Editor's note: The following essay was published on March 7, 2013 in Resource Library with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact Ms. Greene-McNally directly via:



 

WEATHERBOUND: The Art of Jay Hall Connaway In Our Time

by Ruth Greene-McNally

 

If it were possible for Jay Hall Connaway to witness the new installation of his art at Southern Vermont Art Center (July 28th-October 21st, 2012), he'd cough up an acerbic remark and then exit, or want to, but not in response to the assemblage or the buzz about why his style and subjects have roused a new generation of followers and collectors. Bound by ardent sensibilities and the rigor of a life devoted to art, Connaway would note, out loud, a modicum of painterly modifications and moan about, or damn, the unmistakable similarities in present-day culture as a painful reminder of and parallel world to his own. He would, undoubtedly, disengage but recognize the hardships and the drone of difficulties in the asides of visitors as an intervening atmosphere darkening the room.

The ambiance would drive him out of doors and bound for his North Rupert studio. He'd find that relatively the same too, but under renovation following the wreckage of Hurricane Irene. Well-acquainted with adversity and trauma in his own time, Connaway would concede the power of nature over culture and get back to work. During the era marked by the political, economic, and social upheaval of World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II -- an improbable backdrop for artistic success -- Connaway earned 85 lifetime one-man exhibitions. Poignantly, as contemporary audiences of art and all Americans contend with uncertain economics, the cost of war, the consequences of infringement on the balance of nature, the unified themes of Conaway's weather-beaten landscapes reaffirm his significance. If his mystic presence were possible, Jay Connaway would search for another extraordinary landscape of meaning but in his own realm of seclusion, and now his absence, he has left us with his art.

In his daily practice of painting, Connaway first noted the play of color and atmosphere. Color was observed as a tonal relationship not for the color and all subject matter and compositional elements were sequel to this tonal relationship known as the "super color." The super color is the hue influenced by natural or interior light sources that become a part of every object in the field of vision. The super color envelops and surrounds objects and form in the atmosphere. If, for example, we view the landscape as the sun is setting ­ trees, grass, and hills all contain an aspect of that setting sun. The orange or red glow conveys, distinctly, the time of day as an essential context for all nuance in the "language" of nature.

Connaway often said, "Nature is my dictionary," and over the progression of his training, travels, and secluded life in Maine and Vermont, the painter acquired the ability to portray the preeminence of nature by developing proficiency in fields of study unrelated to landscape art. Over and above examining the atmospheric tessellations of light on color and form, Connaway studied rock formations with the precise examination of a geologist; observed like a dendrologist the lithe pliability of trees under gale force wind; and as a trained Coastguardsman, he was able to calculate the influence of tides on coastal topography. To paint the sea, he said, an artist needed to understand the action of breaking waves. Critics referred to him as "the finest sea painter of his time" and a "painter of poetry" but Connaway thought of himself as a student of the sea and weatherworn land.

Connaway's success in painting the "moods of nature" was influenced by his association with Robert Henri (1865-1929), a New York Social Realist and leader of the Ashcan School. Connaway met Henri in 1911 while auditing night classes at the National Academy of Design. Henri had experimented with "hot" and "cold" color palettes, mixing the super color with white to create gradations of "lights," based on the theory that white did not coincide with spectrum light sources and therefore neutralized or dulled the composition. Connaway's broader influences and training, however, may be traced back much further.

Jay Hall Connaway was born in 1893 in Liberty, Indiana during a period of rapid progress and transformation in America. The eldest of two sons born to May Brown and Cass Connaway, the senior Connaway was a prominent Indianapolis lawyer and a collector of Chinese art. By the time Connaway had begun drawing in 1902, he was a discerning child who would come of age in a nation and a world reckoning with beginnings and endings. Early 20th century developments in the fields of science, politics, literature, and art immeasurably influenced daily life for Americans. Capitalism and trends in urbanization, immigration, and individualism created pathways of social engineering for greater numbers of people, and a more highly mechanized world created opportunities and change worldwide. In the year that Jay Connaway began drawing, Henri Matisse had established the Fauvist Movement in Paris, the Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, and a hurricane ravaged Galvaston, Texas killing between 6,000 and 8,000 people. Carrie Chapman Catt succeeded Susan B. Anthony as president of the Women's Suffrage Association. Unemployment was at 5% and increasing each year; yet for the first time, a dominant middle class invested in the belief of upward mobility, in revolutionary technology, and political progress. This storm of change also ignited opposition and backlash from traditional powers that would contribute to two brutal wars and, in the inter-war period, a protracted economic depression.

At age seventeen Connaway began formal training at the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis under William Forsyth. A landscape painter in the American Impressionist style, Forsyth's coastal Oregon views likely motivated Connaway to view the sea firsthand. Two years into his studies, Connaway's father objected to his son's becoming a painter. Anxious to leave a quarrelsome home life, Connaway made his way up the California coastline and then cross-country by stoking engines for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. Arriving in New York, he studied an additional two years under scholarship at the Art Students League with American Impressionist William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) and George Bridgman (1865-1943). It was during this time that Connaway became acquainted with Robert Henri. The New York Realists, American Impressionists, Regionalists, and the avant-garde Modernists introduced at the Armory Show of 1913, comprised the broad influences on Connaway's education. Young and restless, Connaway then toured New England to study the coastal rock formations and swells of the sea. He became a cook at a lumber camp in Maine and doryman with a fishing fleet off the coast of Newfoundland.

In 1916, Connaway shared studio space alongside his former teacher William Merritt Chase at the 10th Street Studio Building in New York and might have taken a pace further in his career but, instead, took a life-altering sidestep. He met Alfred Milch, of Milch Galleries, an influential dealer willing to sponsor the young artist; but in 1917 with war escalating in Europe, the 24 year-old enlisted and shipped out to Contrexeville, France. Not long into his tour of duty, Connaway suffered a shoulder wound and found himself reassigned as a cartographer and then, significantly, to a task he often referred to as the most important work of his career. Under doctors of Lilly Corporation from his hometown of Indianapolis, Connaway received paramedic training and prepared anatomical drawings of lesions to the faces, throats, and lungs of soldiers affected by mustard gas exposure. Precise scientific observation and the painstaking discipline required by medical illustration put into perspective the intractable consequences and impact of advanced technology on warfare.

Upon his honorable discharge in 1919, the army doctors under whom Connaway had served sponsored the artist's study at Academie Julian. That same year, his painting, Harmonies du Sur was accepted for the Paris Autumn Salon. The doctors again sponsored Connaway's studies at Ecole des Beau Arts for another term and in 1922, the painter returned stateside with a portfolio. On the returning ship, fortuitously enough, Connaway made an essential contact in Frederick Keppel, an executive with the philanthropic organization Carnegie Corporation. Keppel owned an international art and print firm and was impressed enough to introduce Connaway to Robert Macbeth of Macbeth Gallery, New York. Connaway's first of many one-man shows was held at Macbeth in 1923.

Again Connaway traveled, painting intermittently in the Adirondack Mountains with frequent trips back to New York. Increasingly in need of isolation, and undoubtedly suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress, Connaway painted in Peru, Vermont in 1926 presumably at the suggestion of a man who would become his long-time patron. A favorable review by the art critic Royal Cortissoz prompted Bartlett Arkell, a Manchester summer resident and co-founder of Southern Vermont Artists, to arrange a meeting with Connaway through Robert Macbeth. Arkell, President of Beech-Nut Packing Company, was a collector of American art, and founder of the Canajoharie Library and Art Gallery. With additional backing from Robert Macbeth, supplemented by cash from artists Paul Dougherty and Emil Carlsen, and advice from painter Frederick Waugh, Connaway, "seeking to paint the lonely sea" found his way to the uninhabited island of Head Harbor off the coast of Jonesport, Maine. Living a hermit's existence, he depicted elemental nature as both haunting and healing. He then enlisted with the Coastguard and later painted at the coast of Newfoundland where he found work with a Grand Banks fleet.

In 1927, Connaway met Louise Boehl, a nurse at Fifth Avenue Hospital in Manhattan, and a classically trained pianist and singer. Sacrificing her ambitions to her partner's, the couple married in 1928 despite her family's disapproval. The Arkells hosted a wedding reception for the Connaways at their West 10th Street home and directly afterward, Arkell and Macbeth sent the newlyweds to Brittany, France. The couple lodged at Pont Aven where Connaway found the hard-drinking, card-playing Bretagne artists distracting. To avoid interruptions he walked six miles each day to paint by the sea. Louise took on the role of coach, art critic, and promoter, sending her husband's work to New York along with copious update letters to Macbeth and Arkell. The couple's only child, Leonebel Marie Frances was born in Pont Aven in 1929. Many of Connaway's figurative studies of women and religious icons emerged from this period in Brittany. Lone figures or groups of anguished and bent women are pictured bearing up under toil or a battering of driving wind.

When the Connaways returned to the United States in 1931, to a nation overcome by the Depression, they were insolvent and parents of a two-year old. Again, Bartlett Arkell and Robert Macbeth sponsored the artist. The Connaways moved to a studio in Portland, Maine and then to a rental on Monhegan Island before settling into a house on which Arkell held the mortgage. They lived without electricity, running water, and standard conveniences. To supplement his income, Connaway opened an art school. Louise worked in an unpaid capacity as island nurse for a community of fewer than fifty year-round residents.

For seventeen years Connaway portrayed Monhegan's rugged terrain and tempestuous weather patterns. Critics described Connaway's bold, slashing brushwork as "masculine Impressionism," though, by design, his compositions did not convey impressions of the moment or effects of light. Using flattened form and suppressed tones Connaway's subject matter and atmospheres express in poetic terms a sense of on-going adversity and timeless, universal themes. In many compositions from the 30s, the vantage point abandons the viewer in the path of on-coming waves or storms. The relentless pounding of the elements striking the coastline echoed waves of shock and disappointment in the failed economy. The sense of pending danger in the work of this period reflected Connaway's response to the personal hardships that confronted many Americans and undoubtedly artists during the Great Depression.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Connaways left the island temporarily and found jobs toward the war effort at American Car and Foundry Company in Berwick, Pennsylvania. Connaway worked the assembly line but was reassigned to create drawings for the tank parts catalogue. Connaway returned to Monhegan each summer to tend school business and art sales.

When Bartlett Arkell died in 1946, he left in his will the Monhegan property to Connaway. Desiring new subject matter, an easier lifestyle, and recalling his earlier association with Southern Vermont Artists, Inc. the Connaways moved to Dorset, Vermont in 1947. Retrenched and reinvigorated, Connaway explored the potency and features of an interior New England landscape including the region's marble quarries, high peaks, valleys, and rivers. In 1953 the family purchased a home on the Mettowee Creek in North Rupert where Connaway reopened his art school.

Inevitably, country living brought Connaway to experience and express the harmonies of nature and human edifice. In his Vermont paintings, farmsteads and the natural environment are interrelated in a mood of seeming changelessness and solemnity. Still, Connaway's virtuoso brushwork and spectrum palette accentuate the spectacle of unremitting weather in the sky. Through the 1950s, eclipsed by the momentous ascent of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Connaway's searching themes translated the elemental power of nature as an emotionally experienced and timeless landscape.

Assessing post-Modernism as approaching meaning yet never coming to it, Connaway wrote in his journal, This game called art, what is it? Am not sure I know. It seems that Realism, a style of saying nothing very well; and Modernism, a style of saying absolutely nothing very, very badly. There must be a middle. Correspondingly, Connaway's pantheistic interpretation of nature does not entirely coincide with his Christian themed work. The sacred subjects can be attributed to the many crucifix statues he viewed on the beaches at Brittany; Connaway may have painted religious images to please his wife and mollify his own unrest, yet he was more devoted to exploring meanings than pronouncements. Culture, he understood, progressed as a result of the tension between independence and conformity.

Connaway's professional stature increasingly brought him closer to the community. Recalling his hospital service during World War I, he set up a curriculum for returning servicemen at his art school under the GI Bill. In 1962, Connaway merged the school with the Southern Vermont Arts Center and became the school's first director. He offered lectures and demonstrations as well as instruction in the Manchester public schools and Burr and Burton Academy. His work was widely collected and the artist remains a folk hero of local acclaim.

In the final decade of his life, Connaway painted in Portugal, Spain, California, and Arizona. In the last year of his life, troubled with poor eyesight and failing health, Connaway was no longer able to paint. Looking again at Connaway in 2012, in this, his sixth museum exhibition since 2009, his paintings make it possible to think of him, living out his last months a contemplative, as someone for whom the end of painting foreshadowed the conclusion of his life, but not his art. I like to think that Jay Connaway's last meditation was not a revelation of lifetime strivings but awareness attending the uplifting and enduring influences of art to which his temporal body and fearsome genius acceded. Jay Hall Connaway died on February 18, 1970 while at his winter home in Green Valley, Arizona. His ashes were interred in the falls of the Mettowee Creek behind his studio in North Rupert, Vermont.

 

- Biographical material for this essay was culled from the correspondences and manuscript biographies of Louise Boehl Connaway, and the correspondences of Bartlett Arkell and Robert Macbeth in the collections of the Arkell Museum at Canajoharie, New York and from the Monhegan Museum, Maine. I would like to thank Diane Forsberg, Chief Curator at the Arkell Museum; Jennifer Pye, Curator of Collections, the Monhegan Museum; Thomas Denenberg, Director, the Shelburne Museum; J. Tyler Resch, Librarian, the Bennington Museum; and Joseph Madeira, Executive Director, Southern Vermont Arts Center for their assistance and support. I also thank Anton G. Hardy, Henry and Mary Holt, Robert E. Deeley and J. Drew Deeley, Raymond Foster, Martin Kaukas, Barbara Melhado, Orland Campbell, Jr., Edith Mach, Nan Leach, Lee and Marion McChesney, Clarke and Barbara Comollo, Kaitlin McLellan of People's United Bank, and Garry DuFour for their kind assistance.

 

About the author

Ruth Greene-McNally is an independent curator, collections manager, and scholar whose work focuses on 19th and 20 century American art. She recently curated WEATHERBOUND: The Art of Jay Hall Connaway at the Southern Vermont Arts Center from July 28th-October 21st. Ruth began independent research on Connaway in 2009 while working as Research Curator for the Arkell Museum. While at the Arkell, Ruth curated Rising from the Sea: The Art of Jay Hall Connaway in July 2011 and co-curated Look with Your Own Eyes: Landscapes, Portraits, and Pastimes in American Art. Previously, Ruth was Research Curator for the Albany Institute of History & Art where she curated commemorative exhibitions for the Robert Fulton bicentennial celebration in 2007 and Hudson River Panorama: Four Hundred Years of Arts, History, and Culture for the 2009 Hudson/Fulton Quadricentennial. She is co-author of Hudson River Panorama, published by SUNY Press in 2010. Ruth was Interim Museum Educator for the Tang Museum at Skidmore College, Collections Manager and Educator for the Harness Racing Museum in Goshen, New York, and Museum Educator at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey. A former teacher of secondary English and art, Ruth has published poems in literary journals including Poetry East, Bitterroot, and the Brooklyn Review. Her drawings and nature studies have been exhibited at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts and art centers throughout Cape Cod and Southern New Jersey. (left: Ruth Greene-McNally. Photo by Francine Fortin)


Related installation

Ruth Greene-McNally was guest curator for an installation of Connaway's art at the Southern Vermont Art Center titled WEATHERBOUND: The Art of Jay Hall Connaway, held July 28 through October 21, 2012. In addition to the above essay, Ms. Greene-McNally authored related texts for the installation:

To view object labels please click here.
 
To view wall texts please click here.
 
To view Jay Hall Connaway (1893-1970) Chronology please click here.
 
To view audio tour script please click here.

 

Resource Library editor's note:

The above essay and related texts were published on March 7, 2013 in Resource Library with permission of the author, who acknowledges sole ownership of the texts. Permissions for publishing images of artworks within the audio tour script in this Resource Library article were obtained by the author from the respective rights holders.

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