In this insightful talk, Dan’s Papers cover artist Benjamin Lussier talks about being inspired by Monhegan, Maine, his academic background and more.
What was the inspiration for this piece?
Monhegan is a community of fishermen, artists and hospitality workers about 12 miles off the Maine coast that I’ve been visiting annually since I was quite young. In recent years it’s acquired more reliable access to modern amenities (think wifi and halfway decent cell reception), but being here is still a little bit like stepping back in time. My parents always gave me and my siblings considerable leeway for solitary exploration when we were visiting as kids so it’s a place I associate very strongly with freedom and self-determination. The beauty of the landscape here is absolutely unrivaled—if you spend just a couple hours on Monhegan you will immediately understand why it occupies such a monumental place in the history of American art. You can basically just walk outside and there are subjects everywhere you look that demand to be committed to canvas.
I painted this one on the wharf in the late morning looking south into the harbor. I wanted to paint boats and that vantage point offers the most interesting light and perspective on the fishing fleet at that time of day. The wharf is also something of a community hub. It’s an ideal place to chat with visitors, collectors and other artists, or get the lowdown on island news. And the harbor is right there if I feel the urge to jump in. I like to feel connected to things—it’s a huge part of why I paint outdoors. I make my studio out in the world to be closer to my human and natural communities.
Talk about your art style.
I see style as something that develops spontaneously and inevitably out of personal temperament and the idiosyncrasies of creative process. You couldn’t avoid your style even if you wanted to so I try not to think about it very much. I just let paintings happen as they happen.
I tend to produce work that is more on the “painterly” side of the spectrum. I work quickly and keep my paint application loose and expressive. This is partly because plein air work needs to be done quickly and partly because my eyes and hands think much faster than my mind does. More importantly though, I don’t believe an artist’s work is to copy what’s in front of them. Truth can be stated more effectively through suggestion, overstatement, and understatement than it can through absolute visual fidelity.
I wouldn’t call it a visual influence, but I’ve been hugely inspired by the philosophy behind Eastern Orthodox iconography, where there is felt to be a deep ontological connection between a painting and its subject matter. In this tradition an icon isn’t just a representation of a saint—there is a very real sense in which the painting is the Saint. Icon painters are trying to bring spiritual realities to presence through their work. They don’t concern themselves with visual likenesses and will frequently distort things — even things as basic as perspective — in the interest of theological emphasis. Pavel Florensky called painting “philosophy in color” — it’s phrase that’s really stuck with me.
There’s a similar idea in the hermeneutic theory of Hans-Georg Gadamer that works of art are real manifestations or “emanations” of the things they depict. So, by painting a subject you are actually increasing its being, making it exist in a manner that it would not have existed otherwise. I don’t know that everything I paint successfully accomplishes this kind of sublime work—some days I doubt any of my paintings do—but this is the only philosophical take on art that captures the sense of responsibility that I feel as a painter. You’re never just making pictures, you’re helping things to exist more fully.
For these and other reasons I prefer to think of my paintings as “figurative” rather than “representational” — the latter term is too culturally laden with overtones of mimesis for my liking.
Tell us about your artistic process.
My process is free form. It depends on the season, my schedule, material circumstance, and whim. Really, the only constant is my palette, an inheritance from my father, which consists of five tube colors plus white. I mix up whatever else I need from these limited basics. I like to vary the surfaces I paint on to keep things fresh. I will revisit certain subjects multiple times and I find that different materials encourage me to think differently about what I’m painting—canvas invites different paint application than gessoed panel and so on. I’ll probably only use two or three brushes in the course of a session—mostly flats and filberts. Sometimes I paint with just a palette knife but that has become more infrequent as I’ve continued to develop.
When I head out to paint I am really just looking for something that excites me. It could be anything. Sometimes I have a subject in mind, sometimes not. Sometimes I just wander around and can’t make a commitment—it’s regrettable, but it does happen. As I’m setting up I think about what is calling me to a particular scene and what it’s trying to say to me. I start with a very rudimentary drawing—sometimes as few as three or four lines—and quickly block in only the simplest and most important shapes. Focus on essentials. Everything depends on this very basic foundation.
Typically, I’ll paint for two or three hours. Sometimes I can get it done in less, but any longer and you risk confusing yourself—the light just changes too much. Generally speaking, I do my paintings in a single session. Working outdoors you are dealing with so many variables (light, weather, tides, crowds, your own mood, etc.) that I don’t find it’s worth returning to the same spot on another day to continue. If I don’t have something promising after a few hours I would rather start fresh and try again another day. After a session I take whatever I’ve produced into the studio where I can consider it with fresh eyes. If I like what’s there I will often make some adjustments, working from memory or from reference photos. At a certain point a painting starts making its own demands and it’s not absolutely necessary to have your subject matter directly in front of you. In fact, it can be a hinderance. If what I’ve produced outdoors doesn’t have good bones I will scrape the canvas and move on to the next one. A dud is a dud.
Recently one of my galleries has requested some larger format works so this year I’ve started doing more painting indoors. It’s been interesting to slow down and think more deliberately in the studio. It’s definitely a challenge for me, but a welcome one.
In short, my process is organic and somewhat unprincipled. I don’t follow any hard and fast rules. I like to think it keeps my work interesting and dynamic. Some artists seem to know exactly what they are after from the second they choose a subject. Personally, one of the greatest joys I can have as a painter is being surprised by what comes off my easel at the end of the day.
If you weren’t an artist what would you be doing?
I genuinely feel that painting is what I’ve been called to do in this life, so a world where I didn’t spend a substantial amount of my time at the easel is almost inconceivable to me. That said, artist is not currently my only occupation so I can actually answer this question without entertaining the counterfactual.
I’ve been working my way through a doctoral program in Russian literature at Columbia for the past seven years; I’m gearing up to finish and defend my dissertation sometime in the fall. I don’t really know if I have a future in academia, the market is very tough, but I love exploring ideas and sharing them with others so I can certainly see myself teaching in some capacity down the road.
Depending on perspective, I’m by nature either something of a renaissance man or an insufferable dilettante — so if I hadn’t discovered painting it’s hard to say how I would be using that time. Quite possibly I’d be writing more. But that’s art too, isn’t it?
What inspires you the most?
People! Family. My parents. My incredible siblings. Innumerable creative, talented, and caring friends. My painting peers, certainly. There are too many contemporary artists to name, but I would be remiss not to mention my father, David, and my step-mother, Pam. Not only did they teach me nearly everything I know about painting—they have also shown me that making a living as a working artist is possible and absolutely worth the risk and dedication it requires.
I’m hugely inspired by Monhegan and by the artists who have also called the island home over the years — Robert Henri, George Bellows, Abraham Bogdanove, Rockwell Kent, Jay Connaway… the list is practically endless. It is a tremendous privilege to be living and painting here again this summer, humbly trying to follow in the footsteps of the greats. I mean this figuratively but also quite literally: I love hiking the cliffs on the backside of the island, trying to figure out exactly where some of my favorite canvases were painted nearly a century ago.
In terms of subject matter I can find inspiration in just about anything but I am especially drawn to the ocean and to maritime subjects. I love painting working harbors and fishing boats, the saltier the better: Montauk, Gloucester and Cape Anne, Maine. The most inspiring motif for me is probably the ocean itself, especially on days when the surf is really kicking up. Some of the swell off Monhegan’s headlands is absolutely unreal: waves thundering into the cliffs, spray flying 50 feet into the air — even the air feels electric. I can’t get enough of that stuff.
Of course, at a certain point the process of painting itself becomes the most important vector for inspiration — it has to, or I wouldn’t get nearly as much work done. Some days it seems like nothing excites me, I don’t feel like painting, but if I show up to work and start pushing paint around then the inspiration will follow.