Ask folks who know Vermont artist Charlie Hunter’s work to describe it and you might hear words like “ethereal and mysterious,” “straightforward and real” and “highly evocative.” Ask them to describe the man, and they are likely to say “funny,” “smart,” “sensitive” and “thoughtful.” They would all be right.
Hunter, who lives in the small town of Bellows Falls, once a mill town, on the banks of the Connecticut River dividing Vermont and New Hampshire, works in a sprawling studio housed in an old paper mill. A visit there reveals how labor intensive his work is and reveals his creative and philosophical approach to his work.
“I’m fascinated with how each viewer brings their life, memories and associations to a painting or work of art,” Hunter said. “I try to create a resonance that conspires to exist between memory and photography. By mimicking old photographic techniques, I can bring the visual tropes of a Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange into painted language. I don’t want to be a painter of ‘pretty pictures,’ nor do I wish to be a strict documentarian. Unlike other representational painters who use color as their adjectives, my visual adjectives are derived from reproduction processes.”
Hunter’s work is largely influenced by the fact that his minister father ran a small print shop when the family moved back to their Vermont family homestead from rural New Hampshire. “There was always a lot of paper and drawing stuff around. I drew a lot,” Hunter recalled. He also remembers “abandoned granite quarries, pigs, chickens and rambling barns, and walking home from school along railroad tracks reading slogans on box cars like ‘Santa Fe All the Way.’” All of that went a long way toward the development of his artistic sensibilities.
Later when he was earning a B.A. in art at Yale University, Hunter was “lucky enough to be forced to draw the figure three days a week.” After graduating cum laude, the budding artist designed tour posters for acts like The Jerry Garcia Band and then began designing album covers. That led to work as a music manager, but in the early 2000s, he returned to painting seriously, often turning to the plein-air tradition.
“I love being outside and my subject matter often derives from places where stuff has happened,” he explained. “I like seeing what nature does to what man creates.”
Now widely recognized and awarded for his plein-air work, Hunter has served as faculty at numerous plein-air conventions and expos. He will be participating in the Cape Ann Plein Air Festival showcasing the work of 40 artists from around the country, October 6 through 14. Cape Ann is the top outdoor painting festival in New England and takes place in four Cape Ann communities, culminating in the sale of participants’ work.
Hunter credited a series of workshops offered by the late area arts nonprofit Great River Arts with helping to hone his craft and unique style of painting. “Those workshops allowed me to see myriad ways that accomplished representational painters went about creating visual images.” Then, in 2004, while attending a workshop given by Philadelphia painter Stuart Shils, he “stumbled into the limited pallet that I utilize now.” It’s a pallet he experimented with and developed over time, one that relies on a deep base color repeatedly refined into the sepia tone that gives his paintings their unique style and makes his work remarkable, drawing people to his evocative and often mysterious work.
One of the artists who has influenced Hunter is landscape painter Richard Schmid, who once said of Hunter that he “has the uncanny ability to seize upon the most ordinary things, and transform them with his brush into bewitching jewels of design and artistic perception.” It’s an apt description of how Hunter captures things like abandoned cars, industrial sites, farms, trains, old buildings and landscapes.
But such descriptions of Hunter’s work can belie the humor with which he approaches his work. He has called his industrial images “murky paintings of decaying American infrastructure” and described his style as “panic born out of ineptitude.” He once said his goal is “to paint beautifully that which is not traditionally considered beautiful. Sorta like a less-grotesque Anselm Kiefer in a better mood. Using a squeegee helps.” Kiefer is a German painter and sculptor whose works incorporate materials such as straw, ash, clay, lead and shellac. Hunter often uses Q-tips, Stim-U-Dents, paper towels and toothpicks to achieve his ends.
Hunter’s work is available at Gallery North Star in Grafton, Vermont, where a solo exhibit of his new work will be on display September 28 through October 27. Said gallery owner Edward Bank, “Charlie’s work strikes a chord with nostalgia that makes him a one-of-a-kind American artist. The places and scenes he paints make his subject matter understandable in a way that evokes the history of a place or object, affording viewers a visceral experience and an emotional response.”
“I feel incredibly lucky to do what I do,” the artist said. “I am deeply grateful to galleries like Gallery North Star for showcasing my work.”
For more information about the gallery and the exhibit, visit gnsgrafton.com.