Joan Albaugh -August 2008
by: John Stanton
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Sitting at the kitchen table talking with painter Joan Albaugh, you are surrounded by the sort of playful and ironic kitsch represented by old tin lunch boxes featuring the characters from long-gone television shows like “Welcome Back Kotter.”
Instead of irony, however, the canvases that cover the walls in her kitchen and living room, and others that sit as works-in-progress in her studio, have the haunting quality of something left unsaid.
There is a series of portraits of her son, Jackson, heading off in the fall to study at the Art Institute of Chicago, never quite looking at you from the canvas. “I painted one of him every year,” she says. “I don’t paint a smiling-faced little kid, because this way there is a lot more going on. You want to find out more about him.”
There are multi-media collages and boxes that have an early 1980s sensibility to them. She was influenced, while studying at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, by the distinctive work of Joseph Cornell, who filled his boxes with snapshots and bric-a-brac to create a moment of memory.
“You’re always carrying a part of who you are in your work,” Albaugh says. “Art is an evolution. It is sort of like circling and circling and you go back but you go out further. Your work is constantly dying and being reborn, so there is always a thread.”
In the past that thread led to empty swimming pools and icebergs and a series of a child wearing a snorkel and diving mask. Then there are the houses. They sit quietly, isolated on darkened landscapes, without windows to look out onto a world defined by long shadows and revealing light.
Sometimes, a stray dog keeps watch on a scene filled with an undercurrent of memory. There is an Edward Hopper-like feel to her work. The elements of the paintings are separate, the outline and angle of the house from down the street, the landscape from somewhere else. The houses themselves often have a real Nantucket address, but the overall painting springs from the corner of a dream.
“There are some people without a real interior life, but my work is all about an interior life,” Albaugh says. “It is not a question of why you do it, just who you are and what keeps you sane. It’s just my way of looking at the world. Maybe I gravitate to the little mysteries.”
Albaugh laughs at herself as she grapples with an explanation of her work. “Maybe if I was more articulate in explaining it, I wouldn’t have to paint it,” she says.
Artists everywhere share the same fate. Simply put: There is art and there is commerce. There is that small voice that one fine day convinces you that taking on that blank canvas is a good idea. And there is the need to pay the bills. The trick is charting a course between the two.
Albaugh has been lucky. Her series of isolated houses sells well. But she is often wary of letting the seduction of commerce get a stranglehold on her art.
“The trick is to make enough money to be able to pay your bills and keep doing your art,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate with this house series. I’ve had people that like them and I can still express myself. The only worry is if I start painting them to fit the marketplace.”
Albaugh, who has lived on-island year-round for 14 years, sells her work out of the Old Spouter Gallery and Nantucket Looms. She has a show opening Friday, Aug. 1 at Old Spouter on Orange Street, with a reception from 6-8 p.m.
“When I was growing up (in New Jersey) I remember an artist who owned an art supply store. He would say that you have to be 40 before you can make a living with art. That seemed like a long way to go then, but he was right. I worked other jobs until I was about 40,” Albaugh says.
She sees the world now through the eyes of a 51-year-old. The beauty of the island, especially the famous quality of the light and the hard blue skies of winter, stands as a metaphor more than a celebration.
“I like walking in the woods and I thought to myself that I am always getting lost and thinking I have found the path out,” she says. “But it turns out it is only a clearing. When I am painting sometimes it happens like that. I tell my friends I think I am there. But sometimes it is only a clearing.”
It is the idea of getting herself lost and finding her way that defines much of Albaugh’s style of working. There are any number of half-finished canvases waiting for her in the studio.
“They evolve as they go,” she says. “I often have a few canvases going at a time, because sometimes something strikes you that you didn’t see before and you begin to look at it differently.”
There are also rows of boxes filled with snapshots that might someday provide a jumping-off place for a painting.
“I sometimes want to throw them out, but you never know which one will be a tool to start a painting,” she says. “The most exciting moment is when an idea hits you and you begin blocking in the color and the light onto a blank canvas. It is really an undeniable feeling.”
Joan Albaugh sits in her kitchen, surrounded by things collected. If it is true that landscapes suggest something about who we are, then the tin lunch boxes with cartoon faces, the boxes of snapshots, and the canvases large and small that hang on the walls, suggest something about the struggle to make art. They are souvenirs from an inner life.
“You think about winning the lottery and being able to just do your art,” she says. “But you have to be careful what you wish for, because that’s probably not the answer. I am just happy knowing that I can spend time in the studio, feeling out something, and know that it’s part of who I am.”
John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker living on Nantucket. He writes occasionally for Nantucket Today.