A stillness pervades the works of Cheryl Washburn. The worlds she creates out of oil depict quiet rural settings that are often inhabited by a solitary horse. The clamor of man and development is left behind in these paintings. The soft-spoken artist says, “I’ve always gotten along far better with animals than people, and I have at least a passing acquaintance with all the horses I paint.”
Washburn braved a crowd of people for her opening at Farmington Depot Gallery on Sunday. Her works fill the small front space, which was once a “whites-only” waiting room in the former Jim Crow-era train station. It was sometimes a challenge to view the paintings during the party because the gallery’s openings are so well attended. Jim StipeMaas, Cindy Jerrell, Rocky Sapp, Father Anthony Salzman, Sarah Pattison and many other artists and patrons made the trip out to support the artist.
When the space is nearly empty, a sense of intimacy is created between the viewer and these striking and personal works.
John Cleaveland, a gallery member, has been mentoring Washburn for the past year. “I was painting some of the same subject matter, and I told her ‘You paint animals beautifully—you need to get your landscapes up to the same level.’” In exchange for lessons and studio space, Washburn works as Cleaveland’s studio assistant and helps out with his horse.
The two artists share an appreciation of the rural landscape and an interest in capturing the colors and textures within. They paint many of the same fields. But Cleaveland, while happy to share techniques he has learned in oil with Washburn, stresses that he “decided not to give her answers, but instead to show her how to frame the questions.”
“He pushed me to discover new ways of seeing and painting,” says Washburn. One way she has done this is by experimenting with composition. A series of four horse portraits in the show exhibit extreme cropping in order to convey the experience of the animals walking right up to her when she is in the field.
Another small painting, “Time is Fleeting," depicts a tiny dead bird. This classic vanitas motif, in which an artist evokes the brevity of life, was popular in 17th Century Dutch paintings. Many of Washburn’s works evoke that same genre in their loving depiction of surfaces and ordinary detail.
The artist’s awareness of the passage of time may inspire her often eight-hour long days in the studio. All of the paintings on display have been painted within the past year.
Choosing an alternate and rural road back to Athens after the opening, I felt the tension in my shoulders melt as I took in the beauty of stands of pines alternating with fenced meadows, many gone wild, their feathery overgrown grasses burning orange in the late afternoon light. Every texture was picked out in detail by the sun, evocative of the work of Washburn and Cleaveland. The leaves and needles, the bark on the trees and the light all called out to me. “This is what they see,” I thought. “This is what they are compelled to paint.”
“Art by c. Washburn” will be on view at Farmington Depot Gallery through Thursday, Mar. 12. For more information, visit farmingtondepotgallery.com.