When eight female artists -- Kathy Patten Hanson, Russet Jennings, Sher Kamman, Mary Nichols, Ann Saunderson, Mary Straub, Teresa Taylor and Barbara Filleul — wandered to Watson Farm on a cool, sunny Sunday afternoon last year, they were caught in a different world. They took the bark from the trees, the rusty brown color from the old tractor truck, the wide, open fields, and put something together that they hadn’t yet, in their seven years of monthly informal meetings: a themed art show.
Last week’s opening at the Kimball Jenkins Estate art gallery (266 N. Main St., Concord) showcased a year of farm visits, painting, carving and photography — the culmination of what can happen when a group of artists finds inspiration in a single place.
There’s a rustic beauty in these works. Ryan Linehan, executive director at Kimball Jenkins Estate, wasn’t quite sure what to expect when artist and Kimball Jenkins instructor Barbara Filleul came to him with the idea last year, but he came to admire the work by these eight women. What he loves most, he said, is the honesty in the photos, in the paint, the clay.
“It’s not glamorized,” Linehan said. What you see is the decay, the old rusty colors, the downward spiral of a once-thriving farm. “In this, it almost makes a statement.”
The inspiration for these pieces was derived from Watson Farm, a Christmas tree farm losing momentum after centuries of flourishing. Ann Saunderson, a member of this group, loved visiting the Christmas tree farm with her family.
“We’ve been going there for 20 years, cutting down Christmas trees,” she said. “It’s just inland from the coast of Maine, barren, struggling, but in a really gorgeous way ... Mary Nichols and I thought it would be a really great place for us all to go to and work on a project together,” she said. “The place has a real heart -- it may not be pretty, but it’s so evocative. You get this sense of time and history,” Saunderson said.
So she and Nichols convinced the others in their women’s art group to visit the farm for inspiration.
“Originally, it started as a way that perhaps we could be a little more cohesive,” Saunderson said. The group had been meeting once a month, working on whatever they felt like within their medium — clay, paint, photography — at one another’s house or studio space. There was no plan to “make this statement” that Linehan talks of.
What added to the work was the research involved, getting to know the family and the history of the farm that they’d derive their art from.
The farm was founded in 1760 by the Huntoon family. They came inland to find a larger tract of land for farming--coastal areas were rapidly becoming settled and, as a result, land there became more expensive. The farm changed hands out of the original family line in the 1960s to Mr. Watson, a New Hampshire State Forester. His daughter, Ann Masingham, still lives on the property, managing the Christmas tree farm, and his son takes care of the premises, Filleul wrote in a press release.
Planting corn, wheat, barley, winter rye, orchard fruit, and managing the farm that produced dairy and maple syrup were some forms of commerce that supported the farm in the beginning. Home industries of spinning, weaving, keeping domestic animals, canning, sewing and shoemaking went on here, too. But now, just the Christmas tree industry thrives on the farm.
The artists’ intention, at least initially, was not to raise money. Originally, the work was simply meant to be a response to the essence of the place. But beneath the paint, there is context.
“The thing that I think makes it so current is the effort moving to utilize CSAs, farmers markets.... People are talking about local food. I have a lot of friends who are farming and trying to really get that going. They’re raising animals organically, selling meat products, vegetables,” Saunderson said.
Part of the charm of this old New Hampshire farm exhibit is seeing the same subjects--the old barn, the big fields, the old tractors, wheels, and dirt roads--created in different perspectives using different tools. We see the old, faded impression in some black and white photographs and the collaged paintings by Russet Jennings, in the textures and softness that inspired Taylor’s clay tiles, in the dashes of color in Ann Saunderson’s paintings. Each artist found something different in the old farm to become inspired by.
In their first gallery show, they’re just soaking in the satisfaction of it all, looking forward to their next monthly gathering — this time, they’ll have more time to spend on lunch.
“We each treat each other so well, with beautifully homemade soup, bread, cheese, pesto spread, chocolate homemade pudding, at our meetings...But the last time people came to my house [to work on their farm projects], I said ‘We can’t do this--we have too much work to do,’” Saunderson said.