Blues, pale grays and white, the palette of Elizabeth Nelson’s abstracted landscapes evoke the water and air of Iceland. Mary McKay Lower’s large canvasses draw viewers in close to myriad apples peppered on the ground in a bountiful year, a murder of flapping crows, the catalpas in her back yard and more.
Nelson and Lower are the featured artists in an exhibition that opened earlier this month in the Contemporary Gallery at Montpelier’s T.W. Wood Gallery. The show includes large oil paintings by Lower considering aspects of landscape and nature in Vermont and Nelson’s acrylic paintings inspired by the landscape of Iceland.
The T.W. Wood’s annual “Holiday Pop Up Show” fills the Hallway Gallery. The show offers affordable artwork and crafts by local artists and artisans, from notecards and ornaments to pottery and wearable textile art to paintings and photographs.
“The landscape and the natural world are central to both Lower and Nelson’s art. These two women artists’ work, while quite different from one another, both use abstraction to different degrees and nuances, one being closer to realism and the other evocative of both the inner and outer landscape,” Ginny Callan, director of the T.W. Wood said.
Nelson, of West Glover, is a lifelong painter whose art education includes degrees from Rhode Island School of Design and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Known for her landscapes of Vermont and beyond, a recent body of her work considered the symbolic landscapes of the I Ching. Nelson took a more abstracted direction with her Iceland-inspired work.
In May 2017, Nelson went to Iceland on the first of two month-long artist residencies there.
“I was very inspired by landscape and weather and the whole feeling there. I found that my previous way of painting landscape was not what I felt. My painting got freer and freer and got to be more a collaboration between the painting, the paint, and me,” Nelson said.
“The paint medium is quite fluid and took awhile to dry, and as it dried it did its own thing. The process became a conversation — the paint would change and I would react to it, then I would do something and the paint would react,” she explained.
Nelson noted that her relationship with the works was a bit like that of authors who find that characters they have created often set out on their own ways, changing the direction of the narrative.
“I was so inspired by the water and the air. Iceland is sparse. It’s scoured and basic and volcanic,” Nelson said.
Nelson’s “Glacier III,” with its mass of icy white, catching up chunks of that volcanic black, draws the viewer into its frozen mass, conveying a sense of its force. A sliver of blue peaks out about it.
“Gullfoss,” captures a sense of a frigid sheet of falling water. Gullfoss is one of Iceland’s landmark waterfalls.
A set of three calligraphic-like paintings carries Nelson’s Icelandic palette in a different direction. With abundant negative space, the geometric trio comprises “Circle,” “Square” and “Triangle.”
Lower, of Middlebury, with degrees in studio art and art education from New York University, is also a lifelong painter and longtime art educator. She was drawn to abstract painting early in her career and recalls the influence of the Richard Diebencorn retrospective of the late 1970s.
Lower teaches studio classes and serves on the board of the Middlebury Studio School. Teaching painting and drawing, she noted, was a factor in her recent focus on apples.
“I was looking at Cezanne’s apples and his studies of apples. There is a particular study that’s close up. I like that, but wanted to see it big and all over, so I dove in,” Lower said.
“I paint out and in and change around to get the movement I want. When I see what interests me, I get close. I like that fresh impression of being close, you can almost feel it,” she said.
In Lower’s apple paintings, viewers get close to apples and tree in spring, fall and winter. “Apple Blossoms” draws the viewer into the middle of the profusion of blooms on a wild and wildly prolific tree. “Apples in Winter” captures that familiar phenomenon of over-ripe apples clinging to leafless branches. Lowers’ winter apples hang like ornaments against the gray sky. In “Apples on the Ground,” fruit and brown leaves lie scattered on the still green grass.
The subjects of Lower’s crow paintings and “Catalpas,” like the apples, are close to her home.
“Huge numbers of them fly over in fall. They seem to separate into groups, at times circling in big groups and they roost,” Lower said.
Quite taken by Alfred Hitchcock’s film “The Birds” when she was a child, Lower painted one fluttering flock on a monkey bars structure in a nod to the director.