William Hays Returns from the
Northern Coast

by Scot Borofsky
Gallery Walk, October 1, 2004




"Two Tugs"
Oil on Panel 16" x 23"




"Fishing Shack"
Oil on Canvas 38" x 28"




"Red Boat with Lobster Pots"
Oil on Panel 11" x 24"

This October, Brattleboro artist (and mover-and-shaker) William Hays presents an exhibition of work past and present that includes his newest compositions, created in Nova Scotia over the summer. These inspirations from the North Atlantic coast are logically of the sea: sea and sand, sea and rocks, the ocean at sunset and the vessels that float upon her. They are on view at the Artist's Loft Gallery, 103 Main Street, third floor.

The gallery, opened in 1990 by Bill and his wife Patricia, has been a highlight of the Brattleboro art scene since its inception. Hays' work is on display at all times, and the gallery has also hosted a number of local artists in its main room, overlooking Main Street, over the years. The gallery is part of a larger loft space that hosts one of Brattleboro's most interesting Bed & Breakfasts -- located on Main Street and with a view of the Connecticut River, a view which has been Hays' inspiration on many occasions.

William Hays made his first watercolors at the age of 16, thus beginning his journey into a life of artistic expression. He studied art at the University of Alaska from 1984 to 1986, concentrating on sculpture. He also began his study of oil painting at that time. His instructor, Ken Gray, was a great inspiration and mentor to the young artist and instructed his students to pose and solve their own problems in artmaking. From Gray, Hays learned to think on his own. This is an important concept to the advancement of art itself, as new ideas conceived are solved with new solutions, thus widening the visual world and the realm of artistic thought simultaneously.

Hays explored sculptural ideas in his work while living in Alaska and also made landscape studies, which culminated in the requisite depiction of Mount McKinley, a subject approached with trembling brush by every painter on the last American frontier. In Alaska, you must do McKinley. Some short time after conquering that great peak with turps and linseed, Bill and Patricia turned their heads towards the softer, but more ancient, Green Mountains of Vermont.

As a new resident of Brattleboro, Bill never skipped a beat. Soon he was involved in the up-and-coming Windham Art Gallery, as a charter member at its opening in 1989. WAG, as the still-thriving entity is known, was begun as an artists' cooperative and as one of the first such exhibition and artist meeting spaces in town. Besides its move to the spacious location at 69 Main St., the workings and philosophy of the cooperative show space remain much the same as when conceived by the first charter members.

Hays soon outgrew the confines of the group, however, and opened his personal exhibition space at 103 Main. Bill and Patricia fell in love with the space at first sight, and then had fun setting up the studio and decorating the loft with treasures from Patricia's earlier travels. Their wonderful collection of South American weavings and other exotic objects is kept on artful display.




"Nina"
Oil on Panel 16" x 23"




"Carters Beach Rocks II"
Oil on Panel 38" x 28"




"The Ovens"
Oil on Canvas 38" x 28"




"The First Civil Union (An Open Door)"
Oil on Canvas 66" x 35"

Once in Vermont, Hays took one look around and knew that his work was due for a shift. The local landscape, sacred to many artistic minds (not to mention mountain folk and visiting flatlanders), was the inspiration for Hays to turn his back on contemporary sculptural concepts in favor of landscape exploration -- and a vision largely inspired by artists of the Hudson River School, specifically Frederic Edwin Church. (See "Past Masters" column in this issue for more on Church.)

It was on a visit to Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum that the artist encountered Church's masterpiece "Sunrise at Mount Desert Island." It was an emotionally moving experience, the kind that shapes a life. Hays had visited Mount Desert Island at Bar Harbor in Maine (as have many artists) and felt that Church's painting was not a specific view but a composite of views. This discovery seems to have also had an influential effect on his notions of making paintings.

Since the first project he took on, which was to paint every covered bridge in the area, Hays has employed sketches, photographs and his imagination in deciding on a composition. Lately his computer has also become an integral part of that process. The picture painted here is not of an artist who is trying to "capture a moment" or location, pressing the easel into the sand or standing in the wind holding down the canvas; this is an artist who tries to compose by relating to classic arrangements in an inventive fashion. Over the years, this approach has brought Hays to very specific ideas of what is strong and interesting in landscape composition. That said, it must also be noted that he is never satisfied with these conclusions but is always "pushing the envelope," trying to find stronger and more impressionable visions.

"Visions" is a good word to describe many of Hays' grander landscapes, as he often exploits an ethereal quality in sunsets and mists that creates a storylike vision or a real sense of spirit in nature. Vaporous entities intertwine with mountains and streams in darkened copses blanketed in snow, or hover in spacious vistas making one wonder what or who has passed through these mysterious, floating mists. Great settings flooded with sunlight or illuminated with the orb's last rays can seem almost biblical in emotion and grandeur. These qualities seem to allude directly to the Hudson River School.

Rembrandt was another important influence on Hays after he had a similarly moving response to experiencing the timeless, enduring spirit of subjects portrayed by the well-known Dutch master. About four years ago, Bill took up portraiture with his typically voracious appetite. Brattleboro, a town known for its local "characters" has, through Hays' brush, been character-chronicled by the portraits William has culled after coaxing many up to his painter's lair. In his studio, he has recorded much of Brattleboro life as it is today. He has taken van Rijn's interest in the textures and timeworn qualities of flesh as personally as did the master.

The fabulous new works on display, which constitute "what Bill did last summer," show some definite steps towards a new clarity in both composition and color. The vertically formatted "Sunset Mooring" may be the essence of that clarity. In the intensely close foreground is a depiction of the ocean's rolling surface. The water is opaque and gently worked with a dry brush technique that implies the depths below. Moving into the background, the surface becomes more reflective and transparent. Reflections seem to shimmer and move. Using a rule from Gauguin's compositional formula, the horizon is squeezed dramatically into the top 25% of the canvas. There in the misty distance, in the upper left corner, sits a moored sailing vessel, a three-master, emerging from the morning fog like a Flying Dutchman or some equally legendary ghost of the sea. To its right, counterbalancing and contrasting in technique, is the morning sun in all its glowing glory, burning through the vapor with the insistence of a new day. Approaching the canvas, one finds pinpointed and carefully rendered detail in the description of the boat emerging from the grey and beige mist. The painting seems like a dream or some part of a barnacled seafarer's tale, the drama of which we can only guess.

"Carter's Beach" is another oil painting with a similar compositional approach. In this calmly entrancing scene, Gauguin's horizon is squeezed even more into the top. The very distant and quickly receding background surmounts a large foreground area. Visual tension is created by tucking the subject matter into the top. Marching across that top is a row of rocks not unlike the leftover spine of a giant, extinct amphibian whose first steps on land were his last. Each of the boulders has individual character and shows different effects of the sunlight. Quite distant on the horizon is a small wooded island. Just below the rocks begins the slow descending arc describing the meeting of sand and salt water. It slopes down in a left-to-right arc, cutting diagonally across the foreground at about a 40-degree angle. The shadows of pebbles in the sand at bottom left are almost photo-realistic in focus. Equal attention to observation is given to the shallow water at bottom right. Transparent and clear golden flickers and ribbons of light dance frivolously inside the sunny saltwater. It is an effect we all have seen and marveled at but that no one would expect to be able to capture. Hays has.

In "The Ovens" there is a different side of the sea. Here, the dramatic struggle between rocks and surf is all that a seascape could ask for. Roughly hewn, sunlit cliffs rise up to the left, trying to escape the endless erosion of the boiling ocean which bites at their base in a timeless struggle. High-tide brine bubbles and crashes in flows over the rough rocks of The Ovens, so named because of the oven-shaped caverns from within which a percussive thunder emerges when major swells crash into them. The measure of the brine's corruption can be seen on the surface of these towering cliffs, covered by live or calcified barnacles and colored from rust to ochre as they rise up to tower over the surf, their deep crevasses and brightly lit surfaces displaying the work of the sea. Above, a sunny blue sky is home to a few types of cumuli, themselves subject to the winds that turn the surf to spray. Sun, surf, wind and rock: all four elements come together in exciting embrace in this painting by William Hays.

In other studies from Hays' summer in Canada, there is a consistency in the clarity of vision. "Two Tugs" is a good example. Two brother tugs are lined up and ensconced in haze. Their round shapes are poetically dappled by the rhyming, round shapes of the big black tires hanging from their sides. They are the bumper cars of the bay, the humble movers of monsters. In the right foreground of the small painting is one large tire. Big, black and round, it's the Nova Scotian donut.

Another small painting is large in expression. "Red Boat and Lobster Pots" shows a boat's red hull at its center, the pots stacked neatly on the left. Fiery reflections dance on the water beneath the boat and are in turn reflected as ripples of light on the hull. These excellently rendered surface ripples and reflections are allowed to distract the eye from the bright scarlet of the boat that dominates the painting. This piece seems to allude to an earlier work entitled "Little Julie," depicting another red boat hull that caught the painter's eye. That work can also be seen at the Artist's Loft exhibition during October.

Galleries in the Northeast that display William Hays' work include the Lambertville Gallery of Fine Art in Lambertville, New Jersey; the Golden Door Gallery in New Hope, Pennsylvania; the Charter Oak Gallery in Fairfield, Connecticut; the Cherry Hill Collection in Westport, Connecticut; the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, and the Elaine Beckwith Gallery in nearby Jamaica, Vermont.

In addition to his significant achievements as a painter, William Hays has, to a great extent, helped to shape the Brattleboro arts scene as it is today. His involvement in the inception and promotion of Gallery Walk since its founding ten years ago, his ongoing participation in its organizational planning, and his attention to development of the Gallery Walk magazine, have been instrumental to the growing regional reputation of this monthly first-Friday event. From a humble beginning with about a dozen participating locations, Gallery Walk now features between 20 and 30 venues each month where art is displayed, viewed and collected by appreciative local and visiting culturalists. This is a chance, perhaps, to thank Hays on behalf of all the artists who have benefited by his (and his colleagues') loyal efforts to promote their creative accomplishments. Cheers, Bill -- and pass that on to Patricia!

Scot Borofsky is an artist and writer living in Brattleboro.

Copyright 2004, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont


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