Friday, November 9, 2001
Painter Laurel Hughes finds inspiration in a chicken coop
Not every one would drive an hour to visit chickens. Then, again, not every one is a successful artist like Laurel Hughes. According to the painter, these chickens in Carlisle are special. "These chickens are more friendly," said Hughes. "I feel very relaxed around them." In fact, the artist has visited Carlisle chickens for about four years, and her work spans that range of time. Her oldest painting shows a red chicken; the more recent ones depict a melange of color. Behind one chicken appears a spinning platter.
Make up your own mind if these chickens are special or not by visiting the Hughes
Simply devoted to one's work
Hughes conveys serenity and joy. She credits personal study and practice of Buddhism as contributing to her calm. She is modest and reserved, dresses simply and lives alone in sparsely decorated rooms. Her focus is on her art, and she keeps her distractions to a minimum. Her paintings feature vibrant color. Hughes usually focuses on a single subject such as the sky, a seagull, a mussel, or a chicken. She describes her first approach to painting a subject as minimal. She depicts the subject realistically, using natural colors. With time, as she gets more comfortable with the subject, her colors change and the layers thicken.
Her paintings exude optimism and simplicity. A closer look reveals layers of shades and strokes. A solitary rooster looks strong from one angle, and downright sinister from another. There are many forces struggling beneath the surface.
Hughes confessed to experiencing depression, and shared that she has experienced great personal tragedy. Her father passed away when she was thirteen, an older sister has died, and her best friend committed suicide.
Hughes finds solace and happiness in her work. Living alone in Manchester-by-the-Sea, she devotes most of her life to it and limits her contact with the outside world accordingly. About 15 to 20 hours a month she does volunteer work at a Danvers prison and works with people in a "detox" program.
Turning an interest into a career
Although distant from her hometown, Kansas City, Missouri, Hughes acknowledges her strong ties there. Her roots in that city date back 150 years. Hughes' mother and two brothers still live there. A sister works on a sailboat and just voyaged to Iceland. "Everyone is in the arts," said Hughes of her immediate family. "My mom is a portrait painter. I grew up with paintings all around and with models going in and out of the house." After her father passed away, she quit doing the portrait painting and instead went into the family frame company that her father had started. She had to put painting on the back burner.
The youngest child, Hughes grew up thinking that art was something one did in one's spare time. She liked ceramics, remembers drawing all the time while growing up, but did not intend to become an artist, full-time. She earned a degree in English/Art History at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, then after graduation, turned to working in homeopathic medicine. Five years quickly passed.
"I went to the Matisse exhibit in New York in the nineties because I was near there at the time," said Hughes. "Something just hit me in the gut. I realized that I really missed the visual arts."
Hughes returned to Kansas City with new resolve where she attended classes at the nearby Kansas City Art Institute.
"I wanted to go into fiber or ceramics; however, I got a scholarship in painting," said Hughes. She completed the four-year program for a BFA in Painting/Printmaking in half the time and graduated the salutatorian of her class. "I was only going to paint for two years, but then I got a full scholarship to BU [Boston University] for my master's right afterwards," said Hughes. She had applied to other schools with other degrees, but the BU offer was by far the best. She recalled embracing her destiny as a painter and feeling, "The universe must be pointing me this way."
A painter that's "one in a million"
Hughes spent two solid years painting at BU, under the direction of painter and graduate school teacher John Walker. She summered in Vermont where she painted "round the clock." She started with realistic portraits, using minimal color and then went on to explore landscapes. She showed so much promise that upon graduation she won an award that afforded her the opportunity to paint solely on her own. Investigating off-season studio space, she stumbled on a spacious barn on a seaside estate in Manchester. "I intended to spend just one winter," Hughes recalled. "I wanted to spend some time by myself in a secluded area without any roommates. Now it's been five years." She has an arrangement in which she rents the entire second floor and has a studio on the ground floor. Occasionally her mother visits, and brings along her paintbrushes. Hughes sets up an area for her mother, and the two have a "boot camp" where they paint all day and socialize very little.
Walker recommended Hughes to Nielsen Gallery owners Nina Nielsen and her husband John Baker. Nielsen has owned the gallery since 1963, and has lived in Carlisle since 1970. The gallery, located at 179 Newbury Street, currently shows the work of 34 artists. "We look for art with a vision," said Nielsen. She explained that the gallery features work that somehow goes beyond the present social situation, and takes people back and forth in time. Nielsen looks for a "spiritual vision that is enduring" and found it in Hughes.
"She's one in a million," said Nielsen who shares amazement at how quickly Hughes has progressed in the five years since graduation. Nielsen refers to the wonderful colors the painter uses and her development of a unique palette.
Hughes has exhibited in groups every year since 1995. She has had solo exhibitions in 1996 and 1997 at BU, and in 1999 and 2001 at the Nielsen Gallery. Her exhibits at the gallery have sold out quickly. Hughes is visibly uneasy when the discussion of her success comes up. Instead of finding validation in sales, she voices surprise that people want to buy her work.
"I don't paint to sell, but I need to sell in order to paint," Hughes said. "I'm very uncomfortable when my work is exhibited and when it sells." She likes to cook, and rarely goes out to eat. Occasionally she will go to a matinee movie. She said, "I keep my cost of living minimal, and all my money goes to supplies."
Engaging a cackling subject
The first summer Hughes left her Manchester studio, she went to Belgium and stayed near Ghent. Being solitary and not social by nature, she ended up observing and drawing some chickens. Upon her return, she wanted to continue researching chickens, but couldn't find any readily available. Nielsen, who lives on Estabrook, suggested a visit to her neighbors, Marilyn and Ken Harte. While housesitting for the Nielsens, Hughes began painting the Hartes' chickens just down the road.
"I've tried to paint other chickens," said Hughes, "but I'm only interested in Marilyn's. It's an hour's drive down to Carlisle. Obviously there are chickens a lot closer, but I only paint those."
She sets up her materials inside the coop, and enjoys her intimacy with the chickens. They, too, feel very comfortable around her. They let her hold them, they walk over and around her while she is painting, all the time they chatter incessantly.
Recently, Hughes has focused on parts of the birds, such as roosters' heads and their gnarly toes. She somberly mentions with a macabre note that the September 11 tragedy may have influenced her current preoccupation with body parts.
Despite the fact that Hughes doesn't spend money on many outings, she does often make the trip to Carlisle. Most visitors come for nature at Great Brook Farm State Park or the ice cream at Kimball's. After the Gleason exhibit, however, everyone will know about a new attraction: Marilyn's chickens on Estabrook Road.
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito