Kathleen Kolb’s hilltop studio in Lincoln is as meticulously arranged and as drenched in daylight as are her proficient paintings of pastoral Vermont. There’s nothing unkempt about her workspace or her work.
Kolb’s consummate control results in realistic yet rhapsodic landscapes that can fetch five-figure prices at the Clarke Galleries in Stowe and the David Findlay Galleries in Manhattan. Her sharp eye and sure-handed execution have earned Kolb, 55, a place among the few Vermont artists who earn a living solely from their art. And yet her steady style and exacting technique have left her feeling frustrated.
“I wish I could let go a little,” Kolb confesses during a tour of her current exhibit at the Jackson Gallery in Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. “I do get pretty attached to details. There’s this critic in my head that’s always saying, ‘Clean it up, clean it up!’ And when I look at a finished piece, I see parts that I wish I could have done better.
“But looking at the later work of some artists, I see there’s hope for me to loosen up,” Kolb adds with a bemused smile.
The couple of dozen oils and watercolors in Middlebury have a photographic quality that makes them seem effortless as well as flawless. And it’s true that Kolb typically turns out one of her midsized paintings in just a couple of weeks. The creative process doesn’t unfurl easily, however.
“The experience of making a painting is like rolling a rock up a hill,” she explains. “We’re going to make it, we’re going to make it, I keep telling myself. It’s also sort of like a drama. You’re going through a struggle with the hope of coming to a resolution.”
Kolb infuses her compositions with a subtle emotional content that makes them powerful and not merely pretty. Her rendering of light lends a melancholy mood to many of her farmstead scenes, which seldom contain human figures. Some of the influences she cites — the 19th-century American luminist Sanford Gifford, for example — can readily be detected in her radiant landscapes, but it takes some contemplative viewing to see what Kolb means when she also pays homage to Edward Hopper (1882-1967) “for his moody, architectural qualities.”
Walking home from Catholic elementary school in Cleveland, Kolb was entranced, she recalls, by “the poignancy of late afternoon light.” Daylight is on the wane in many of her paintings. A scene of rural Vermont may appear timeless, but it’s actually as finite as the moment it depicts.
Like a good writer, this accomplished artist knows it’s better to show than to tell. Kolb is not trying to make a statement; she’s painting a picture for an audience to consider. About fine art, including her own, she says, “People need it, and they respond to it in a serious way. They relate to the formal beauty but also to the content.”
Kolb’s subtle approach proves exquisitely successful in a series of iceberg paintings she completed during and after a two-week visit to Newfoundland in the spring of 2008. Inspired by a Labrador coastal scene by William Bradford (1823-1892) that she saw at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Conn., Kolb decided to drive 700 miles to glimpse some icebergs “while I still had the chance.”
Viewers of these achingly majestic images at the Jackson Gallery won’t immediately think, Oh, God, global warming is going to melt them all. But that’s the implication of what Kolb has created. “It will come across to anyone who’s open to understanding,” she says. “My hope is that the integrity of the beauty will carry the message.”
Kolb’s icebergs are also revelatory because of the way in which they were painted. She usually works in her studio from photographs she’s taken, but a couple of the iceberg portraits were done en plein air. She says she had to hurry to finish the larger of the oils, entitled “Two Grounded Icebergs,” she says — it was starting to rain, and her traveling companion was getting hungry. As a result, her brushwork here has the very looseness Kolb says she yearns to achieve. It makes the whiteness of the ice shimmer and glisten, giving this painting more personality than is generally evident in her work.
The Middlebury show also features a single large-scale drawing that calls attention to Kolb’s superb draftsmanship and lays bare the geometric structure that undergirds many of her paintings.
“Taut Hitch” shows a portion of a winch that’s lifting a chained and buckled log. But it’s really a black-and-white study of mechanical and organic shapes. Kolb drew it with charcoal she had made herself to “feel connected with a human artistic activity that’s been going on for millennia,” she explains.
Logging in Vermont is the subject of a few other works in this show that demonstrates Kolb’s thematic as well as aesthetic range. She doesn’t only paint rural idylls; she also shows workers using heavy machinery to wrest a living from a rugged land. But, with the exception of the icebergs, Kolb stays focused on the environment in which she has lived for the past 35 years.
She moved to the Northeast Kingdom after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, accompanying her husband-to-be on a mid-’70s back-to-the-land quest. Kolb laughs as she recalls the zeitgeist of that era, noting, “We came really close to living in a geodesic dome.” The couple remained in the Greensboro area for 13 years, producing a daughter and a son, before moving to Cornwall. The marriage eventually ended, but Kolb’s love for the Vermont countryside has endured.
A woman with many interests and an easy conversational manner, she speaks excitedly about the writer Barry Lopez’s emphasis on “being true to a place.” Kolb says she strives to present “enough truth about Vermont landscapes to mirror people’s inner landscapes.”
“You have to know and love a landscape to paint it well,” she adds. “And, while it’s fine to travel and to paint an unfamiliar place, I do it with trepidation.”
So did she succeed in being truthful about Newfoundland and its icebergs?
“It would take a person from there to know whether I’ve done it or not,” Kolb replies.
In her studio, with its wide-angle view of Mount Abraham and complementary Lincoln Mountain, Kolb is completing a watercolor of a Newfoundland cove with houses reflected in bright blue water. Her brushes are neatly stored in white Plexiglas boxes that line one wall. Off to another side, potted geraniums appear to be thriving in the afternoon sun. Kolb reveals some of the jazz CDs she plays while painting, and speaks of the poetry — Mary Oliver, Jane Kenyon, Robert Frost — she reads during breaks from her easel.
It’s a tranquil scene — perfectly balanced between nature and art.
Kathleen Kolb, “Ice, Water, Mountains: A Changing Landscape,” Jackson Gallery, Town Hall Theater in Middlebury. Through November 17. Info, 382-9222.