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“Fire Mountain – Jeremiah’s Vision of Fire Mountain” by Thelma Appel.

The Arts

BMAC looks back on five decades of work by painter Thelma Appel

BRATTLEBORO—“Thelma Appel: Observed/Abstract,” now on view at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, showcases five decades of paintings by a little-known, 82-year-old artist who co-founded the Bennington College Summer Painting Workshop.

“This is the very first career survey of my life,” Appel said. “The fact that it is at such a respected museum, and in Vermont where I first became a serious landscape painter, is even more poignant. At my age, that means the world to me — and it’s also not something I take for granted. In many ways, my life and my career have come full circle.”

Appel emigrated from England to Bennington in the late 1960s and, for the next few decades, her work focused primarily on large-scale landscapes.

“Seeing the open spaces of New England and the Southwest firsthand were life-changing experiences that radically changed my work,” Appel said. “The lush summer green mountains and amazing colors of fall foliage in Vermont inspired me to become a landscape painter.”

Along with the late abstract painter Carol Haerer, Appel co-founded the Bennington College Summer Painting Workshop. Appel credits the Workshop’s guest artists, including landscape artist Neil Welliver and abstract painters Doug Ohlson, Larry Poons, and Friedel Dzubas, as important influences on her work at the time.

In the 1980s, Appel left Vermont for New York City. She was living in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.

“My painting, Journey Through Hell, which is featured in the Brattleboro show, was part of a series of works I did at the time depicting the horror of that fateful day,” she said. “That work reveals a stark, unsparing view of the devastation caused by the attacks on a city I had lived in and loved.”

The BMAC exhibit also includes selections from a more recent group of paintings based on the 22 major arcana of the tarot.

“I wanted to express, in archetypal form, some of the milestones we go through in this journey through life,” Appel said, “and I found the tarot a wonderful vehicle to explore these changes.”

Appel credits BMAC Chief Curator Mara Williams with playing a key role in championing her work.

“Words cannot express how deeply touched and honored I am that Mara has profoundly understood the trajectory of my work as an artist,” Appel said. “Two of the works she chose for the exhibition were paintings I did in the early 1970s that are now in the Vermont State Collection. It was a breathtaking surprise seeing them in person hung so exquisitely at the Museum after nearly a half-century.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #538 (Wednesday, November 27, 2019). This story appeared on page B1.

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