In Watercolors, Claremont Veteran Draws on his Experiences as Laborer

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    Joe Dukett paints in his studio in his home in Claremont, N.H., on Oct. 11, 2016. Dukett says his studio is his "man-cave," full of artifacts and photographs that inspire him. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — Sarah Priestap

  • Joe Dukett adds detail to a painting addressing PTSD at his studio in Claremont, N.H., on Oct. 11, 2016. Dukett, who worked at VA hospitals around the country before his retirement, said he's seen three generations of soldiers deal with the traumas of war. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Sarah Priestap

  • Brushes dry on a sock in Joe Dukett's studio in Claremont, N.H., on Oct. 11, 2016. Dukett began learning how to paint at the age of seven from a tutor. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/4/2016 10:00:02 PM
Modified: 11/4/2016 10:00:14 PM

There’s a painting by Joe Dukett in a show of his work in the Tip Top Building in White River Junction that tells you something about the life he’s led.

In it a man, seen from behind, is straining to push what looks like a coal car up an incline. The mood is somber, the light dim, and the prevailing colors are black and a bilious, ghostly green. The man is Dukett himself, the year was 1976 and he was then 24, just a few years out of the Army.

The place was a Nestlé factory in New Milford, Conn. Dukett’s job was to push an enormous cart filled with powdered cookie dough mix to a galvanized chute. He shoveled the mix into the chute, which carried it to an assembly line below where workers filled boxes with the dehydrated dough as quickly as they could.

The painting’s title, 16 x 6 x 16, refers to the hours Dukett worked during his double shift (16 hours) by the number of days per week (6) by the average tonnage of dough (16 tons) that he and maybe one or two other workers moved in a double shift.

He did that job for about nine months, helping to support himself and his young family, but it certainly wasn’t what he’d imagined himself doing for the rest of his life.

“I can’t just go the factory punch-in, punch-out route,” said Dukett, whose paintings and prints are on view until early January in the law office of Denise Anderson at the Tip Top.

Dukett is tall but a little stooped. Soft-spoken, but voluble, eager to get across what he feels his work conveys. It is how he makes sense of the world, and it is how he makes himself heard.

What has animated Dukett, almost more than anything else in his life, is his art. “I think it was a survival mechanism in my life,” he said.

“I saw him telling a story when I looked at his art,” said Anderson, who hopes to exhibit more work by local artists.

Anderson became acquainted with Dukett’s work through a mutual acquaintance, Rob Jenisch, owner of the Gilded Edge frame shop in Lebanon. Anderson brought something to Jenisch to frame and while there asked him whether he knew of any painters who might be of interest to her.

Jenisch said that, as a matter of fact, he did. “The last piece (Dukett) brought in was just one of those paintings that each time you look at it you find something different,” said Jenisch, who has worked with Dukett for many years. “He’s very passionate and dedicated to his work.”

When Anderson looked at Dukett’s paintings, she saw what Jenisch meant. “His work is like nothing I’d seen before. There’s something in all of his work that speaks to you,” she said.

Dukett’s paintings and drawings take on a subject you don’t see very often in contemporary American painting — people at work.

His people labor in factories, or out in the fields, and they take refuge from the sometimes soulless repetition of that work by heading for the open road, gazing out over lonely Western landscapes or congregating for a wee-hours-of-the-morning cigarette break in an alley outside a factory. “A 3 a.m break is the most precious thing you can have,” Dukett said.

His icons are strong and stoic, like Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash or Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian who was one of the men memorialized in the famous photograph of Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima, and who became the subject of a famous Cash song.

Dukett, who lives in Claremont with his second wife Peg Dukett, calls his paintings tributes to the common man. They have a quality of being not of this time, but of the 1930s and 1940s, during the height of the public art programs of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), when painters employed by the WPA told the story of the Depression through portraits of a country, and a people, trying to rebound from crushing hardship.

When Dukett was in his senior year of high school in Bethel, Conn. in 1971 he had his eyes set on one prize: art school. An art teacher who saw talent in him encouraged Dukett to look at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, so Dukett sent away for a brochure.

“I knew how to do that,” Dukett said. But the rest of it — picking out colleges or art schools, visiting them, even the assumption that college was something in his future, something that was possible — was foreign.

“I couldn’t figure out where to start and end as far as education goes,” Dukett said. It was also foreign to his parents: “They were working people. They didn’t know how to apply for colleges, they didn’t have the first clue.”

His father, John, a Korean War veteran, worked at the Gilbert and Bennet factory in Redding, Conn. which made steel wire; his mother, Mary Lou, held down a variety of jobs, including a stint at a plant in nearby Danbury that made surgical sutures.

No one in the Dukett family had ever gone to college. There’d been no real need, post war, when manufacturing was still a vital part of the New England landscape. Dukett’s grandfather Raymond Dukett made a decent living from a dairy farm on Happy Hollow Road in South Royalton, which Joe Dukett visited in the summers, and his father and mother cobbled together enough money to buy a house and support their two sons.

Both parents insisted that Dukett get a college education. “All they cared about was me bettering myself, the same old American Dream,” Dukett said.

But, art school wasn’t exactly what they’d had in mind. Although his mother had seen his talent and signed him up for classes, his father couldn’t see how going to art school would help his son earn a living. And the cost of a private four-year art school like Pratt was prohibitive.

In lieu of art school, and because it was affordable, Dukett applied to and was accepted at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury. He helped pay for it by working at a nearby factory that made bicycle seat covers: his job was to fit the hot molded plastic cover onto the seat. (One of the paintings in the exhibit is of a line of bicycle seats on the assembly line.)

But, about a month into freshman year, his number came up in the draft.

He could do one of two things: enlist, and at least have the chance of picking out what kind of job he wanted to do in the Army, or wait to be drafted, have no control at all and maybe end up in combat in Vietnam.

So Dukett enlisted, went through basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey and was sent to South Korea, where he was a mechanic on a base near the DMZ. His tour of duty saved him, temporarily, from figuring out what to do with his life. At the same time, the door seemed to close, for good, on his dream of art school.

“I was devastated, I just gave up. I knew when I went into the Army that I wouldn’t pursue my art.” Dukett said. “I was a very angry, bitter man then. It took me many years to figure things out. Maybe it’s maturity, maybe it’s evolution.”

After leaving the Army, Dukett headed back to Connecticut. Reentering the workforce wasn’t what he expected. “Man, it was another slap in the head of reality. I’m 21, and I thought, ‘Gee, I’ll find a job.’ ... But I had a hard time everywhere I went.”

After his grandfather in Vermont told him that he’d heard there were entry-level jobs for veterans at the VA hospital in White River Junction, Dukett moved north and landed a position as a housekeeper, washing thermometers, metal pans and needles. He met the woman who would become his first wife, left his job and moved back to Connecticut, where his son and daughter were born. The marriage fell apart, and Dukett had custody of his children when they were younger, a more unusual arrangement at the time.

He came back to Vermont with his children, and they lived in Bethel while he worked in local factories. He was rehired as a janitor at the VA in White River Junction, and it was during that stint that he became interested in pursuing nursing as a career. Through the VA, he also met another artist, Harry Pearson, who lived in White River Junction with his wife, Peg.

The Pearsons and Dukett became fast friends and it was Harry Pearson who rekindled Dukett’s interest in his art. As a single father of young children, Dukett hadn’t had the time to do much but sketch at night, after his children were asleep.

But Pearson urged Dukett to begin painting again, which he did. He entered his work in a regional art show in the early 1980s at the Hood Museum of Art, where his watercolor attracted the attention of the late George Tooker, the distinguished 20th-century painter of urban alienation and religious scenes who lived in Hartland.

Dukett had painted himself as a little boy sitting on a rock in the woods on his grandfather’s farm, where he used to play and hunt deer. Dukett’s father and grandfather were also in the watercolor, as was a friend of his father’s.

“These were big male mentors to me through my life. I’m sitting on a rock looking up at them, and they’re sitting on a big, craggy rock looking down at me,” Dukett said. He’s not sure what Tooker saw in his work, but Tooker bought the watercolor, which began a friendship of many years.

Tooker was a mentor of sorts to Dukett. “He was a very, very nice, gentle individual. He was old school,” Dukett said.

In 1986, Dukett decided he needed to get higher-paying jobs and went back to school to study nursing. After some starts and stops, and relocations, he completed a nursing degree in Claremont and then went west to Arizona for a job.

When he returned, eventually, to Vermont he reconnected with Harry and Peg Pearson. After Harry died of cancer, in 2004, Peg and Joe, who had always been friends, fell in love. They married in 2008.

Dukett has reserved part of the laundry room of his Claremont home for his studio. He stores his brushes in repurposed Vlasic pickle and Tostito salsa jars. His paintings, which include portraits of Peg, abstract art, Western landscapes and fantastical, even nightmarish scenes, hang in different rooms of the house. The bookcases in their living room are filled with mysteries, horror and science fiction: Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft, among them. The flat-screen TV is tuned to a New Age radio station playing soothing flute music, one tune indistinguishable from the next.

Their dog Zemi, a yellow Labrador Retriever, patrols the house, stopping occasionally to look out the windows and bark, before jumping onto the couch where Peg sits, legs curled underneath her, smoking a cigarette. Peg has health problems which make it difficult to move around easily. A cat, Sheena, sidles into the room, stares, and pads through to their kitchen.

Dukett says he is happy enough in Claremont although he would like to move back to Vermont, as would Peg. But he has found a kind of peace. “Circumstances sort of steered us wrong, but I feel we are fortunate enough to be here and to grow and mature.”

Peg Dukett shrugs. She does not appear to dwell on what might or could have been, with one exception. “If you’d gone to Vietnam, who knows?” she said.

At least her husband was able to find his way back to his art. “We’re allowed to pursue our happiness,” she said.

She has her own dream. “I aspire to be a published writer,” she said.

Dukett nodded. “You’ll stagnate as an individual and human if you don’t have something to learn and pass on. That’s the major ride of this lifetime.”

Dukett then leads the way to a foyer where he has hung painting of mysterious figures, seen from the back, mounting stairs, caught in the contrast between light and dark.

“I’ve made it my life’s work to study light. There is so much to be seen between light and shadow,” he said.

There will be a First Friday reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 2 for Dukett’s art show at the law office of Denise Anderson in the Tip Top Building in White River Junction. For information email

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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