Arlene Distler


Peaceable Kingdom

Who’d think that a show of painting and sculpture inspired by barnyard piglets and draft horses could be this much fun? “The Peaceable Kingdom” show at the Windham Art Gallery, on Main Street was, for me, an unexpected delight.

I’m not what you’d call an animal person. I had to be prodded into allowing my family to get a dog (grew to love him though), I’m allergic to animal fur, and I’ve had more unpleasant encounters with various four-legged mammalia, ranging from monkeys to the domestic guard dog, than I’d care to go into. So I’m not the “Aaah, isn’t she cute!” kind. But I was completely won over by this show, could even feel that swoon of the heart of the animal-lover, at contemplating some of the fine creatures these artists have captured with brush or chisel. This show proves that art + animal doesn’t always equal soppy, sweet, and sentimental.

Some standouts, in my estimation:
Nancie Mclean’s two large paintings at the gallery entrance of a llama and a sheep, “Sharpy” and “Sydney”, respectively, are the obvious place to start. Painted in a bold, flat style, with large areas of color, they announce themselves with an in-your-face honesty: “I am what I am!”

Robin Truelove Stronk, a doctor of veterinary medicine, has mined her trip to South Africa to explore the primal and dangerous in her series of wild animals – zebras, lions, leopards, which she saw and studied (from a safe distance!), on her trip. I especially liked the painting “Go Ahead” in which the animal, a Cape Buffalo, emerges from darkness, its eyes glinting menacingly.

Amy Boemig, a young artist who grew up in Brattleboro, has a decent group of paintings
(I especially liked the circle-within-a-square owl). But it is her small sculptures that, for me, sang. “Incredulous Owl” is a small standing owl, but has an unexpected ironic presence – something in its slightly off-kilter stance. “Happy Dogs”, two small sculptures, are extraordinary in their liveliness, and the detail of execution. They scamper and yelp right before our eyes and ears! All three sculptures are in bronze.

Caryn King has been showing animal paintings for quite a while, and she has obvious affection for the animal world. In “Quiet Moments”, however, she has elevated this affection to a “higher plane”. Realistically painted in oil, two rabbits are set upon a bucolic throne, a semi-circular raised panel. Beneath them crocheted bits of fabric adorn a rectangular strip painted to look like bronze. In the arc behind the rabbits, and surrounding them on the flat of the canvas are painted green leafy fronds. The painting has become an altar, the rabbits, sacramental.

Rochelle Prunty from Brattleboro Clayworks has filled a corner of the gallery with her wonderful animistic pottery. She clearly owes a debt of gratitude to native American potters of the southwest, in pieces such as “the Toad Spirit Pots”, “ Goat Bowls”, and the haunting “White Dog Urn”. This last has a lid in the shape of a dog’s head modeled after the artist’s own beloved pet. “Loon Bowl” recalls the carvings of the natives of the northwest, or Eskimos, with its stark, stylized patterning in black and white. The set of three “Owl Vase” s are a tour-de-force of craft and patience, their breast feathers individually cut and fixed in place one by one.

Other work in the show includes Mary Femniak’s graceful prancing horses, in oils, and painted on glass; Linda Mahoney has two large oil paintings in her loose brushwork style. But she is at her best, I feel, when indulging in the medium, free of a narrative intent (the printed artist’s statement tells us these paintings are about the environment, and the anxiety brought about by the inability of the individual to stop its process of degradation).
Lesley Heathcote’s paintings of cats, heifers and other creatures convey a mythic intensity. They are archetypal and regal.

And Mary Iselin shows small oil paintings, which are not, however, and happily, precious. The artist states her intention, to “explore light, color, atmosphere, and most of all, spirit”. Her lamb paintings most successfully fulfill that ambition. Upon my first viewing of this show on Gallery Walk Friday, I could not take my eyes off of “In Full Fleece”, a little gem that beautifully captures light with color, as well as the spirit of the subject of her portrait, a proud, handsome sheep.

From domestic pets to work animals that do man’s bidding, to the wild beasts of the African savannahs, “Peaceable Kingdom” pays homage to the hold that the animal world has on our imagination.


Brattleboro Reformer
2006