“Passion will move men beyond themselves, beyond their shortcomings, beyond their failures.”
He is more than six feet tall and rangy of frame, with a leonine profile and bearing and a lumberjack’s crushing handshake that belies his daily work as a painter and creator of fine artworks. His opinions about art and life are strong and definite and sometimes contrarian, but are couched with a twinkling eye and a smile.
She only comes up to his shoulder and is delicate of feature and soft of voice and demeanour, but is no less firm and definite in her opinions. Besides being husband and wife, artistry is something that they have in common and something that they both work at daily, with a discipline that is not so common.
They are the Richs of Vermont. Their painting styles are very different, but, viewed objectively, they are both following their passion and enjoying a full and productive life in this tranquil rural landscape, something that many creative people may aspire to, but only a few manage to achieve.
In July of 2016 I interviewed Harry A. Rich and Mallory Bratton Rich in the sunken living room of their roomy and comfortable house in Sandgate, Vermont, which is located about a six hour drive from Ottawa on a secluded road in a quiet south-western corner of the state, a few miles as the crow flies from a Carthusian monastery on Mount Equinox. Harry explained that they bought the ten-acre property and moved there from Connecticut twenty years ago.
“We retired from the tyranny of wagery, when we came to Vermont,” he chuckled, his eyes lighting up with mischief. Although this may be true in the literal sense, a tour of their respective studios and a look at their bodies of work puts paid to the idea that they are retired in any traditional sense of the word.
Harry graduated with a BFA from the Pratt Institute and has a master’s degree from Wesleyan University. He has followed the creative muse for the greater part of his life but he modestly objects to the use of the word passion to describe the motivation behind his work.
“I have a little problem with the word passion. Particularly today, since it’s so popular. Every time you turn around, someone wants you to follow your passion. And I don’t. I never felt that I had passion, if my definition of it is the normal definition. When I was young the one thing in school that I succeeded at, was exceptional at – that’s a terrible word, but it’s true – was art.”
He credits a teacher from Albany, New York – where he grew up and went to high school – with giving him his start.
“I had the great good fortune of meeting a very young, new art teacher in Albany High School, John Gallucci. He was not yet ruined by the system, the public school system, and he was still interested in helping young people find their way, if they had talent, in the art world. He got me, basically, into Pratt.”
Another term Harry eschews with good humour, is the word artist.
“I don’t want to be called an artist. I’m a painter. Most of what’s going on in the art world, postmodernism, I don’t want anything to do with.”
Although Mallory has spent a great part of her life in the eastern United States, if you listen closely you can occasionally still hear the softly drawn-out vowels in her speech, of her early days and upbringing in Alabama.
“Mine’s a very different story. When I was in high school, I discovered that I loved, and was good at, writing. It was satisfying, and I followed that path in college.”
She studied American literature, getting a master’s degree, and then taught English and writing in academia before going into business and commercial writing. She met Harry when they both worked in the corporate world in Connecticut.
Mallory only began painting after they moved to Vermont. She always saw herself as a writer and worker in words but sixteen years ago she signed up for an art course taught by artist Virginia McNeice at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, New York and has never looked back. She seizes on the word passion to describe her dedication to her art, because it didn’t start out that way.
“It was a total surprise. When Harry and I got together, for recreation we did a lot of visiting galleries and museums and going to art openings. So I became knowledgeable about art. I liked what he did and came to know what it was all about, how to look at it, but I was just an observer.”
She credits her first art teacher with giving her the initial inspiration, as well as guidance through some early frustration with supplies and technique.
“We were up here and I saw the paintings of Virginia McNeice. She painted landscapes with pastels. I kept seeing them, in galleries and art shows in this area. And I really liked them, I was drawn to them. And one day, just out of the blue, I noticed a flyer from Hubbard Hall. Virginia was teaching a course in pastels, and beginners were welcome. I had not been thinking about taking a course or anything but for some reason, I signed up there. I still don’t know why. It was just an impulse.”
“And I had the wrong pastels. I’d brought oil pastels and this was a course in regular, soft pastels. So she gave me a handful, blue and yellow and red and white. I’d drawn a bunch of onions from a bag from the grocery store. She told us all to look at the onions, use our pastels and paint what we saw. And I couldn’t see any correlation between the brown onions and the blue and yellow and red and white and black pastels in my hand.”
“I guess I’m just stubborn enough to not give up on something like that, at least for the day. She kept coming around and saying: ‘Just look at the onions. See what happens when you put one color over another.’ Anyway, by the end of that class, I was hooked. I didn’t realize it until I started home.”
“Driving home, it was like: Omigod! How would you paint that tree? How would you paint clouds? How would you differentiate? All you’ve got is white. Anyway, it was really mind-blowing. To be able to see the landscape that you really loved. I loved the landscape already. Maybe that was part of the preparation for this.”
“It was very, very difficult. But, I never thought about quitting. And that’s where the word passion must come in, because I was hooked, in a way that writing had never quite gotten to me, at that point. But with this, it was: I have to do it. I absolutely have to do it. Even though I knew it would take years to be anywhere near where I want to be. And I knew that it was not going to be a hobby.”
Harry had been listening and thinking as Mallory spoke about her experience with her first art course and her subsequent engagement, and when she stopped he provided some context to his earlier comment.
“On this point of passion, there’s a better word for me. Originally, I felt that art was the same thing I felt about religion, which was in those days called a ‘calling’. It wasn’t a passion, it was a ‘calling’. That was a secular word. ‘Calling’ was something altogether in which you were connecting to the great mysteries that we are aware of, but that we don’t know anything about. And I felt that absolutely, with both of those two things. I finally went into art rather than the clergy, because I felt the calling more strongly there than I did the clergy.”
He also expanded on his early affinity for the clergy when I asked him if his painting style had changed over time.
“Within a moderately narrow reference, it has changed tremendously. I can show you one of my first paintings, which I still have in the studio. It is sixty-something years old. It is essentially abstract, and what I am doing now is essentially abstract. But there is a whole world of change from that time to this time, to me. Whether outside viewers see that, or not, I don’t know. It is probably much less so. I hate to sound corny but God does a pretty good job of making everything around us beautiful, unless we destroy it, in one form or another. You know, I can’t compete with that. What I can do is try and dig inside and see what God’s put inside me, that I can manage somehow to get out. At the same time saying I really don’t have a conventional belief in God at all. I did, but I don’t now. I wish I did. I miss him. He was a great anchor, a great strength for me, to have that and I don’t have it anymore. What I have is something else, which goes deeper. Faith has a certain depth limitation. I believe that’s being fair to religious folks, whereas what I’m doing, what I think I’m doing, goes below that. And of course the result is that almost everybody who looks at it [my work] doesn’t get it. Ninety-five percent of people don’t get it. Probably ninety percent don’t like it. And so, you know, it has its shortcomings, to take that route in style. Or subject matter, or method, or whatever. But that’s what I do.”
Harry might have been being modest when he speculated as to the percentages of people who ‘get’ or like his paintings, but his work is unusually distinctive and it is not fanciful to assume that this might narrow its appeal down to the most discerning and discriminating of art buyers. His canvasses, depending on size, are priced from about four-thousand to twenty thousand dollars and, arguably, that also has a bearing on their saleability. Generally, only serious art collectors have that kind of discretionary income set aside to spend on a single piece of art.
Notwithstanding that, in 2013 one of his paintings, a 50”x 50” acrylic on canvas, Ode to Neibuhr, was selected for the cover image of: The Doctrine of Humanity in the Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr by Kenneth Morris Hamilton, a book that was published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press in Waterloo, Ontario.
Mallory also suggested that Harry might have understated the appeal of his paintings.
“Contrary to Harry’s belief that ninety percent of people don’t like it, almost everybody that I’ve brought to see the work, of all ages and walks of life, has reacted positively. One example that epitomizes this is when my close friend took her grandson to see his show ten years ago, he was about seven at the time, and he said: ‘Grandma, grandma, stop.’ And she turned around and said: ‘Logan, what is it?’ And he said: ‘We have to buy this painting.’ It was a huge, 4 x 6 painting. And she turned around and said: ‘Why?’ And he said: ‘Because I want to live there.’ That is a very typical reaction.”
Mallory’s paintings are more representational than Harry’s; hers, by her own admission, being influenced by nature. I also asked her if her painting style had changed any, over sixteen years.
“My style has changed a little bit. Now that I’ve mastered the technique a bit, especially in pastels, I am still working on mastering the techniques of oil. My goal, from that very first day driving home, has been to try to show people through a painting, what I’m seeing outside. What the trees look like in the fog. What a particular tree looks like in a particular fog. The ocean, on different days, the mountain here. Well, for that matter, I’ve painted the farmer’s hayfield, across the road, which alternates between hay and corn every year. I’ve painted it ten times, maybe fifteen times.”
At this, Harry commented:
“More than that. Fifteen or twenty. And they’ve all sold.”
“Yes, every one has sold,” she said. “I’ve painted it in all types of weather, at different times of day and different times of year. It’s just endless. For every painting that I’ve done, there are probably a hundred scenes that I haven’t time to capture. And that’s what it’s all about for me. Trying to get that across. In the beginning, I tried to do it very, very photographically. But now I’m beginning to try and get some emotion into the painting. I am trying to do it a little less realistically. But many people say that they thought they saw emotion from the very beginning. When I got to where I could do something that was worth showing, anyway.”
I asked both the Richs, Harry first, if there were artists they could think of who might have had some influence on their work.
“Last summer, I gave a talk over at the Weston Theatre Playhouse. I finished my talk and the director asked me: ‘Well, who were your influences?’ It was a simple question, and I was stunned because in front of all these people I realized that I had never thought about that question. There were many people whose work I liked, and all that sort of thing but I’ve never said who does work that made me do what I do and evolve to a slightly different look, or whatever? So I then two weeks later wrote back a letter with a hundred names of people who I think had influenced me. And he wrote me back a funny note. He never expected that. But very briefly, here’s a few:”
“When we’re talking influences, let’s not say people whose style you want to emulate. But more, the way they ran their lives as artists. And their working methods, the way they got through the day. How they got it done. Right at the top of the list would be Richard Diebenkorn, a California guy who is dead now. He worked many styles, but mostly non-representational. ”
“Also Yves Tanguy, who was a French-Belgian painter, whose only show was a retrospective in New York in the nineteen-fifties. He was a fringe surrealist. And I was very, very powerfully moved by that. I didn’t want to do that. But I was strongly moved by the fact that doing something like that could evoke those kinds of emotions. At least in me.”
“And then a third one, and no less than the first, would be Norman Rockwell. That’s really how I got into the whole art thing. Even before high school. In my paper route I also sold magazines and The Saturday Evening Post was one, so I would get to keep the extra magazines. I studied those covers. I had no idea I’d ever live a few miles from where he did some of his most important work. But I think he’s probably the greatest artist America’s ever produced. As silly as it is to try and make that distinction, but if I had to do it I would probably say that Norman Rockwell is the best ever. And then there was another Rockwell, Rockwell Kent. Rockwell lived here for many years with Martha Canfield’s mother. He was a terrific painter. He was here. He lived up on Giant Pine Road. Now there’s two guys, they couldn’t be more different and they weren’t friendly. Their lives overlapped in terms of time, but they weren’t close. Also there was Lousia Matthíasdóttir. She is Icelandic and paints the Icelandic landscape with a mixture of mellowness and astringency. So you’ve got book-ends. From Norman Rockwell to Richard Diebenkorn covers a lot of visual territory. I could go on and on.”
After sixteen years, Mallory’s pastels and oils are now selling well in galleries and at shows, commanding prices of between three-hundred and two-thousand dollars. She also spoke about the influencers of her work:
“Well, my first influence was Virginia, my teacher. She was able to capture the landscape in a way that I really admired. And I’ve been influenced by two or three other artists, whose work I really, really admire. Through studying their work, I haven’t tried to copy them, but I have learned to be a better painter.”
“One is Albert Handell, in fact he’s probably the most influential artist because he’s become a friend and a teacher and his teaching is kind and generous and clear and consistent. He’s a real mentor. He’s probably, undoubtedly, the best pastel painter in America today. And a really, really good oil painter too. He does landscapes mostly.”
“Also Marc Hanson. He was in New England, but now he’s out west somewhere. He has a way of portraying a landscape that absolutely captures the moment. And you have the same emotional response to his paintings that you probably would have had as a sensitive observer of nature. Stuart Shils is a painter and teacher affiliated with the Philadelphia Academy of Fine art and I’ve also studied with him. I think he has stretched me to try and become a little less representational. Also Brian Sweetland. Not his style, but like Harry, I watched Brian paint every day and that dedication, that discipline, that commitment to daily painting, every single day was very, very powerful with me. And besides that, he was a generous and kind teacher.”
Mallory also spoke about the influence of the state on her artistry.
“My painting is a direct result of living in Vermont. I am strongly influenced in what I paint by living here.”
Harry explained that the Richs also have a genealogical link to Vermont.
“After looking at many places, I was about to buy a farm in Maine about thirty years ago and that didn’t work out. But I had a really deep urge to live in Vermont. I finally found this place and bought it. And after buying the place I was studying genealogy and I discovered that one of my ancestors was one of the founders of Vermont. His name is on the original documents. Before I knew that, there was an unexplainable connection as to why I wanted to come to Vermont. So I care deeply about being a Vermonter.”
A number of notable artists, writers and poets have called Vermont home over the years. Norman Rockwell, Pearl S. Buck, Robert Frost and Dorothy Canfield Fisher are just a few and they all lived and worked within a few miles of Sandgate, where the Richs live now. There are those however who would forego this secluded country location, for the seductive lure of a faster paced life in the art world and cultural scene of a major American city. But living and painting in the Green Mountain State works for the Richs, and it works well.
They are situated only an hour’s drive from Albany, a little more than three hours from Boston and about four to New York City. Vermont is an incredibly beautiful place to be in the summer months and although the winters can be harsh, they own two four-wheel drive vehicles so getting around, even in the worst weather, poses little difficulty. Their paintings are on exhibit in galleries and other venues in several states. The Internet also now provides them with a visible face to the world and brings a ready clientele right to their door. Regarding their motivation, call it what you will. They have followed their hearts to Vermont and every day for them is full and good.
As for traditional retirement; it’s out of the question. Mallory made the statement, and Harry echoed it, almost in unison.
“We’re really painters for life.”
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