The Visceral Sensation of Being Home

West Branch Gallery
May 7, 2015 5:51PM

One October night in 1974, Kathleen Kolb and a group of friends from the Rhode Island School of Design took a drive from Providence to Vermont. “The visceral sensation of being home was profound,” she recalls. In 1977, after completing a Bachelors in Fine Art, she moved to Vermont. It has been home ever since. She lives and paints in the quiet mountain town of Lincoln. Throughout her career, Kolb has drawn on Vermont as a source of subjects. She has painted the snowy farms and fields of Addison County, the blazing oranges of maple trees in the fall, the cool glow of lights reflecting off a harbor on Lake Champlain. In 2008, Kolb was one of ten artists commissioned by the Vermont Arts Council to make work “that addressed Vermont’s social, cultural and political landscape.” Kolb’s “Logging” series documented human work in the forest as a way of conserving and preserving the landscape. Vermont houses are a recurring subject of Kolb’s paintings.

Brick House, Winter Afternoon shows the influence of the American Luminists on Kolb’s contemporary realist style. A rambling Vermont house basks in golden afternoon winter light. The sun falls on the back of the shed. The long shadow of a tree runs across the snowy yard. The leafless trees catch sun and shadows. Snow clings to the dark side of the roof. In the distance on the right side of the painting, for example, a telephone pole marks the way to a stand of trees on a hill. Details that present evidence of contemporary life bring the scene into the present. This is not a nostalgic painting; this is a place Kolb wants to tell us about.

Compare for a moment the notion of a house to the idea of a home. A house is a physical structure–a building–in which people live. It is real estate. A home, by contrast, is a psychological state–a collection of associations that inform our identity, our sense of self. We often use the words interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Houses are marketed as homes, but real estate is really just buildings and land. We talk about the problem of homelessness, but  when we do, we are really talking about people who don’t have houses. Not everyone has a house. Everyone has an idea of home for themselves, because that is part of the human condition. But pictures of houses are not about ourselves, they are about others–neighbors, strangers, and people outside of our family, outside ourselves.

Maple in May
West Branch Gallery

Kathleen Kolb paints houses. In recent art history, the house is a rare subject. Certainly there are people whom one can commission to do a portrait of their house, and many artists explore notions of home in their art work. Few artists tackle “the house” as a subject and when they do, it often becomes an anthropological exercise or political commentary. Kolb is doing neither of these things. She paints houses as part of the landscape, as matter of fact as a tree stands atop a knoll or a river runs through a field in the distance. A cluster of buildings catch the afternoon light in the painting Neighborhood. Kolb renders this scene with incredible detail: a rocking chair on a porch, a car parked in the driveway. Curtains in the windows give a house’s occupant privacy, but in this painting they serve as an invitation to the viewer to look in and wonder who lives there. This is a human landscape; the landscape of community. One can see how Kolb constructs these scenes in Ice. An off-view street lamp lights a small town general store. A well-marked icebox is the focal point of a snowy scene that underscores the playful irony of selling bags of ice in winter. Ice contains a basket of details that hint at how Vermonters live. The slushy, track-ridden driveway of the store is a signal to the viewer that this spot is normally a hub of activity. A scale mounted to the red shed is used to weigh deer during the hunting season. A car is backed into the driveway, pointed in such a manner as to make it easier to drive out if it snows during the night. Ice is a somber, quiet, reflective painting loaded with information about life in Vermont.

In his iconic 1974 novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig observed, “We keep passing unseen through little moments of other people’s lives.” While this is an apt description of how Kolb’s paintings of houses start, it is not necessarily where they end up. Kolb’s paintings of houses transcend the perfunctory nature of landscape painting. The titular subject of Maple in May is a branchy barren tree growing in the yard of a yellow saltbox. A stand-alone garage mimics the main house’s architecture. Maple in May is a poem about the relief of spring after a long winter. As one looks closely at the painting, one begins to see the budding leaves on the maple. The stack of tires outside the garage is a reminder that winter is over, snow tires can be put away, and better weather is here to stay. It is a ritual of the season. By including this detail, Kolb elevates this painting from simple landscape to a commentary on how Vermonters live. In doing this, the viewer is no longer simply passing through the little moments of other people’s lives. They are sharing an experience and developing a communal understanding. That is the power of Kolb’s paintings.

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