Art Notes: Painter Eric Aho Looks Deep Into a Hole in the Ice

Thursday, February 04, 2016
On a recent mild day, the painter Eric Aho stood on a frozen pond in Walpole, N.H., and, taking a 6-foot-long saw, begin slicing through the 6- inch-thick ice as easily as if it were birthday cake. When he was done, he’d cut a squarish hole in the ice large enough for a person to slip through into the water below.

Aho, who is Finnish-American, was demonstrating how to cut what Finns call the avanto , or a hole cut into the ice of a body of water. A sauna, a small wooden building that Aho and friends built out of spruce, stands nearby.

In the centuries-old Finnish tradition of the sauna, a person first takes a long, hot, steam bath in the sauna and then immerses herself in ice-cold water, whether that’s a pond, river or pool. The contrast between extremes of hot and cold is said to relax and invigorate body and mind.

“You come out of the water and you feel invincible. You have conquered nature for a few minutes,” Aho said.

Aho, a native New Englander who has made his reputation as a painter of abstracted landscapes, first painted the avanto, and the juxtaposition between ice and water, in 2007. His wife, photographer Rachel Portesi, then suggested to him that the avanto would be a good subject for a series of paintings that would explore not only landscape and abstraction, but also his Finnish heritage.

In the years since, Aho, now 49, has done just that, painting the ongoing series “Ice Cuts,” which is now on view through March 13 at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in Hanover.

The exhibition includes 13 large and smaller-scale oil paintings, and 26 works on paper, which are studies for the oils. In their size, color and intensity, the paintings seem both outward-looking and introspective, heroic and intimate, reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s huge color field canvases, and Rothko’s championing of “the simple expression of the complex thought.”

There’s a dynamic tension between the geometry of the trapezoidal avanto, the way its lines and angles slice across and even run off the canvas, and the natural landscape reflected in the depth of the water and its changing hues. Is the avanto an abyss, or a portal into another world? A window for self-examination or a way to escape it?

When he looks at the sauna in nature, versus the sauna in paint, Aho is struck by the dichotomies: going from one opening to another, the inside and outside, the natural world vs. the invented world.

“It’s amazing to me how paintings so stark and simple could contain all those worlds,” he said.

Katherine Hart, the senior curator of collections at the Hood, first saw the “Ice Cut” paintings when she made a visit with Brian Kennedy, then director of the museum, to Aho’s studio in Saxtons River, Vt. (Aho and Portesi and their two young children live in Saxtons River, not far from his studio .)

“They had a metaphysical quality to them which I found fascinating,” she said in a phone interview. “They feature Eric’s great ability as a painter and as a colorist. And when you look at them from one to another you can see them shifting.”

The sauna is located in a commercial orchard in Walpole atop a hill that is the remains of a glacial drumlin, with views of southern New Hampshire and Vermont. Aho had been doing plein air painting there for some time, and in 2000 approached the owners of the orchard, with whom he was friends. He proposed that, in return for building an old-fashioned, 18th-century -style sauna next to a natural pond on their property, they could use it, too.

From November through March, and occasionally even into April, Aho and Portesi, and their children, come out to use the sauna, often bringing friends with them. ( Sauna is properly pronounced sow-na, as in female pig, not saw-na, said Aho.)

“It’s something you share with friends and family,” Aho said, noting that on Sundays Finns often go directly from the sauna to church, a kind of baptism in reverse, and that if you are invited for dinner at a Finnish family’s home, a sauna is often included.

Building the sauna and cutting the avanto has been an important way for him to reclaim his Finnish heritage, he said. He dates his canvases not only by when they were painted, but titles them Ice Cut (1930) or Ice Cut (1936) , using dates that were significant in his father’s life, and in American art and history, as if he were swimming in the great river of time. Abstraction permits him to write his own narratives in paint.

Aho’s grandfather Matti emigrated from Finland to the U.S. in 1903, working in a coal mine in Ohio, and passed the sauna culture on to his children and grandchildren. Eric Aho was born in Melrose, Mass., where his father worked for the Boston and Maine Railroad. But when he was still in elementary school , the Aho family moved to Hudson, N.H., where he grew up.

“We were raised in Finland, in America,” Aho said. From an early age he showed, he said, a propensity for drawing and painting, and if it weren’t for that, he suspects he might have continued in the male Aho tradition of physical labor.

“Things present themselves as they do,” he said. He went on to earn a B.F.A. from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, where he also did post-graduate study, as well as studying art in Havana, London and Finland. In 1994 he was one of four finalists in the Hood’s biennial exhibition Regional Selections. He also taught at the Putney School from the late 1980s to the late 1990s. He is represented by the D.C. Moore Gallery in New York City.

Later, standing in the sauna, he talked about the central importance of the sauna in Finnish culture, and his life. “To me this is where it all happens,” he said.

As was customary, his father David Aho, who was born in 1920 in the U.S., was delivered in a sauna, and bodies are often prepared for burial in the sauna as well.

Out on the ice , the avanto changes appearance day to day, depending on weather. It can reflect blue sky or storm clouds, a brilliantly clear cold day in January or a moody one in March; the surface can appear calm, rippled or choppy, according to how hard the wind is blowing. All of these natural phenomena are recorded and reflected in Aho’s canvases.

“It’s different every time,” Aho said. Although this winter hasn’t boasted much in the way of snow, last winter was a different story. Aho recalled piles of snow surrounding the avanto, which gave it the appearance of a mountainscape, which worked its way into his painting.

Once he’s cut the avanto he uses ice tongs to pull a section of the ice block onto the pond’s surface. He points out the layers of ice. The top stratum is chalky-looking, the middle less murky, but the bottom stratum, the oldest and closest to the water, is crystalline. That bottom layer, Aho said, was the most prized during the ice industry’s heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“That’s some crazy, beautiful thing,” he said, bending down to gaze through its icy prism.

Openings and Receptions

It’s First Friday again in beautiful downtown White River Junction. Here’s what’s happening:

The Main Street Museum of Art celebrates with a special non-stop loop of Of Oz the Wizard , Matt Bucy’s clever manipulation of the 1939 classic film, in which Dorothy and friends are snipped, sliced, diced and spliced together in a post-modern reinterpretation that takes the words in the script and alphabetizes them. You can see it on Vimeo, if you type in Matt Bucy and Wizard of Oz. The film runs continuously from 5 to 10 Friday evening at the museum.

Over at Two Rivers Printmaking Studio in the Tip-Top Building there will be a show of art by the studio’s artist-members that opens Friday with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. It will be on view through Feb. 29. Artists’ studios will also be open in the Tip Top.

The Barrette Center for the Arts will host a reception from 5 to 7 for the art exhibition “Community Conversation Collaboration: Explorations into the Art of Connection Installation,” which features artists Cindy Heath, Carla Kimball and Margaret Sheehan, who will also be on hand.

Elsewhere, painter Mary Jane Morse, who lives in West Lebanon and whose work was seen in last summer’s juried exhibition at A VA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, is having a show of her work at the Gallery at WREN (Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network) in Bethlehem, N.H. Morse will exhibit paintings from her “Winter River Series” and “Black Series.” There will be an opening reception Friday from 5 to 7 p.m. The exhibit continues through Feb. 29 . The WREN gallery is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and is located at 2013 Main St., Bethlehem, N.H. For information, call 603-869-3100 or go to

T he street photography of Jim Lustenader is on view at the Osher@Dartmouth offices at 7 Lebanon St ., in Hanover. Lustenader has taken pictures all over the world, but this show focuses on three decades of photographs of Paris, collected in his book Paris in a Second . Lustenader received the Pollux Award for “Photographer of the Year” at Worldwide Photography Gala Awards. The exhibition is on view through March and is open to the public at no charge. The office is open Monday through Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Friday 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Of Note

In conjunction with the current exhibition of their jewelry at Long River Gallery and Gifts in Lyme , Sandy Bomhower of Post Mills and Mariah Whitcomb of East Thetford will give a gallery demonstration of jewelry-making on Saturday and Sunday. Bomhower will be in the gallery both days, while Whitcomb will be there on Sunday.

Art Classes

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio in White River Junction is now offering private and semi-private instruction for people who may not be able to fit regular classes into their schedules. Instructors are affiliated with the studio. Classes include collagraphs with Susan Berry; etching with Rachel Gross; monoprints with Lois Beatty; and solar plates with Sheri Hancock-Tomek. Fees are $125 for a three-hour session, including materials. For information on the artists, go to

O ngoing

Arabella Gallery ,Windsor. The gallery exhibits works by local artists and artisans in a variety of media including jewelry, oils, acrylics, photography, watercolors, pastels and textiles.

ArtisTree Gallery , Pomfret. “The Daily Artists Exhibit,” a show of paintings, drawings, fiber, ceramics, jewelry and photography, runs through Saturday.

AVA Gallery and Art Center , Lebanon. The prints, oils, photography and watercolors of Sabra Field, Ingrid Ellison, Mark Lennon, Robert Morgan and Everett Weber are on view through Friday.

Big Town Gallery , Rocheste r, Vt. “Hot Houses-Warm Curves,” an exhibition of painting, drawing and photography by Rick Skogsberg, Peter Moriarty and Anda Dubinskis has been extended through Feb. 20. A closing reception is planned for Feb. 14 with a BYOB potluck lunch at noon. Call the gallery to RSVP.

Chandler Gallery , Randolph. “Salvage,” an exhibition featuring 20 Vermont artists working with found material, runs through March 19.

Colby-Sawyer College , New London. “Unassigned,” an exhibition of contemporary art , continues through Feb. 23 in the Marion Graves Mugar Art Gallery.

Converse Free Library , Lyme. The paintings of Matthew Greenway are on view until March 31 .

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center , Lebanon. The photographs of Elliott Burg are on view, as well as works by the Cardigan Mountain Art Association, Greg Hubbard, Wayne King, Jean Gerber and Pamela Tarbell. Th rough March.

Hood Museum of Art , Hanover. “Contemporary Abstraction,” a show of works from the museum’s permanent collection is on view through March 13: it includes works from Dartmouth faculty, Colleen Randall and Brenda Garand, and New York artist Pat Steir. Also on view through March 13 are paintings by Vermont artist Eric Aho; and “Inventory: New Works and Conversations Around African Art.”

Hopkins Center , Dartmouth College. A Visiting Faculty exhibition continues in the Strauss Gallery while the Jaffe-Friede gallery exhibits the sculpture of current artist-in-residence Mia Westerlund Roosen. Both exhibitions continue through March 13.

Long River Galleries and Gifts , Lyme. The handmade jewelry of Lynn Adams, Sandy Bomhower and Mariah Whitcomb is on view through Feb. 29. Paintings by Mary Jane Morse, the Winter River series, are also on view.

Norwich Public Library . A traveling art show celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice ’s Adventures in Wonderland , “Wonderland Forever,” continues through Feb. 28.

Royalton Memorial Library , South Royalton. The “SoRo Fiber Crafters” show rugs, quilts and embroidery through Feb. 13 .

Scavenger Gallery , White River Junction. A show of drawings by Toby Bartles is on view.

Tunbridge Library . The paintings of Chelsea artist Dian Parker are up through March 6.

Norman Williams Public Library , Woodstock. The landscape studies of Sue Lenfest are on view through Feb. 11.

Vermont Law School , South Royalton. “An Organic Palette,” an exhibition of prints by Adam Blue, sponsored by the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at VLS, is up through March 4.

White River Gallery , South Royalton. “Lynn Newcomb’s Etchings: The Power of Black Ink; Two Decades of Printmaking” is on view through April.

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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