Arts in the North Country
Head north and you expect to leave culture behind, but art is all about surprises.
Following I-93 north, city skylines slowly surrender to trees. Emerging through the maw of Franconia Notch, the land drops away. Valleys are dotted with tiny communities barely able to call themselves towns. Urban sophistication seems absent — here there’s more of a woodsy feel. Don’t be fooled, however. Talented artists abound, especially in the oasis of the greater Littleton area. But don’t look for a single art center here. You won’t find one. What Littleton offers is an art community, with studios, galleries and shops that, like the ingredients of a good recipe, complement and accentuate one another, creating a rich, savory blend.
Why Bad-Art is Good Art
A good sample of what’s being cooked up by the creative recipe of NH’s North Country is a Littleton gallery and shop called Bad-Art. Begun as “an experiment” by owner/artist Jon Stroker, the gallery is self-described as “eclectic and affordable art for the masses.” Indeed, Stroker’s works and those of other artists he hosts have earned a dedicated following. Hours vary, but by offering studio classes, workshops and even live music, Stroker has made Bad-Art into a popular gathering spot. When asked what he thought first drew people into a gallery whose very name suggests low expectations, he replies “morbid curiosity.”
Ranging from kitschy pop art to painted vinyl albums to unique amalgamations of divergent objects, there is plenty of eye candy, but no matter how offbeat, odd, funny or downright weird, patrons tend to have a favorable response to it all. It’s common to hear a new visitor exclaim, “This isn’t bad art — it’s actually good art!”
Stroker says his favorite comment to hear is “you just don’t expect to see something like this up here.”
It helps that Stroker is an accomplished artist and a curator with the capacity to find the hidden charm of just about anything. His creative vision sets the tone for the gallery and it is his tongue-in-cheek approach that keeps the featured artwork on the “lighter” side.
One collection of pieces, called “Twisted Past,” uses old photographs and magazine ads with irreverent — or sometimes just weird — captions written below the images. One image featuring three stunt water-skiers dressed in clown outfits is captioned: “The only thing worse than clowns are flying water clowns.” Another of a man sitting alone in a horse-drawn buggy reads “Cruising for babes.”
From plastic geese to droll graphics of Santaur Claus (half Santa, half horse) to peculiar little faces painted on local river rocks, a childlike joy permeates everything Stroker creates and exhibits.
One young area artist whose creations fit right in is Trissa Tilson. Although she has been drawing all her life, she has no formal training. Inheriting a large collection of comic books as a teen set her on her artistic path; she recalls endlessly copying the images until she found herself drawing without their aid. After a very brief fling with anime, she quickly moved into drawing pin-ups and digital imagery.
Some of her illustrations are highly detailed; others stylishly Art Nouveau. Many of them, once colored, are carefully cut out and placed into shadowbox frames. This signature technique emerged by accident after having, as she says, “totally botched a background on a finished piece.” Not wanting to lose her drawing because of the mistake, she cut the image away and mounted it onto a different background. Tilson liked the overall effect and was “off and running.”
Inspired by literally anything and everything, Tilson describes her creative process as “a giant, out-of-control snowball.” On the other hand, she describes her thought process, when working on a very large piece, as “kind of like a mental pregnancy.”
In spite of her creative output, Tilson finds it difficult to be taken seriously as an artist because she often uses colored pencils and markers. Instead of fighting people’s fixed ideas about what constitutes art, she defines her creations as “low-brow, outsider art.”
Working with small to mid-sized canvases, Matt Bassett of Mojo Design defines himself as a “neo-pop artist influenced by nostalgia.” Most of his canvases are infused with classic ’80s imagery. His two rescue dogs, a Boston terrier and a pug mix, also provide inspiration, and requests by friends and patrons have prompted him to dabble in painting other dog breeds as well.
Bassett’s favorite sculptural medium is recycled and repurposed household and mechanical items. He also uses thrift store buys and discarded appliances. And, with a day job at an area home supply warehouse, he says he sees the aisle of electrical components as boxes of adult erector sets.
Combining the purpose of the materials with his childhood love of robots, Bassett creates what he calls Rebot sculptural lamps. Fully functional, each one is unique and original. By focusing on recycling (or as it’s sometimes known, “upcycling”) other people’s castoffs, he helps the environment, and keeps his creations affordable.
With no formal training outside of Google and YouTube, Bassett’s works are pure inspiration. Recently, he found himself moving in a more specific direction — asked to donate a piece to a musically themed benefit auction for the Sandy Hook families, Bassett created his first “art guitar.” He began with the iconic form of the instrument and added illuminated portals, steampunk accessories, dials, bells and whistles. He’s since made art guitars from the bodies of both acoustical and electric guitars, turning one instrument of artistic expression into something quite different.
Another artist in the neo-nostalgia pop camp is Larry Golden. With an impressive art pedigree, Golden has been painting for about 50 years. Classically trained and heavily influenced by the pulp art painters of the ’20s and ‘30s, Golden’s works are infused by the perceived “ideals” of Hollywood in the ’50s and ’60s.
As a young student at the Pratt Institute, Golden recalls being deeply influenced by a drawing teacher whose name he didn’t learn at the time because “he always came in with rumpled clothes.” This instructor turned out to be none other than Jacob Lawrence, the most highly regarded African-American artist of the 20th century. “I wish now that I had paid more attention,” he says.
A widely recognized artist in his own right, Golden has several murals at the Omni Mount Washington Resort. His portraits, landscapes and streetscapes are known for their strong sense of place.
Golden’s current paintings are montages of exquisitely crafted “Hollywood” portraits combined with ’50s-era monsters, sometimes sporting an extra pair of eyes or distorted faces. He says he enjoys taking something that really “grabs” him out of context and juxtaposing it with other images. If some find his images a bit creepy or disturbing, that suits Golden just fine. He enjoys the push and pull that art creates.
Such artistic juxtaposition is evident even on the alley where Bad-Art is situated. A few doors down is the Littleton Studio School, begun in 2008 as an offshoot of the League of NH Craftsmen Gallery and Retail Shop. Here more traditional arts and their contemporary interpretations thrive.
This not-for-profit venue offers courses and workshops for adults and children in painting, weaving, pottery, clay work, drawing and more. The instructors range from locally known artists to juried League members.
And a short distance farther away is the League of NH Craftsmen Gallery and Retail Shop — the only one of its kind north of Franconia Notch. Brightly lit, carpeted, spacious and uncluttered, the gallery, owned by local juried member Beth Simon, is a sophisticated showplace.
With more high-end, though still reasonably priced, traditional and contemporary art and craft, the gallery has developed a strong and loyal following not only with year-round and summer residents but with returning tourists as well.
Speaking of tourists, art played a huge and largely unknown role in opening the northern wilderness of New Hampshire to travelers. In the early 1800s Thomas Cole, considered the father of the Hudson River School of Art, came to the White Mountains to paint. Having tired of the European-flavored pastorals, he sought out landscapes that spoke of what it meant to be an American — rugged individualism striving against the dark, untamed wilderness.
More than 400 fellow artists followed him to the Granite State and established three distinct art communities: Conway Valley, Gorham/Shelburn and the Franconia area. The Hill brothers, Thomas and Edward, became two of the most prolific painters of the Franconia camp.
Edward’s favorite subject, the Old Man of the Mountain, is today among the most sought-after works of that era. Having lived in Littleton for several years, Edward was one of the few painters who did not flee south when the cold winds blew. As such, he is one of only a handful of painters who captured the Whites under the blankets of snow they are named for.
Thanks to a donation of the Daniel Remich collection, the Littleton Library is home to several of Edward’s paintings. One portrait of the Old Man greets visitors at the circulation desk; several other paintings are on display throughout the library.
As these White Mountain paintings were brought to the galleries in the major cities of the East, the beauty and remoteness they portrayed captured the American imagination. Mountain tourism was born.
Tourism in the days of the stagecoach began as a slow trickle as travel was expensive and slow. However, as more and more people flocked northward, passenger trains replaced the stagecoach. Rooming houses gave way to inns and grand hotels.
With the invention of photography, tourists became able to buy far less pricey souvenir images of their beloved mountains and landscape painting was knocked from the top of the artistic food chain. The grand hotels fell out of favor, replaced by smaller roadside motels and cabins. Passenger trains went the way of the dodo bird as automobiles became faster and larger. With the 1956 Federal Highway Act, access to the mountains was easier than ever before. Day-trippers and weekend getaways became the norm. Fine art gave way to the point and click of the Kodak Instamatic.
Now, in the age of the smartphone and the selfie, more change is sure to come, but the message of arts in the North Country is that creative expression does quite well, far from the madding crowds of the cities. Talent may be hidden here, but that just makes discovering it all the sweeter.