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Fresh Paint: Works by Clay Coyle

Fresh Paint: Works by Clay Coyle

November’s exhibit in the Gallery at the Garden (Robert H. Gibson River Garden, 157 Main St.) features works by painter and set designer Clay Coyle in a show titled Fresh Paint: Reflections of Color in Landscapes and Trees. 

Concurrently, the River Garden, home of Strolling of the Heifers, will host an exhibit of historical materials from the archives of Kurn Hattin Homes for Children, the Westminster residential school for children at-risk or in need. Established in 1894, Kurn Hattin serves boys and girls, ages 5-15, who are affected by tragedy, social or economic hardship, or other disruption in family life.

Spring Melt Coyle

“Spring Melt” by Clay Coyle

Now a resident of Venice, Florida, Coyle maintains a studio in Putney and just recently moved from his S. Londonderry, Vermont homestead which he had kept since 1980. Clay has actively painted and worked on set and lighting design since he entered Williams College in 1968. He graduated in 1972, winning the Gilbert W. Gabriel Prize in Drama for his design and technical work. From Williams he headed to New York City where he designed sets for the Classic Stage Company, the New Dramatists Inc., the Producer’s Association for Young America, the Spanish Repertory Company, and others.

Clay’s classical education came into play as he found himself designing for works by Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen, Wedekind, and a host of contemporary playwrights who were at the forefront of New York’s Off Broadway Theater. He also worked for summer stock houses in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania in addition to working with The Kanawaha Valley Players in his home town of Charleston, West Virginia.

Tiring of the hustle and bustle of New York City, Clay sought a more tranquil life in South Londonderry, where once again he could “see the clouds sail by and marvel at the beauty of the stars at night.” In his 1880’s farmhouse and attached barn he found the space and time he needed to pursue his interest in painting more fully than he had been able to in New York.

After ten years of focusing on his painting skills, Clay once again turned to theater design and worked with Whetstone Theater Company in Brattleboro and later Lost Nation Theater in Montpelier where he is still designing scenery and lighting.

In his early years in Vermont, he put together large sized painting extravaganzas with emphasis on the characters and colors of the Circus. He has one series of paintings called Sideshow which includes the characters Ozzie (the human skeleton), Etta Lake (the rubber faced girl), Scatongo (the Wildman of Borneo), Madame Le Fair (the bearded lady), Jacques (the long headed man) and Lucia Zarate (the ant woman).

Circus imagery has continued as an element in his work, along with political and psychological themes and fantasy.

Clay’s paintings have been exhibited in diverse galleries such as the Wyland Gallery in Key West, Fl., the Tartan Pony Gallery in Santa Fe, N.M., and in Vermont at the Southern Vermont Arts Center and Vermont Woods Gallery in Manchester, the Chaffee Art Center in Rutland, and Vermont Artisan Designs in Brattleboro.

In March of this year Clay designed the set and lights for the play Cabin Fever (staged at the River Garden by Snack Theater) in a benefit production for Strolling of the Heifers.

For his show at the River Garden, Clay has gathered a selection of paintings that relate to the land. “I find it fascinating,” he says, “that one can put together a very abstract collection of dots and slashes of color on canvas or board and have a viewing mind see a world it recognizes and responds to.”

“All paintings are abstract works”, he writes in his artist’s statement. “Some paintings look ‘realistic’ in that the colors and shapes are organized in such a way that our brains jump to conclusions and we ‘see’ something that isn’t really there, at least not in the way we think it is. I like the illusions that art brings to us because those illusions can be more powerful and moving than what we see in ‘reality’. Art helps us focus our attentions and intentions and that is what creates communication and knowledge, all of which leads to a rich experience.”

Created this year to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Kurn Hattin’s founding, the historical exhibit, entitled A Legacy of Caring: Adapting to the Changing Needs of Children and Families, features a curated selection of photos, records, and documents from Kurn Hattin Homes’ archives, dating from the late 1800s through the present.

With firsthand accounts and audio-visual elements, the exhibit tells the story of Kurn Hattin’s founding and development within the context of major events in Vermont and U.S. history, such as World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights Movement, as well as significant trends in the fields of child care, education, and social services since the turn of the 19th century that have helped to shape the organization’s philosophy and approach.

A public reception will be held for the exhibit opening at the River Garden on Thursday, November 6 from 5:30 – 7:00. The reception will be hosted by Kurn Hattin Homes for Children’s Executive Director, Connie Sanderson, and will feature a brief presentation and Q and A session. Refreshments will be provided. All are welcome to attend.

Both exhibits will remain on view through the end of November. The River Garden will be open during Gallery Walk on November 7 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Normal hours are Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., except when the space is rented out for special events.


Claiborne Holt Coyle  — Artist’s Statement for Fresh Paint: Reflections of Color in Landscapes and Trees

I have always enjoyed looking at the colors and forms the World offers up at any moment and in any place. I am always surprised and delighted by the intensity of the visual world and its mutability. A face holds a pose for only an instant before switching to a different mood or position. The light upon the face changes and affects an artist’s perception and response.

Gateway to Mt Tom2

“Gateway to Mt. Tom” by Clay Coyle

This is true even in the controlled environment of an art studio when one attempts to “fix” an image in time. Every passing second presents the Artist with a completely altered reality and every moment is “lost” as we run to the next trying to adjust and modify. It is quite amazing that we “see” or recognize anything and the eye-brain-gut connection is an incredible piece of engineering and design. It is a wonder that any painting or artistic work is ever finished as the act of creating always brings new awareness and understanding that cries out to alter all that has come before. Finishing a work often times is a practical matter.

I was drawn to painting as a child as I wanted to find a way to capture the world around me and hold on to it. I could see the clouds drift by with all their suggestive shapes and shifting colors, and my desire was to reach out and snatch them up. I wanted somehow to bring them home and keep them intact and safe for all of time when, in reality, they were just as ephemeral as the opening of a Spring flower or one’s breath in a life’s journey.

I was squeezed into the school system, and I was not happy there. In my day, teachers were for the most part bossy and harsh, with little understanding for the creative, if sometimes wandering mind. I remember looking out the classroom window one day and seeing a most beautiful songbird, a Cardinal, with its rich scarlet robe and velvety black head as it swooped along the hedgerow catching its morning meal. What a shock it was when Mrs. X called me back to her reality of questions and problems (ones that I’d solved in my homework the day before). She quickly accused me of not paying attention while in actuality my attention had just been elsewhere. She was unaware how rich my World was with color, motion, and discovery. How was her chalky black and white world more compelling? She exuded contempt for her students yet demanded our focus and respect. My voice was weak back then so I took what she had to give, all the while longing to be free to dream, think, and explore.

School won out, of course, as there was no way to escape it. Family pressures were great to “succeed” and a classical education was laid out for me. I had to get through that chapter and do well so I dove into the books and learned how to study, take the tests and make the grades. I am grateful that I learned what I did as I had some wonderful adventures with Latin, Geometry, Physics, German, and even a little Calculus before heading off to college. Somehow I gained admission to Williams College in western Massachusetts and it was there that I started to reconnect with my artistic side. I fell in with a group of students who were active in the Theater. I joined in whole-heartedly and I loved it. Here at last was a chance to work and play in a fully dimensional world where anything was possible. All my creativity and imagination were not only appreciated but also championed. I began to live fully. At last I was part of a colorful, dynamic world where individual contributions were valued and desired.

My career in set design and painting started at Williams and continued in New York where I designed sets for The Classic Stage Company (CSC Rep), The New Dramatists Inc., The Producers’ Association for Young America, The Spanish Repertory Company, and others. My classical education came into its own as I found myself designing for Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen, Wedekind, and a host of contemporary playwrights who were at the forefront of New York Theater. I worked Summer Stock houses in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania and community theater in my home state of West Virginia.

As I approached thirty, I tired of the hustle and bustle of New York City and sought a more tranquil life where once again I could see the clouds sail by and marvel at the beauty of the stars at night. I moved to S. Londonderry, Vermont, where I bought a huge old farmhouse with attached barn that gave me the space I needed to pursue my interest in painting more fully than I had been able to in New York. I gave up working in the theater for ten years before I joined up with Whetstone Theater Company in Brattleboro and later, The Lost Nation Theater Company in Montpelier, where I am designing still.

In my early years in Vermont, I put together painting extravaganzas with emphasis on the characters and colors of the Circus with my series Sideshow, which includes Ozzie the Human Skeleton, Etta Lake the Rubber Faced Girl, Lucia Zarate the Ant Woman, Jacques the Long Headed Man, Madame Le Fair the Bearded Lady, Omar the Egyptian Giant, and Scatongo the Wildman of Borneo.

I like to add a political element to my work and some psychodrama as well. In my largest piece titled Uncle Clay’s traveling Holocaust and Wild Animal Show (8’x13,’ framed in bamboo), I attempt to show the history of the human race from Adam and Eve through nuclear meltdown via the imagery of a Circus wagon and its occupants. I don’t know if I succeeded with the work, but I enjoyed creating it immensely. Other works include a mixed media series called Seven figures in Limbo and my paintings Carnival Man, The Robert’s Bros. Circus, The Coyle Bros. Circus, The Three Graces, An Ersatz Man Bound by Unintelligible Forces, Angel, Genesis, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, a few self-portraits, a large floor cloth titled Flying Carpet, and a collection of drawings and paintings that goes on and on. In the past year I painted a colorful fantasy piece of a mermaid titled My Brother’s Wife (he drowned at age 23) and a large canvas called The Temptation of Eve (an old story!), which can be seen in my Putney Studio.

For the River Garden Gallery and Strolling of the Heifers, I was asked to provide works that relate to the land. I have always loved painting landscapes and treescapes as I find them relaxing to paint and transporting to look at. I find it fascinating that one can put together very abstract little pieces of color on a canvas or board and have a viewing mind see a world it recognizes. Of course our brains are wired to make sense of what we are looking at so we know if we are safe or in danger. If the color patterns and tones we see invoke the image of a “Tiger,” we most likely choose to run or seek cover. If they invoke “Monarch Butterfly” (the same orange and black but in a very different shape), we pause and say, “Oh look, a butterfly,” and we feel good about the World. How sad that both the Tiger and the Monarch Butterfly are endangered because of our human activities, as both are beautiful and needed, each in their own way. I have enjoyed painting both of them and wish I could keep them safe for all of time.

Artists, of course, use the mind’s predilection to see recognizable form to their advantage. It is the organization or presentation of dots, splashes, tones, spatters, strokes, colors, and marks of all kinds that our brains respond to when we look at a work of art. For the most part, we see what we want to see no matter what the artist’s intentions. A skillful work of art nudges our brains to see what the Artist wants us to see. The emotions and responses a viewer brings to a work are almost always uniquely their own and opinions about a given work tend to vary greatly.

All paintings are abstract works. Some paintings look “realistic” in that information is organized in such a way that our brains jump to conclusions and we “see” something that isn’t really there, at least not in the way we think it is. I like the illusions that art brings to us because sometimes those illusions are more powerful and moving than what we see in “reality.” Art helps us focus our attentions and intentions and that is what creates communication and knowledge, all of which leads to a rich experience.

All that said, I offer to you a collection of my paintings that let you see how I have reached out to “capture” certain places or feelings in my landscapes and tree portraits. Some of them are “real,” in that I was looking at a specific scene or tree as I was painting, but most are “made up,” as I work with color and composition and memory.

Painting today is much the same for me as daydreaming was way back in Elementary School. I trust that in the window of my canvas I can discover the same beauty and marvel that I experienced with the Cardinal that flew by the school window so long ago. I really enjoy seeing the colors and shapes that appear and I trust that you will as well.

My paintings are my life, my breath, and my history, but it’s time to share them with the world. I hope my work moves you to find great joy and passion in your life! May it encourage you to get going on making your own dreams come true and your voice heard wherever you might be.