for an artist to paint today. Today's artist inherits an instantly familiar subject but must say something new, or different, about it. Bryden's paintings do that through their distinctive tonality and interpretation. He uses his gently organized yet informal approach to convey the defining features of the Connecticut Valley—its gentle, open land and natural meadows containing some of the richest farmland in New England. Bryden also distinguishes himself by painting unusual, unfamiliar views of the terrain around Mt. Holyoke. His two views of the Oxbow from lower down Mt. Tom, for example, present the famous configuration in an almost unrecognizable form. Seen from such an unexpected angle, it becomes an island of trees. The center of the Oxbow, rather than the river, becomes the main focus.

As a second type of landscape, Bryden paints the quiet shores of the Connecticut—views across fields toward the mountain but more often views of its banks. These narrower slices of the landscape capture the feeling of life along the river. Bryden himself lives on the Connecticut in Hadley, and he paints what he sees: the river in its varied moods. In Autumn Mist, for example, he enlivened pale tones with sharp notes of bright yellow and orange to evoke a dreamlike stage setting. In Yellow Boat he placed a spot of pale yellow against closely related tones of sky, water, and foliage; these elements form a decorative screen across the canvas. In Riverline, by contrast, Bryden focused on a magnificent tree overhanging the river, reveling in the variety of limb and foliage visible in the sharp light. In Fishers by the Bridge, strongly structured by the horizontal expanse of Northampton's old railroad bridge across the Connecticut (now the bike path), he presented a softened vision of serene, lazy summer days.

To pursue the effects of different kinds of light, Bryden devised methods for working outdoors. He paints river scenes from his boat. He goes out on the river very early in the morning. The morning light changes fast, so he works quickly, taking fifteen minutes to mix his colors, and another fifteen minutes to rapidly sketch the whole scene on canvas. This sketch provides the broad start. He stays out on the river two to three hours, returning home for a break and then going out again in the afternoon. In this way he can begin three paintings in a day. Bryden also works in another manner. Out in nature, he sees a composition, in terms of light and space, that appeals to him. He makes a pencil sketch, not on-the-spot but from memory, maybe revisiting the site. He then transfers the drawing to canvas and sketches in the composition in sepia paint. At this point he takes the large canvas out in nature, looking for the same light and time of day that first inspired him. He finishes all his paintings in one of two studios he maintains in Hadley and Manhattan.

In addition to panoramic views and river close-ups, Bryden paints a third category: architecture in landscape. His paintings of this very human subject nevertheless, are devoid of figures. They focus instead on the character of old buildings, farm buildings but also town halls in the Connecticut Valley. Bryden began his career as an architect, and it certainly shows in the assured way he executes these subjects, typified by North Hadley Hall. Bryden does not render this building in the precise, draftsman-like technique one might expect from a trained architect, but in a style rich with paint and animated by light. Irregular edges, juicy paint application, and strong lights and shadows establish the town hall's personality. Bryden presents a building rich with decorative effects and history, a vital and cared-for source of pride, not a sad relic from the past. There are no people or cars in this picture either, but the feeling of isolation only serves to increase the building's monumental presence.

Bryden is a poet. He constructs studies of light and air and space. "I am not painting a landscape," he says, "I am painting a painting." Despite the artist's emphasis on the act of painting, he cares deeply about his subject matter. He communicates his own joy at being outside in nature and his sense that the world is a satisfying place to live. He depicts nature's beauty in its serene and comfortable moments. The human element in relation to the landscape does not interest him. He does not seek drama, and he does not strive for "higher" meaning through the use of symbolic motifs. His works are most remarkable for their feeling of harmony and serenity, and above all, for their unaffected naturalness.

—Martha Hoppin


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Painting by MOONLIGHT,
on the
RIVER

By Lewis Bryden
September 18, 2005


BEGINNING OF THE DAY, 36" by 48"

I was awakened in the middle of a warm night in late summer. As I lay on the bed, not moving, it took me some time to realize what had startled me. The moon was shining through the skylight like a headlight beam, bathing the room in its cool, other-worldly light. I decided to get up and go outside. I didn't bother to get dressed, but that didn't seem to matter because the world outside had totally changed from its daytime familiarity.

The light was so strong that the trees cast shadows on the lawn. There was absolutely no sign of activity. It was as if I were completely alone in the world. Suddenly I heard a splash coming from the direction of the river. I looked over the bank where my house borders the Connecticut, but I saw nothing. Whether if was a fish, a turtle, a muskrat or something else, I never found out. The noise had broken my reverie, however, and I returned to the house. No one was awake. I put on warm clothes and made a thermos of hot tea. On my way out the door again I grabbed a portable lantern and my sketchbook. Going down the steps on the riverbank to the dock, I saw my boat silhouetted against the bright water, its 30-year-old hull tied peacefully to the float.

It was originally a houseboat. Someone simply took two pontoons and a plywood platform and added a roof and four walls with windows, screens and storm doors. I bought the boat last spring from a local farmer and cleared out the kitchen counters and built-in bunks. I turned the houseboat into a floating studio. Working on it was like painting from my front porch, only I could move that porch anywhere I wanted, pointing it in any direction.

Now, in one corner of the cabin stood my easel, and in another was the storage rack filled with half-finished and blank canvases. Cool air was coming in from the open windows.

I stood at the wheelhouse looking and feeling like the captain of the African Queen. I started the engine and the motor sprang to life with a soft hum, breaking the silence. The boat can't move very fast, only a few knots. From my position at the front of the cabin I eased the craft out to the middle of the river, which is about 500 feet wide at this location. Away from the trees, the sky was even brighter, with the silver disc of the moon shining imperturbably overhead. The cottonwoods, swamp maples and willow trees were all part of one dark mass, their tops forming a tracery against the lighter sky.

The Connecticut River in this part of its course is bordered almost uninterruptedly by trees. Whether because of the excellent productivity of the surrounding farmland or because of recent conservation efforts, the river from mid-channel appears much like it must have hundreds of years ago. Little attests to all the civilization nearby, except the faint glow on the horizon from neighboring towns which tonight was easily outshone by the moon.

Proceeding up the river, I pondered the geography and history of this area. Three-quarters of New England is drained by the Connecticut River, and I enjoyed the thought that so much of the region, its soil, water and even vegetation, has to pass right by my house. In the 17th century, Hadley was a frontier post surrounded by Indian territory . During the notorious King Phillip's War of 1675, the entire area was under Indian attack. Two settlers from town had been killed in the very fields now shielded from the river by a row of trees. The town had been besieged but was safe behind its stockade.

Other towns weren't so lucky. A few months earlier Lancaster to the east had been hit by an Indian raiding party, and several European settlers were taken hostage. Among them was Mary Rowlandson, who was captured along with two of her children on a February night in 1676. As Rowlandson wrote in her famous 1682 account of the ordeal, the Indians moved west through the wilderness of Massachusetts until they made camp near the Connecticut River . It had all happened not for from where I was at that very moment.

These gloomy thoughts were on my mind when I was startled to see a vague shape moving toward me from upstream. Looking through the binoculars didn't reassure me. It was a boat coming toward me, with no lights on and nobody at the helm.

I didn't know whether to make headway away from or toward it. Reluctantly I chose the latter, and as I approached, I imagined a body lying inside, a suicide perhaps, or maybe a murder? What else would explain an unlighted boat coming downriver in the middle of the night?

When I finally made it alongside the boat, I realized that no one was inside. It was completely empty and trailing a long dock line. Apparently it was a crew boat that somehow had broken loose from its mooring and was now drifting downstream unimpeded. How odd that it should occur at just this moment, while I was alone on the river. Would it have happened if I hadn't been here?

I tied the boat to my floating studio and headed back downstream. By now the moon was lower in the sky and the night was completely still. It must have been about 4 a.m.

I was feeling completely content to be just an observer out on this special night, but I knew that this scene was too good to waste. Since I had my paints and canvases with me, why not try to paint my first moonlight scene? My idea was to position the boat so that the moon would appear just over a clump of trees, with the shoreline in front. I maneuvered into a good spot and dropped the rear anchor, then the front anchor.

I tightened the anchor lines and got out my paints, but as I was laying out the colors on the palette by lantern light, I realized it wouldn't work. Already the moon had encroached into the trees, and what's more, a trail of clouds was passing in front of the moon. It was beautiful, but nothing like what I had started out to do. A large painting wouldn't be possible.

My paints were ready and everything else was right, though, so I thought I'd try a quick sketch. I raised the anchors and started the engine again, planning this time to work quickly. I painted on a small piece of cardboard, and I didn't even take time to turn off the engine and drop anchor, though it was a bit awkward having to lay down the brushes every once in awhile to take the wheel.

Within 20 minutes I had a successful small sketch, and plenty more time to spend on the river. I continued sketching until the sky began to lighten. By now, huge clouds were rolling in amid the first gleams of dawn. This was even more appealing to me than the moon had been. I did more sketches, stopping only when full daylight had appeared.

I headed back to my house as the mists were rising from the warm river to meet the first cool breezes of morning. I couldn't help smiling as I looked at the half-dozen small paintings lying on the table beside me.

—Lewis Bryden


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Coney Island: Boardwalk Idyll

A Gallery Talk by Lewis Bryden



SHOOTING GALLERY

What are these paintings about? I would like to answer that question, but I have to go back again to a puzzle that I sought to untangle years ago. When I started painting I had questions that nobody could answer. Along the way to becoming a painter I made discoveries that ultimately describe what these pictures are about. While it did not seem momentous at the time, afterwards I saw how influential each piece of the puzzle was.

There is one question that every artist must decide before beginning, although for artists of the past it may not have loomed so large. Now, however, the first thing that confronts an artist is what type of painting is to be done. If you can answer this you can happily set to work, expressing all the feelings you are sure you have inside. But how do you decide?

It is always best in such a situation to consider what has come before you. I personally gravitated toward the sculpture of ancient Greece and the painting of seventeenth century Europe. I liked the depiction of solid forms in lighted space. Here was something that you could hold onto, but which also had mystery. I liked Impressionism and the art of Japan and China for their sense of the patterned surface. However, art, I decided, had to be solid. Other types of painting did not help me much at all.

The best place to study the art that interested me was in the museum. The Metropolitan Museum was a meeting place of all nations. In the basement, in the copyists' room there were artists from places like Egypt and Korea. Everybody had a hunger to learn the secrets of the great paintings. I set my easel up in front of one masterpiece after another, copying from Velasquez, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Titian, Hals, and of course Rembrandt. I also copied Renoir, Monet, and Pisarro among the Impressionists. It was here, that I began to see the common thread of art that moved me, and why contemporary art had failed to do so. The subjects of these paintings were people from across the ages who were also like us, and they were captured in believable human moments. Later I found the name for this kind of art, which is “genre painting.”

Having copied the masters, I began to assemble the techniques I could use to do my own kind of art. I learned how to do the elements of painting such as underpainting, glazing, impasto, and scumbling. In particular I fell in love with Monet's “Waterlillies,” because of their wonderful texture. To me it looked as if the artist had swept the surface of the canvas with a broom, using the most achingly pure and subtle colors. In these paintings there was a paint surface that had an actual physical presence. I hoped to be able to add this feature to my own, figurative art. Finally, there was the element of photography to be considered.

I had always thought of the camera somehow as an intrusion into the realm of painting, and antithetical to its ideals. I personally did not like taking pictures. That was until I read David Hockney's book, Secret Knowledge, which showed how the lens was used by artists as early as the 14th century. One only needs to add up what are the pros and cons of photography in art. Photographs are best at capturing the fleeting and spontaneous moment, and they also provide a wealth of accurate detail. On the other hand, they lack personal presence, and cannot convey a sense of space or time. The camera is not good at redaction, so it is the artist's job to make the decisions of what to emphasize, what to eliminate, and what of an emotional nature is going on in the scene. Looking at a photo for me is sometimes like looking at life through a telescope, in the sense of being removed from the scene but also very connected to its particulars. Recently, computers have enlarged the possibilities of photography, so much so, in fact, that the manipulation of digital photos is an art form itself.

With the gathering of all these various ideas, there was still a piece of the puzzle that was missing, namely what and where to paint. The techniques of the Old Masters were exciting and useful to learn, but the most exciting issue was how they could relate to today. I always felt that, as Thomas Eakins expressed it, art must express the reality of its time. There were situations in our modern life that had been completely ignored by at least a couple of generations of artists, because they had quit painting people. The freedom of ideas and the techniques of Modern art had turned us away from daily observation of the human presence. I felt something was missing.

Now, you may consider Greek Classical sculpture to be the most beautiful expression of the human condition, as I do, but how are you going to relate it to today? If gods and goddesses were here now they would wear bathing suits. Ancient Greek culture existed on its own plane. Today, youth is still our physical ideal, but unlike other centuries we are aware of the psychological complexity of adolescence. What would the Greeks have done if they were here now?

It was with this in mind, looking for the setting for my paintings, that I found Coney Island. It was obvious, come to think of it. Coney Island was long famous for its democratic hedonism. It was built at the turn of the last century as a middle-class playground. Its rides and midway were a precursor of Disneyworld and every other theme park in this country. By the time I found Coney Island, however, it was in a state of decline, suffering like the big city it was in, with decay and retreat. Still everything was there that was essential—the combination of commerce, entertainment and nature. I liked the feeling of disjunction, rather like that of Modern art, that came from the clash of past and present, natural and artificial, familiar with the strange and bizarre. Coney Island has always been a place that put you off-guard, and that made you somehow a part of the spectacle.

Other artists before me have used Coney Island, each in his own way. I started studying the work of Reginald Marsh, David Levine, and the photographer Bruce Davidson. My own particular inspiration was a fascination with people in public places who are acting out their private dramas. It was not exhibitionism I was after, but an unfeigned, typically American pursuit of pleasure in the demotic crowd.

So there was the resolution of my threefold puzzle—what type of painting, how to paint, and what and where to paint. It all came together in a moment for me on the boardwalk in Coney Island. For most of art history the answers to such artists' questions were automatically supplied by the establishment. Even today in some societies I have seen, such as Cuba, artists do not choose, but are chosen instead. For most of us, however, there is too much freedom. It is a fortunate artist who can stand in a place like Coney Island and say this is the answer to my question

—Lewis Bryden


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Boardwalk Idyll Series

Essay by Julia Courtney



PACKING UP

The series of paintings that Lewis Bryden calls Boardwalk Idyll are as timeless as the “playgrounds by the sea” that inspired them. The paintings capture a youthful, flirtatious side of human nature that surfaces while people are absorbed in leisure activities. Drenched in the mist of ocean air and surrounded by the sound of creaking carnival rides and the aromas of delectable fried cuisine, the colorful figure paintings resonate for anyone who enjoys the celebratory atmosphere. These figure studies by-the-sea feature individuals who, although intentionally anonymous, resemble the girl and boy next door and summon the nostalgia of youth and the perfection of adolescent high school romance.

Bryden's choice of subject matter reflects his nostalgic side and recalls a captivating slice of Americana . In James Littiefors' tribute, America's Boardwalks: From Coney Island to California , the author provides a comprehensive history of this American phenomenon. Initially designed to accommodate beachgoers so they could stroll the shore in evening wear without tracking sand into the hotel lobbies, seaside boardwalks of the Victorian era provided an intoxicating alternative to urban American life and offered an escape from the heat, factory fumes and diseases of the city. Cheap exotic attractions such as hot dogs, salt water taffy, roller coasters, funhouses and Ferris wheels, were second only to the people who themselves became part of the entertainment.

Boardwalks were the forerunners of theme parks and shopping malls and Coney Island was among the oldest and most popular one in the country (Lilliefors ix). In 1906, Coney Island was considered one of the most highly photographed places on earth with over 200,000 post card images mailed from that location in one day according to David Lindsay, author of the introduction to Harvey Stein's collection of photographs of Coney Island, Coney Island (Lindsay, quoted in Stein, 7). Since it opened, Coney Island has provided imagistic riches for artists, primarily photographers. The opening of the park coincided with the increasing availability of the camera. In fact, it was a contemporary photographic essay by Bruce Davidson that Bryden encountered while in art school that compelled him to use urban scenes as the subject matter of his future paintings.

Bryden began painting the figures in Coney Island park near the beginning of his career as he wanted to paint people engaged in everyday situations. He learned later that this approach was referred to as genre painting. Bryden saw it as a vehicle that allowed him to comment on the human condition and recognized that if he wanted to paint beautiful people, it meant focusing on youthful, adolescent figures. Swimwear was the most suitable clothing option as it meant the artist could emphasize the physique of the figures. It was natural to “head to the beach,” in search of models with this criteria in mind, according to Bryden.

Admittedly, the artist intended to include more physiological tension in the series of paintings. This proved to be a challenge as he chose to depict people at play. Boardwalks are an exotic and sensuous alternative to everyday life where people go to escape, to belong and to watch the parade of people bewitched by the smell of lost scents and sounds, reminders of days gone by, (Lilliefors x) an environment not usually wrought with tension.

Bryden's arresting intimate portraits of adolescence predate social media, recalling a time when occupying the same space was an important element in engaging with another person. Not only do the images iconize the American boardwalk, they also reach back in time and capture a lost art, the art of conversation and of connecting with others on a visceral level. Although fashion and technology have changed dramatically over time Bryden feels he is “still painting the same picture.” Clothes and hairstyles may have changed along with the way that young people communicate, “but the things they talk about, their poses and concerns are probably much the same.” The artist states that “some things about adolescence just never change.” Consequently, the paintings offer a multi-layered glimpse of social history.

Some paintings in the series depict locales near the boardwalk that are part of the ambiance of these summer playgrounds. Patrons and workers intermingle in restaurants, at food stands, etc., even if only atmospherically. One of Bryden's collectors has configured four paintings that he owns in a small-sized room, creating the illusion of having walked into a cocktail party where people have already gathered. “The figures are friendly, not intimidating, so they are a welcome addition to our home,” said collector Michael Mao. “When Lewis borrows them for an exhibition it is as if some of the family has gone missing.”

Though the paintings in the series reside in different locations and collections, the continuity is apparent and the work brings together Bryden's artistic strengths that include keen observation, sensitivity to how people relate to each other and an ability to translate this all to the canvas. The striking images integrate Bryden's technical proficiency as they combine his love for rendering the figure with his skill to depict interesting landscapes creating a series that is compelling. When looking at the scenes, one can almost imagine the artist sitting nearby observing and perhaps creating a detailed sketch. The paintings offer insight into Bryden's gentle but curious spirit and the grace in which he witnesses and records the human experience.

Bryden continues to be inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper, because of the artist's ability to portray American life. Edward Manet also provides inspiration and exemplified a painter who works to convey the psychological aspects of contemporary life. Finally, Claude Monet's Nympheas or Water Lily Series continues to inspire Bryden's technique as well, mostly because of the dense interwoven textures of color and pigment.

The Boardwalk Idyll series combines Bryden's three other styles of painting, incorporating elements from his portraits, landscapes and waterscapes. The images stand out snapshots of intimate moments in time. The Boardwalk paintings allow the artist to be more “physical” than the other paintings. The large scale and heavy texture he employs allows him to lose himself in the material aspects of the paint. Bryden's technique for creating surface tension is an unusual one that begs description.

To create the surface texture, that mimics the atmospheric conditions of a hot summer day, Bryden uses a substance called Neo Megilp . He mixes this material with fifty-percent stand oil, as other binders he has used to create texture can crack over time. Bryden felt it was his responsibility to find a replacement for his original formula of emulsified linseed oil and wax that he mixed into a paste. Bryden attributes the brittleness of the dried paint to the varnish and drier additives. Stand oil is strong and flexible material and Neo Megilp , though its use is experimental for the artist, will hopefully live up to claims made by the manufacturer.

Each of the paintings tells a story and the narrative can sometimes be interpreted or invented by the viewer. Summer Wishes depicts two teenage girls “suspended in the most casual of moments,” exhibiting the seeming aloofness of an adolescent while a viewer can imagine the figures bursting forth with vibrant energy in the very next moment. In Binoculars , Bryden depicts the irony of a gentleman sitting in a bar peering out the window with binoculars while right behind him a shapely woman approaches. The two are completely disengaged with each other but the voyeurism conveyed through the binoculars brings them into relationship with each other. The curves of the chairs mimic the curves of each figure joining them together as well.

The painting titled, Packing Up shows the end of the beach day when the late afternoon sun reigns. A sense of fatigue is evident in the figures and the bodies, though realistic and imperfect, are pleasing to view. The strong-colored, striped sun chairs, sweatshirts, towels and tote bags are things every beach-goer can relate to.

Ferris Wheel was inspired by a box full of abandoned Kodachrome slides that Bryden stumbled upon on a street curb in Manhattan . A young woman and man are pictured together in the slides near the Ferris wheel at Coney Island . Bryden felt this was a serendipitous find, as he was searching for new models and subject matter. He came upon this discarded treasure trove and felt honored to adopt the intimate images. “I knew they would just end up in the trash if I didn't claim them.” He often wonders what happened to the couple. In the painting Ferris Wheel , Bryden captures their fondness for each other through the gentle treatment of their hands placed upon each other's skin and hair. Their eyes are soft and their bodies comfortable with being entwined. The painting conveys a sensitivity that is palpable.

In contemporary times, boardwalks continue to provide a sense of escape as well as an opportunity to socialize in an informal, exotic, exclusively American setting. Bryden takes us there through his carefully composed, yet informal-looking paintings. Though large in scale, the paintings offer the comfort sometimes associated with looking at our own vacation photos. The works recapture the simplicity of youth and at the same time document aspects of Americana and American social history. The images will, no doubt, remain timeless even within the swiftly changing world they inhabit.

 

End Notes:

Littiefors, James, America's Boardwalks: From Coney Island to California , Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 2006.

Stein, Harvey, Coney Island , W.W. Norton & Company, New York , New York , 1998

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