By Timothy Gillis
The artist Lois Dodd has been splitting her time between the New York City area and mid-coast Maine for more than half a century, spending winters in the city and summers in Lincolnville, first, and then Cushing. But the pioneer of artist-run studios sees herself, first and foremost, as an American painter.
The Portland Museum of Art is showing the first career museum retrospective for Dodd, and will feature paintings that define the places and subjects that have mattered most in her nearly 60-year career—views of New York City’s Lower East Side from her apartment windows; of the woods and gardens of Maine; and wintery scenes near her family home in New Jersey. Dodd was a key member of New York’s postwar art scene and part of the wave of modern artists who explored the coast of Maine in the latter half of the 20th century.
Asked which paintings she highlighted for the show, Dodd said, “All of the ones where I am looking out of the window in New York, the place where I live now. It’s a very small loft space. There’s an old cemetery (nearby). I was painting that for one winter. I’ve been painting out of the same window over and over again, and watching it change – which it did dramatically, according to weather, time of day, season. The shadows change radically through the year.”
Dodd spoke from her New York City apartment last week, about the show, which opened at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and then moved to Maine. She talked about her life in art, her ability to see new things from the same subject, and the art world’s inability to categorize her. For the most part, she emphasized her fondness for the window, what one can see through it, and what is revealed in the seeing.
“Then going back to Maine, I got involved with windows,” Dodd said. “Then I was in the outside. I started walking around my own house, just noticing what terrific compositions I could get out of the window.”
When she walks, she often carries hand-held tiles that are “not real huge,” and in the repainting of them, they gradually grow to be window size.
“Mainly they’re bigger things in the Portland show, but generally speaking when I go outside I’ve got a smaller Masonite,” she said.
“Night Sky Loft” (1972-73) is painted from the same space, in New York at night, where suddenly you get things reflected in the glass. In the daylight views, I never painted the windows on the building,” she said.
“It’s the same subject, but I kept seeing more in the same subject. I went on a long time before not seeing something new. I have two windows. So I would rotate between being here in winter and then the summer in Maine,” Dodd said.
Although her subject stays quite similar, what she envisions and then recreates in paint changes considerably. The painter, herself, has stayed true to her medium and subject matter, yet she still remains seemingly hard to define.
Wikipedia has Dodd defined as an abstract expressionist, she was told.
“That’s a mistake,” she said. “I don’t really fit in any category.”
Although she spent so many summers just a few miles from the shore, Dodd said she was not drawn to it as an artistic subject.
“I know, it’s right there,” Dodd said of the ocean. “I did a few things of some rocks. I spent a lot of time with friends painting in the quarry. So it’s where you spend your time and who you spend your time with. And the rocks have been so well painted by so many people, Homer, Bellows, all the people who went to Monhegan. No way I’m going to improve on that or even do something equally noteworthy, so it’s a good thing to stay away from.”
Asked to compare herself to Neil Welliver, a friend and artistic influence, especially regarding their painting of the Maine woods, Dodd said, “Neil’s was more of an organized way of painting, in terms of technique, not the way I’ve ever painted. The painting has to be organized, but not the way I put on paint.”
Painting nature, especially flowers, was not a popular topic for Dodd and her female contemporaries. “Ladies were supposed to paint flowers so that’s a good thing not to paint,” she said, “but I came to paint them. The woods are so convenient. I was always carrying furniture into the woods so the painting would have a focal point.” Such graft was not always necessary. “After a point, the woods seemed to have their own composition,” she said.
Dodd and her group of artists have used two models. The first model posed for them for almost 20 years, she said, and had a woodpile in the yard. The arrangement led to “Four Nudes and a Woodpile,” an earthly combination of classical nudes and orange, splintered logs.
They are working with the second model currently. “We start in July when the blackflies are gone, and usually go into October working out of doors,” Dodd said.
Leslie Land, her next-door neighbor and an inspired gardener, lives right across the field. “Other people had painted flowers before I got there. I was walking through it on a daily basis. It took me a long time to get around to painting anything there,” she said, focusing on odd and interesting plants. “And not just their beauty. It should be something more than that.”
Dodd most enjoys painting in a natural setting, and having a limited time to paint, given the ever-changing conditions.
“Absolutely a great thing. Given endless time I wouldn’t be able to move, or get anything done,” Dodd said. “The day is going to end, the light is going to shift, the rain is going to come. If I have all day, I wouldn’t get anything done. I’d fall asleep if I were painting all day. You don’t need to make a decision about every brushstroke.”
Dodd uses less paint with initial strokes. “I always think I’m going to go back and more paint on, but then it seems to have had its say,” she said.
What is the difference between the light in of the big city and the light in Maine? “The air is so clear in Maine. You get days where the light is black and white. In areas of New Jersey, there are areas of gray, much less value contrast,” she said. “It’s like taking photographs. Think of a Thomas Eakins’ Philly painting. You don’t think of them as extremely contrasty. Maybe Hartley, you see extremes of dark light. That’s the difference between Maine and this area.”
When working at her easel, Dodd watches for subtle shifts in the natural world. Every now and then, she runs into atypical behavior in humans as well.
One time, when traveling with friend and fellow painter Elizabeth O’Reilly in Ireland (Bunbeg, County Donegal), she encountered an odd sight that was mutually amusing, that of a man toting behind him a refrigerator on wheels. Turns out he had lost a bet.
“We were kind of set up in front of this wreck of a building – turns out to be an old bark (ship). We see this guy. We think what the heck is he doing. He looks at us and thinks what the heck are we doing. You never know what’s going to happen when you are standing someplace and idly painting all day you – usually in nature, but here was an instance with a human,” said Dodd, who at 85 years old, might be thought to have seen it all.
But, with paintbrush in hand, she’s still looking.
She concluded the interview with thoughts on the challenge of being an artist, just starting out today.
“They were great old times,” she said of her 1950’s New York heyday. “They really were good times. It was so cheap to live in New York. You could do all these things with very little money. Contrast with young people coming here now, trying to do the same thing. Just to pay rent, they would have to get a full time job. It was a little happy interlude. Could live on the lowest east side, rent a space for $40 a month. It stayed that way for ten years. People had part-time jobs, but you could still work on your art. Now people come here because everything’s going on here. It’s the place to be. But if you can’t afford to be here, that will get in the way of everything going on here.”
She said the art world has decentralized, and now smaller places, like Maine, have more to offer.
Dodd has never been one to paint every day, just when the light moves her.
So what drives her outside to work?
“Madness and guilt,” she said. “If I don’t get something done, I don’t have a reason to be doing what I’m doing.”
Regarding her lifetime in art, she said, “It’s the most gratifying thing I can do. It’s the one thing in my life I can control completely. With everything else in life, you have to think about other people. Art is not the work of a committee. Do whatever you want to do. Nobody can do it for you, so therefore they can’t tell you how to do it either.”