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Art Notes: A Modern Riff on an Ancient Art Form

  • "Celestial Seas," a "faux-zaic" by Enfield resident Amy Fortier, is among the works on display in New London's Whipple Hall.

  • "Gypsy Wagon" is among the "faux-zaics" by Enfield artist Amy Fortier currently on view at New London's Whipple Hall.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2017

Amy Fortier has a thing for color.

This is evident even without seeing her art, though it certainly helps. Inside her Enfield home, at the end of a wooded road with views of Mascoma Lake, there are very few surfaces that don’t bear Fortier’s touch. She’s gone to town painting shelves, floor mats and Adirondack chairs in bright, careful geometric patterns, or else free-flowing swirls; even the throw pillows on her couch are jewel-toned, stitched with mandala-like radial symmetry.

This decor is a good representation of “Faux-Zaic Designs,” Fortier’s exhibition at Whipple Hall in New London, where the Center for the Arts has installed one of three micro-galleries in town.

“Actually, those Adirondack chairs are a bit of a Pinterest fail,” she said, pointing at the works-in-progress, whose patterns resembled the graceful tentacles of an octopus. “I’m getting around to fixing that.” She’d been trying to re-create a craft project she saw online, but the azure paint she used had interacted strangely with the porous wood, leaving behind an uneven texture when the paint dried. She’s been adding in some orange splashes here and there, to change the way the design hits the eye.

Ironically, at the time of our interview, Fortier was dressed head to toe in black; her work uniform.

A full-time personal trainer at the River Valley Club in Lebanon, Fortier makes art “very much on the side,” she said. But she’s been doodling forever, “or ever since I was old enough to hold a crayon, anyway.”

Fortier’s work still retains the playfulness of those childhood doodles. Now that she’s 41, it’s safe to say her style’s grown more refined; she no longer uses crayon as her primary medium. What’s remained constant, she said, is that art-making is its own end. She draws out many of her designs while sitting in front of the TV, stenciling and adding color in a process she described as “connect the dots, then paint by numbers.” She does this not because she seeks to probe the depths of the human condition, but because she enjoys it, very much.

In a former life, Fortier was a doctoral student in Texas A&M University’s horticulture program, studying plant physiology, until she decided to become “a Ph.D. dropout,” she said. Reflecting on the pleasure she takes in creating themed playlists for her fitness classes, and dabbling in the arts on the side, she concluded that she’s “taken liberal arts to the nth degree.”

It was around this time in the conversation that I realized that those few unpainted surfaces in Fortier’s house were crowded with plants. Perhaps a third of them were plastic.

“Fake ones are so much easier to take care of,” she said, adding that she’d even chosen the live plants based on how infrequently she could get away with watering them.

This work-smarter-not-harder philosophy also applies to what she calls her “faux-zaics,” an art form she came up with two years ago and describes as “mosaics without all the mess.”

This mess, made up of many small pieces called tesserae, is an ancient one: Early mosaic designs date back to ancient Greece in fifth century BCE. In the millennia that followed, mosaics became a major form of cultural and religious expression in the Byzantine empire, where they adorned — like the ornate pieces in Fortier’s own home — walls and floors, the surfaces of our built spaces. Ceramic and colored glass became some of the most common materials for mosaics, with grander projects incorporating mother-of-pearl and other semi-precious stones, and the final product reflected an arduous process of arranging, setting and packing the pieces into the whole.

Though Fortier respects the historical power behind this technique, she’s come up with a way to free herself from the mosaic as a process, and instead enjoy the mosaic as a palette of color and shapes.

Using wood as her canvas — “it’s easier than framing, which I know I would never get around to doing” — she applies a thick layer of acrylic medium, as if spreading cake frosting or peanut butter. Then she scrapes out shapes and patterns to resemble the tesserae of a true mosaic; she often has fish scales in mind as she does this. Then she paints.

Sometimes she realizes that the designs in her mind aren’t wholly her own: She unconsciously borrows from the symmetry and structure of the small lifeforms she used to peer at through the lens of a microscope.

“I steal from nature all the time, without even realizing it,” she said. “How funny is that?”

Fortier’s pieces capture her abiding attunement to those natural laws that constrain us, but also lend themselves to beauty. A common motif in her Whipple Hall show is geometry: circles and tentacles overlapping in structured, yet kaleidoscopic ways that are often symmetrical in some ways and asymmetrical in others. This is the case in Eclipse, which depicts the sun as an eight-pointed star, its pale halo off-centered in a larger circle of swirling blue — a particularly resonant image, with the recent solar eclipse still fresh in my mind.

Other pieces contain more subtle nods to these great and mysterious forces: The spirals of color in Celestial Seas made me think of the Coriolis effect, which was long believed to cause water to swirl down the drain clockwise in the Southern hemisphere, and counterclockwise in our own, due to the direction of Earth’s rotation. While the drain theory has been debunked, the Coriolis effect does affect weather events, such as Tropical Storm Harvey, which continues to wreak devastation, a testament to laws of the most inescapable kind.

Though Fortier said her faux-zaics do not convey any particular message, it’s hard to draw so heavily from the laws that govern the natural world without drawing attention to those laws.

“It doesn’t really have a deep meaning or anything,” she said. “I just like it.”

And that’s just it: Sometimes art does not ask you to look past its surface to appreciate its substance. Sometimes a surface — be it a floor mat under a desk, or a wooden canvas on a gallery wall, or even a plastic plant — is enough.

The Center for the Arts in New London presents three exhibitions in micro-galleries throughout town: “Kearsarge and Beyond,” a collection of photographs by New London resident Larry Harper, are on view at the Lake Sunapee Bank in New London. Enfield artist Amy Fortier exhibits “Faux-Zaic Designs” in the micro-gallery at Whipple Hall. Maria Blanck, a part-time resident of New London, and Yvonne Shukovsky, of Springfield, N.H., show their work in the exhibition “Potpourri” in the lobby of the New London Inn. All through Oct. 28.

Openings and Receptions

This Friday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., as part of First Friday in White River Junction, Anna Hranovska Vincelette will share the stories behind her art, sculpture and jewelry pieces at Long River Gallery and Gifts, where she is artist-in-residence.

Nori Pepe, whose recent work is on view at Two Rivers Printmaking Studio in White River Junction, will appear at a mid-show reception Friday night from 6 to 8. Pepe’s prints are on view through September.

Washington, D.C.-based artist Colleen Garibaldi shows her figurative paintings at a reception at Towle Hill Studio in Corinth, Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m.

LandARTLab, an outdoor sculpture exhibition at 128 King Farm Road in Woodstock, holds an opening reception Saturday from 4 to 7 p.m. The extension of SculptureFest is curated by Jay Mead and Meg Brazill, and features work by Mary Admasian, Ethan Ames, Barbara Bartlett, Brenna Colt, Charlet Davenport, Nera Granott Fox, Susie Gray, Rachel Gross, Margaret Jacobs, Marek Jacism, Jay Mead, Mary Mead, Murray Ngoima, Tracy Penfield, Otto Pierce, Cristina Salusti and Jeffrey Simpson. At 5 p.m., dancers and musicians will perform “Passing,” a show choreographed by Tracy Penfield and Tamara Hurwitz-Pullman.

In The Garden, a show of watercolor and mixed-media paintings by part-time Corinth resident Megan Murphy, goes up Saturday at the Chelsea Public Library. Through October.

Photographer Rosamond Orford will have an exhibition and sale of her work Saturday and Sunday at her studio in Norwich. The address is 1485 Union Village Road. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. 802-649-1490.

Ongoing

AVA Gallery and Art Center, Lebanon. Artists from AVA show work at Pompanoosuc Mills showrooms in East Thetford. Exhibit includes work by Joe Carton, Penny Koburger, Judy Laliberte, Elizabeth Mayor, Rosamond Orford, and Sue Schiller, through Sept. 23.

Aidron Duckworth Art Museum, Meriden. “Pride of Plainfield,” a community exhibition celebrating the town’s agricultural richness through photographs, articles and audio, is up through Oct. 29. Featured businesses include Edgewater Farm, Garfield’s Smokehouse, Hall Apiaries, McNamara Dairy, Noda Farm, Riverview Farm and Taylor Brothers Farm. “Bartelli Murals Remembered,” a 1990 mural by Aidron Duckworth, runs through Sept. 10. The sculpture of Claremont artist Ernest Montenegro is on view through Oct. 29.

BigTown Gallery, Rochester, Vt,. “Land, Sea and Sky,” paintings by Peter Brooke, continues through Sept. 10. More of Brooke’s paintings, including works on panel, are on view at BigTown’s outpost in the Champlain Valley, at 245 Main St., Vergennes, Vt. 802-349-0979.

Also on view at BigTown in Rochester are prints and sculpture by the late Hugh Townley, and “Commune,” an exhibition of photographs of buildings by Boston- and Vermont-based photographer Erik Baier. Through Sept. 9.

Chandler Gallery, Randolph. “Scale: Models to Monuments” explores the history and impact of public art through sculpture and photography. Randolph sculptor Jim Sardonis curated the exhibit. On view through Saturday.

Chelsea Public Library. “Moving Paint, Moving Bodies,” an exhibit by the longtime Chelsea dance artist Hannah Dennison, highlights the relationship between Dennison’s dance career and her paintings. Ends today.

Cider Hill Art Gallery, Windsor. The gallery and garden center exhibits sculpture, painting and installations by Steven Proctor, Herb Ferris, Gary Haven Smith, the Mythmakers and Gary Milek.

Converse Free Library, Lyme. Members of the artists’ group Odanaksis show their work in the exhibition “Summer Time in Lyme.” Through Sept. 30.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon. The hospital’s summer art exhibitions include the work of seven New England artists: Mark Bolton, Carol Keiser, Alison Palizzolo, Richard Perry, Sheryl Trainor and Robin Weisburger. It also features masks created by patients in the psychiatric unit as part of the project “The Faces of Mental Illness and Healing.” Through September.

Hall Art Foundation, Reading, Vt. There are three shows currently on view: “Hope and Hazard: A Comedy of Eros,” a show of more than 80 paintings on the subject of romantic and sexual love; “Ready. Fire! Aim,” a collaboration between the foundation and Burlington City Arts; and a solo show by David Shrigley. Through Nov. 26.

Howe Library, Hanover. On display in Ledyard Gallery is an exhibition of photographs by Max Fehr, of Berlin, Vt. Each photo is paired with one of Fehr’s poems. The show runs through Oct. 4.

Library Arts Center, Newport. The annual juried regional exhibition continues through Sept. 29.

Kilton Public Library, West Lebanon. Susan Pearson, a pastel artist from Canaan, exhibits her work during regular library hours through Sept. 30.

Norman Williams Public Library, Woodstock. An exhibit featuring diverse work from the craft group Women of Wonder (WOW) is on view through Sept. 30.

Philip Read Memorial Library, Plainfield. “A World of Color,” a multimedia exhibit featuring work by 12 artists from Plainfield, Cornish or Windsor, is up through Oct. 14.

Royalton Memorial Library, South Royalton. Lindsey Cole, a seventh-generation Vermonter and South Royalton native with a master’s degree in environmental law from Vermont Law School, shows paintings, drawings and photographs through Sept. 29.

Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish. Nancy Azara’s exhibition, “Passage of the Ghost Ship: Trees and Vines,” is up at the Picture Gallery through Sept. 10.

Scavenger Gallery, White River Junction. Stacy Hopkins continues to show her jewelry, including her collection of cast animal and bird skulls provided to her by the Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences in Quechee.

White River Gallery at BALE, Royalton. “Patrick Dunfey: Large Works on Paper” is up through Sept. 30. As part of First Friday in White River Junction, Dunfey will hold an open house from 5 to 7 p.m. on Oct. 6 at Studio 225 in the Tip Top Building.

Zollikofer Gallery, White River Junction. “Up Close in White River Junction,” a tribute by members of the White River Junction branch of the Vermont Watercolor Society to the wealth of historic architecture in town, ends today.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at eholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.