Donald Saaf knew at an early age, while drawing comic books with his siblings, that he wanted to be an artist. He began painting as a teen and later moved from Hartford to Boston, where he studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. A year in Mexico on a travel scholarship, living with indigenous people in a small village with his wife — painter Julia Zanes — led to a show at the Clark Gallery in Lincoln, Massachusetts that launched his career. Now his work is widely exhibited in galleries, museums and private collections in New England and beyond as Saaf, who lives in Marlboro, Vermont, divides his time between painting, teaching, illustrating children’s books, carving stone and playing music.
Saaf’s work reflects his strong interest in the intersectionality of fine art and folk art. Both forms find their way into his paintings reflecting community, people and experience. Beginning with a compositional idea, “things begin to grow” in his artistic vision, he explained. “I have an internal dream place. But while some of the imagery in my work is very personal, I always strive for the universal.”
Although he studied painting at SMFA in Boston, Saaf sees himself as something of an “outsider artist.” He is drawn to and inspired by the purity and simple quality of folk art that derives from “pure versus intellectual experience.” In his latest show at Mitchell • Giddings Fine Arts in Brattleboro, opening on November 24 and continuing until January 6, Saaf will focus on the idea of community and the connection between and among people both physically and spiritually.
The simplicity of his imagery in this latest exhibition is important, Saaf said, but the composition of each painting becomes complex because of technique. “Every time I come to the painting it’s a fresh moment,” he explained. “I let each layer interact with each other.”
Memory, place and experience each figure into the deceptively simple yet complex compositions that Saaf creates. He often begins a work with a mental map of a space, adding visual elements to help viewers inhabit the space. “It’s like walking down a street,” he says. “You have an image of the street but then a familiar face might pass by or you might see things from different angles. The paintings are not about technique, although I keep those ideas in my head, but I approach the work more intuitively. I think about everything at the same time. Then I fracture the image to reveal the experience of seeing something close up or far away.”