The verve of nature — no small thing — is alive in the paintings of Vinalhaven artist Elaine Crossman. Her landscapes reveal and also revel in the glory of the natural world. In another era, the majestic stained glass windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany that would have been similarly evocative. There’s a luminous glow to their subjects, which manage to be, at the same time, both ordinary and extraordinary, imaginary and real, mythic and authentic.
No matter how complex or untamed a landscape Crossman portrays (many contain forest, field, wetland, rock, open water and mountains) her paintings seem to soothe, creating a meditative opportunity for the viewer. This mood could be attributed to Crossman’s own comfortable relationship with a benign-feeling natural world. Growing up in rural Vermont, as a child she developed a capacity for solitude and contemplation from spending time alone outdoors. Even though she was part of a large family, she says her first conversations were with squirrels, not people.
Crossman’s artist statement, posted on her website, includes a quote from Joseph Campbell, the renowned scholar of world mythologies, suggesting art can convey the divinity inherent in nature. (If Crossman were to quote Tiffany, she might also include his description of an artistic goal: to confer upon the natural world a religious significance.) Crossman’s own words describe hers: “My goal is to create paintings that are both a visual feast and an invitation to the viewer to remember and rejoice in their own connection with nature.”
Crossman always thought her life’s work would be oriented toward the arts. It may have first been evident, she writes, when the number of colors of crayons she had mattered a great deal. In college, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania. While finishing her graduate program in 1976, she moved to Vinalhaven. Initially, she found the island’s natural environment visually overwhelming. Crossman first painted her landscapes in segments, as if framed by windows. She now explains that approach “served me until I could get reoriented to the visual richness of my natural surroundings. My island home provides me with endless subject matter, both visually and metaphorically. It is a place of extreme contrasts.”
Vinalhaven’s environs certainly do present contrasts. Where Crossman works in her studio is a good example. Crossman paints generally serene landscapes, but her Sands Cove location can often be anything but serene, home as it is to a working waterfront. She is a woman in a neighborhood where muscular men dominate, and while their jobs demand brute strength, hers requires a delicate touch. Situated amidst the man-made jumble of fishing boats and lobster gear, her paintings portray natural landscapes seemingly untouched or unpopulated by humans.
In 2002, Crossman opened a fine arts gallery, New Era, on Main Street, Vinalhaven. Now at its second location, it is an intimate space with a spacious design that accommodates a wide variety of art, including sculpture exhibited in an outdoor garden. While Crossman often includes several pieces of hers on the walls, her gallery highlights artists who have some affiliation with the Maine coast and who touch down, for varying amounts of time, on Vinalhaven. The shows, are inevitably interesting. Crossman’s artistry is also evident in the ambience she creates for each show, with her flair for displaying pieces.
Crossman puts her own work on a back burner during her gallery’s busy summer season. Sometimes, she can escape and immerse herself in a quiet spot on the island where she soaks up the place’s look and feel. She spends long periods of time absorbing a location before she paints. Recently, Crossman has been doing some printmaking too. She was one of the founding members of the Engine House Press on Vinalhaven, headed by master printer Chris Clarke. A new series, more abstract than much of her work, is based on wave patterns. Crossman enjoys the unexpected relationship those have with another subject she painted often last winter, the night sky. She comments, “It’s pretty fascinating to me how the elements compose themselves in similar ways: water, earth, air, fire. The wave prints are still very experimental, more about observation.”
This summer, Crossman’s work can be observed at the Jonathan Frost Gallery in Rockland, the North Light Gallery in Millinocket, and the State House in Augusta. You can also see what’s progressed from experiment to exhibit: some of the wave pattern prints will be on display at the New Era Gallery on Vinalhaven.
Tina Cohen spends much of the year on Vinalhaven.