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“Breaking,” a painting from Nan Heminway”s “Star” series.

The Arts

‘Making peace with oddity’

Marilyn Allen and Nan Heminway's exhibit at Crowell Gallery shows commonalities in their work

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NEWFANE—Some of the more interesting work in the area’s arts venues is being shown through Dec. 10 at the Crowell Gallery at Moore Free Library.

Nan Heminway and Marilyn Allen, who first met at the River Gallery School many years ago, teamed up for this exhibit after discovering that their approach to art, the underlying intuitive themes that “got them going,” had a lot in common.

This is not all that apparent on entering the gallery. Nothing would seem more disparate than Allen’s earthy tones and blocky abstracts and Heminway’s “Star Series,” with their swirling orbs around a red center, directly across from the door to the gallery.

This new series by Heminway was inspired by her father, an aeronautical engineer, and his fascination with the sky — a fascination that has of late taken hold in her own imagination.

But the work that has been a longtime love affair for Heminway is the drawings and paintings of rocks: their forms, and their relation to the earth they are born from. In the Crowell show, there is a series of pen and ink drawings with this theme, and they are stunners.

The idea that ties the subject matter together is an interest in “life’s process” — living, exploding, enriching, and dying.

Stars are born and eventually die, as all living things do. As such the series of four star paintings are titled “Borning,” “Swelling,” “Breaking,” and “Dying.” Who knows where the artist will take this recent turn? For me, for now, it is in the rock drawings and paintings that Heminway is at her best.

Of the series of rock drawings, Heminway says she does not have anything in front of her at the time of creating them. She adds adds with some gravity, “I’ve looked, though.”

She describes building the drawing as one might build a house. And this makes sense: she was an architect. Part of the impressiveness of the pen and ink drawings is their solidity, with each element in its place.

Just as important as the boulders and rocks that her cross-hatches describe are what she calls the crevices. They cradle the rock formations, or split them, section them. Part of the metaphor of rocks, as Heminway sees it, is found in a line from a poem a friend sent to her: “Crevices is where the light comes in.”

Which reminds me of a line in a John Lennon song: Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. ["Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” from Double Fantasy (1980).]

In any case, the whole process of rising from the Earth into the open and being absorbed back into the ground has profound signifigance for Heminway.

“Rocks contain the history of the universe. They have that kind of wealth. It’s up to us to dig it out,” she says.

It is in this homage to the Earth and its processes and gifts that Allen’s work finds a soulmate. Earlier work had honored her love of trees and landscape fairly literally: “I was so overwhelmed with the beauty of Vermont when I first moved here. I just wanted to paint landscapes.”

However,” Allen told me recently, “I became aware if there wasn’t a certian mystery to the painting, I was bored with it."

In a sense, this new awareness and change in her painting is documented in this show. It contains fairly realistic oil paintings, the most literal being “Balance,” a portrait of an apple tree situated on her property in a “spiritual place.”

But it is in “Forms That Defy” that the artist frees herself, in much the same vein as Piet Mondrian used his painting of an apple tree to reach abstraction. “Forms That Defy,” an oil painting straddling realism and abstraction, is made with beautiful arabesques and a rich palette. Rather than being tied to replicating the seen object it is lyrical and delights in paint’s plasticity.

In my view, the two most successful paintings in the exhibit are “House of Sand and Stars” (a perfect title: not surprising to learn Allen was a poet in a former life), and “Turning It Inside Out.” Both are painted using a palette knife, which Allen says frees her to look at “planes and space”: her process is one of “laying down (the paint), uncovering.”

“I situate myself in space,” she continues. “That is how I discover my images.”

“Sand and Stars” is in ochres and yellows. Solid-feeling structures seem to emerge from the painting process. “Turning It Inside Out” also has a stong abstract structure, with deep wine reds and blues that play against more earthy tones constituting a braver foray into color than anywhere else in the show.

As these artists conceive of their work, their desire for it to embody the moving, living processes of the Earth and sky, so this show is for me a moving, organic exposition on the process of making art. It’s alive and searching.

While their work processes differ 180 degrees, this fascination with the power of that which comes from the subterranean Earth, gets thrust into light, and recedes back into the Earth, has a strong pull for Allen as well.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #283 (Wednesday, December 3, 2014). This story appeared on page B1.

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