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Art Notes: Jack Rowell Captures Vermont as Only He Knows It

  • "Miss Vermont Contestants," a photograph by Braintree, Vt., photographer Jack Rowell, is among the works on display in an exhibition of Rowell's work at the White River Craft Center in Randolph. The show is a retrospective of four decades of Rowell's photographs. (Jack Rowell photograph)

  • A portrait of Vermont composer and musician Myra Flynn. (Jack Rowell photograph)

  • "Young's Rubbish Removal," an early photograph by Jack Rowell, taken at the Tunbridge World's Fair. (Jack Rowell photograph)

  • A self-portrait of Jack Rowell, who grew up mostly in Tunbridge and now lives in Braintree, Vt. (Jack Rowell photograph)

  • The late Vermont farmer, film star and political legend Fred Tuttle, of Tunbridge. (Jack Rowell photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, July 26, 2018

Here are some facts about the Braintree, Vt.-based photographer Jack Rowell: He is a fifth-generation Vermonter, or “something like that,” and is puff-his-chest-out proud of it. He loves “hot babes,” telling wild and winding stories, and catching trout and letting them go. As a kid, he dreamed of digging up dinosaur bones. He drives an old jalopy. He does not suffer fools.

And his latest show, “Jack Rowell, Cultural Documentarian: Portraits of Vermont People and Other Wildlife,” melds his deep-rooted sense of place with his attention to and appreciation of the variegated human spirit.

The show, which went up last week at Randolph’s White River Craft Center after coming down at the Studio Place Arts in Barre, is a retrospective, spanning Rowell’s work from the past four decades. It reaches back in time to the days when he photographed scenes at the Tunbridge World’s Fair — where his grandparents first met, many years ago — for the Herald of Randolph, then called the White River Valley Herald, in the 1970s.

It also showcases Rowell’s more recent studio portraits, which, in focusing entirely on the subject rather than their surroundings, capture the ways in which a person’s story can come through in their body, and their face, and their eyes in particular.

Take, for example, a deceptively simple profile of the singer-songwriter Myra Flynn, who as a kid “was one of the only mixed-race girls in Vermont,” Rowell said. “She’s beautiful now. But back then, she had a hard time of it, she told me. She had a hard time.”

In the photo, Flynn’s face is slightly upturned, her face washed in gentle light and conveying a quiet strength. Rowell’s camera captured her from the shoulders up, calling to mind the classical Roman busts of gods and heroes. But instead of cold white marble, Flynn’s portrait is warm and human and full of grays.

That comment, though, is Jack Rowell all over: Quick to appraise a female’s appearance, his sense of propriety might be considered by some to be a tad outdated. He knows that. He owns it. But he’s mainly interested in what his subjects are made of, and what made them that way. He likes people with character and depth, whose experiences, passions and lifestyles lend their photographs a texture that, when properly teased out with Rowell’s lens, remain three-dimensional even on the flat surface of a print.

His grittier, non-studio photographs have a similarly reverent quality, with their subjects featuring a wide toothless grin, a cigarette-smoking construction worker and a goateed man tenderly cradling a doe-eyed black dog. The gamut of photos reveal the most overarching aspect of Rowell’s sensibility, which is a warm, gruff salt-of-the-earthiness that informs his eye for detail.

“A good portrait … tells a story,” he said during an interview at the Craft Center last week, while running through a slideshow of his images on his laptop. He paused at Young’s Rubbish Removal, in which two laughing men are poised on the edge of a garbage truck at the Tunbridge World Fair, their camaraderie — with Rowell and with each other — evident and endearing. “Not to blow my own horn, but somebody’s got to. Look at that s---.”

Like the photo of an angelic-looking Miss Vermont planting a smooch on a sheepshead fish, or the portrait of the dairy farmer and Vermont celebrity Fred Tuttle, the men in Young’s Rubbish Removal are Rowell’s kind of people. He grew up between Tunbridge, Randolph and Groton, Vt. himself.

Even though he liked fishing and motorcycles as much as the next homegrown Vermont boy, he was also drawn to art and literature and science, pursuits that were far enough from the status quo to prompt vicious bullying from his classmates. He had an escape route through the woods, which he ran through after school to avoid being beat up.

“It is what it is,” he shrugged. “Ain’t nothing to be sorry for.” He just kept on drawing dinosaurs and devouring books about paleontology.

He started taking pictures as a kid, after he and his sister received “some little camera” for Christmas. He played around with it and realized he liked it. He started processing photographs in junior high when, as luck would have it, his school got a darkroom for its camera club — an unusual resource for a rural Vermont school in the 1960s.

“So I started using the darkroom,” he said. “Next thing I knew, I had a frickin’ career.”

He would have graduated high school in 1973, but didn’t have enough credits — not because he wasn’t interested in learning, but because school was getting in the way of the learning he wanted to do. He was already taking pictures for the Herald of Randolph, and The New York Times had published his work when it reported on a story about something his dad was doing.

Now that he was untethered from formal schooling, the ’70s ushered in another kind of education for Rowell.

“I shed off religion” — his mother was an evangelical Christian, something that never really took with him — “and I discovered sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, and drinking. And I don’t do anything half-assed.” He worked odd jobs, for the highway department and then in the restaurant industry in Mad River Valley, “partying” all the while, he said. “It was a pretty frickin’ wild time.”

He returned to the area, and to photography, around the time he started taking pictures again for the Herald, which led to other gigs, which led to others. “I always say, if you don’t have a trust fund, it’s best not to specialize,” he said. “And I don’t have a trust fund. I’m very poor.”

Rowell “finally broke down” in the 1980s and began taking studio portraits, often for musicians or other creative types, which turned out to be one way to support himself. But the uniting feature across his body of work, the feature that elevates his photos from snapshots to art, is that Rowell views his subjects as being as one camera-click away from art themselves, and treats them as such.

One portrait, of a woman with a dark waterfall of hair cascading down one shoulder and an ornate earring dangling over the other, is all black-and-white except for the her lips, which she had painted a fiery scarlet red.

“Look at that,” he said, admiring the woman’s proud stance, before pointing a finger at her blouse and adding: “I didn’t do much retouching for her, maybe smoothed out a blemish or two. I did take the nipple out — at her request. I get it, she has a 14-year-old or something. I never had a hot mom like that,” he chuckled. “But I can understand the dilemma.”

Though photography is in theory a far cry from Rowell’s childhood dreams of becoming a paleontologist, in practice the two fields aren’t as different as they might seem, at least not the way Rowell does it. He used to be enamored with the idea of digging up some ancient relic of a lost species, which could be preserved to tell a story about a cross-section of time and place.

Now, he spends his days recording cross-sections of a Vermont past and present, with the relics being a certain subspecies of people who, thanks to Rowell’s lens, will never be lost. Not really.

“Jack Rowell, Cultural Documentarian: Portraits of Vermont People and Other Wildlife,” is on view at Randolph’s White River Craft Center, at the end of Randolph Avenue in the Kimball House, through September, and possibly October.

Openings and Receptions

Fifty artists from around New England, including some from the Upper Valley, exhibit work inspired by regional landscapes and wildlife in the juried show “Naturally New England,” at The Livery in Sunapee Harbor. The show is a fundraiser for the New London-based Center for the Arts and the Ausbon Sargent Land Preservation Trust. It opens Saturday after a “soft opening” on Friday evening, and continues through Aug. 5.

The Aidron Duckworth Art Museum in Meriden opens “Inside Out,” paintings by Galen Cheney, and “Transparent Bodies,” a series of paintings by the late Aidron Duckworth, with a reception on Saturday from 3 to 6 p.m. Cheney’s work is on view through Sept. 9, while Duckworth’s will stay up through Oct. 28.

“Wound Up Wound,” a show of sculptures by John Kemp Lee, went up this week at BigTown Gallery in Rochester, Vt., with an opening reception planned for Sunday at 4 p.m. Lee, who teaches in Dartmouth College’s Studio Art Department, will give a talk at the reception, followed by readings from writers Jensen Beach, of Jericho, Vt., and Burlington native Bianca Stone, as part of the gallery’s Joan Hutton Landis Summer Reading Series.

Also at BigTown, “Hyper Flora,” paintings by part-time Vermont resident Joanne Carson, and “Light & Paper/Mes Plantes” by the Massachusetts photographer Peter Moriarty, continue through Aug. 25.

Ongoing

AVA Gallery and Art Center, Lebanon. An exhibition featuring work by the winners of last year’s juried exhibition of regional artists is on view through Aug. 24. The winning artists are sculptor Bruce Blanchette, of Walpole, N.H.; Quechee painter Helen Schulman; and Susan Wilson, a Putney, Vt.-based sculptor.

Aidron Duckworth Art Museum, Meriden. “Exhibition XXXI: Forms Hidden, Forms Revealed,” curated from three series of Duckworth’s work, and “Strata Series,” an exhibition of new prints by Sheri Hancock-Tomek, continue through Sunday. Column II, an outdoor sculpture by artist and musician John McKenna, is on view through Oct. 22. Parliament of the Souls, an outdoor sculptural installation by the Vershire artist Sande French-Stockwell, shows through Oct. 28.

Center for the Arts, New London. Work is shown in three micro-galleries: at New London Inn, showing paintings by Vicki Koron, of Sunapee; at Bar Harbor Bank and Trust, featuring work by Newport, N.H. oil painter Ludmila Gayvoronsky; and at Whipple Hall Gallery, which displays the work of Proctor Academy students.

Chelsea Public Library. “Velvet Brown Disease,” a horse-themed exhibit by Chelsea painter Linda Ducharme, is on view through August.

Chew & Co. Design, Hanover. Art by recent Dartmouth graduates is on view through mid-August.

Cider Hill Gallery, Windsor. “Garden Visions,” a show of flower portraits and landscape paintings in egg tempera and gold leaf by Cider Hill co-owner Gary Milek, continues through Sept. 16.

Converse Free Library, Lyme. “Paintings: Places Near and Far” by Thetford artist Jean Gerber, shows through Sept. 29. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon. The hospital’s summer art exhibition features Becky Cook and NatEli, the Norwich artists behind the collaboration “Miss-Match”; Robert Chapla, an oil painter from Newbury, Vt.; the late David Eckert, who painted hundreds of watercolors while suffering from Parkinson’s disease; North Sutton, N.H.-based photographer Larry Harper; painter Doris Ingram, a part-time resident of Weston, Vt.; oil painter Tatiana Yanovskaya-Sink, based in Rockland, Mass.; and Keene, N.H. oil painter Anne Ward, as well as work by members of the Upper Valley Woodturners.

Gifford Gallery at Gifford Medical Center, Randolph. Watercolors by Bonnie Fallon, of Brookfield, Vt., are on view through Aug. 15.

Hood Downtown, Hanover. “The Firmament,” an exhibit of drawings by Toyin Ojih Odutola that explores the conceptualization of race, is on view through Sept. 2.

Howe Library, Hanover. “O This Verdant Valley,” an exhibit by the Upper Valley’s en plein air Odanaksis Art Group, is in the Ledyard Gallery through Wednesday.

Kilton Library, West Lebanon. Elizabeth R. Moore, of Grantham, exhibits mixed-media paintings in the library’s gallery space through Oct. 9.

Long River Gallery and Gifts, White River Junction. Piermont artist Stephanie Gordon’s show of encaustic (wax) paintings continues through August.

Matt Brown Fine Art, Lyme. John Lehet, of Hartland, exhibits decades’ worth of photographs of Lyme’s Post Pond in “Post Pond In and Out of Time.” Through Aug. 12.

New London Hospital. The latest rotating art exhibition features Garrett Evans, a South Sutton, N.H.-based photographer; Bow, N.H., photographer Charles S. “Whitey” Joslin, Jr.; and Enfield painter Penny Koburger. Through Aug. 31.

Norwich Public Library. Norwich resident Chad Finer exhibits his show “Back to Africa: A photographic return to Peace Corps Sierra Leone, 1968-70,” through Aug. 31.

Philip Read Memorial Library, Plainfield. “Marking the Moments,” an exhibit of oil paintings by Plainfield artist M.J. Morse, continues through Aug. 15.

Roth Center for Jewish Life, Hanover. Mort Wise shows photographs in “Fading Memories, Vanishing Voices” through Labor Day. A former Upper Valley resident who continues to summer in West Lebanon, Wise currently lives in Charlotte, N.C.

Royalton Memorial Library. Peter Shvetsov, a part-time Royalton resident and native of Saint Petersburg, Russia, shows a series of etchings. Two shows of his paintings are on view at South Royalton Market and Worthy Burger.

Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish. “The Etcher’s Journey: A Retrospective of Prints by Charles A. Platt and Stephen Parrish” features the work of two Cornish Colony artists, in the Picture Gallery through July.

“Natural Forces: Three Sculptors’ Visions,” featuring work by Fabienne Lasserre, Clive Moloney and Rosalyn Driscoll, is scattered around the site through Oct. 31.

Scavenger Gallery, White River Junction. The gallery will be closed Aug. 4 through Aug. 31. Revolution, in White River Junction, has a collection of Hopkins’ bronze work on permanent display. Sterling pieces from Scavenger can be purchased through Rachel Obbard, owner of Long River Gallery and Gifts next door.

SculptureFest, 509 Prosper Road, Woodstock. Thirty-six artists, many based in the Upper Valley, exhibit new or continuing work in the annual outdoor showcase of three-dimensional art. Featured artists this year are Mary Admasian, of East Montpelier, and Robert Hitzig, of Montpelier. The show typically continues through foliage season. A guide to SculptureFest, including audio clips of artists speaking about their work, is available on the mobile app Otocast.

Steven Thomas, Inc. Fine Arts & Antiques, White River Junction. Work by Upper Valley “vintage” artists, such as Alice Standish Buell (1892-1964), Arthur B. Wilder (1857-1949) and Ilse Bischoff (1901-1990) is on view.

Tunbridge Public Library. Marion Lent, of Tunbridge, shows handmade felted figures in “Sprites To Live By.” Through Aug. 18.

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio, White River Junction. Carol Lippman, a part-time West Newbury, Vt. resident, shows work through Tuesday.

White River Gallery at BALE, South Royalton. “Streams of Light,” a show of paintings by Chelsea artist Susan G. Scott, continues through Aug. 4.

Zollikofer Gallery, White River Junction. A show of abstract oil paintings and mixed-media on black-walnut-stained paper by Dian Parker, the curator and director of South Royalton’s White River Gallery, is up through Sept. 26.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at emmajeanholley@gmail.com.