Paul Hodgson wouldn’t call himself an art expert, but like many who enjoy visiting museums and galleries, he often wonders about the stories behind the artworks.
What is Christina Olson thinking about as she lies in a field of grass and gazes at the distant farmhouse in Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting?
Why does the naked man in Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream seem content with the fact that waves could overturn his battered fishing boat at any moment, throwing him into the water where several sharks await?
What did the smartly dressed protagonists in Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” do before ending up in this corner restaurant?
It was out of this curiosity that Hodgson developed the idea for The Painting Speaks, a collaboration between Rockport’s Everyman Repertory Theater, which he directs, and Rockland’s Farnsworth Art Museum.
“I originally suggested that at an earlier point in time, but there was so much going on that it never happened,” Hodgson said. “Then of course there was nothing going on when the pandemic started, so I went back to the (Farnsworth) and said, ‘We could do this.’ ”
The premise is simple. The museum selects a painting from its collection and Hodgson – who is a journalist – creates a story, often told from the perspective of a subject in the painting. Once the story is fleshed out, Hodgson hires a stage actor to take the role of a character and narrate his words. Audio is then coupled to video of the painting. Sometimes the video will zoom in on a certain detail and slowly zoom back out. Often the words are accentuated by ambient noise or music.
The end result is a 3-4 minute video clip that offers viewers the opportunity to experience a work of art in a completely different way.
To date, the collaboration has brought to life 20 artworks in Farnsworth’s collection. Hodgson plans to keep it going and even envisions expanding his work to other Maine museums.
Gwendolyn Loomis Smith, director of engagement at the Farnsworth, said it’s common for museums to partner with local arts organizations, including theater groups, but she’s never seen anything like it.
“During the pandemic, a lot of us have really thought about how to make art more enjoyable and how to bring it closer to people who don’t have an art background,” she said. “(The Painting Speaks) breaks down many barriers and dispels misconceptions about what art is. And it shows that you can have fun with it.”
Many of the artists whose work was featured are dead, but Hodgson said he was a little nervous about how living artists might feel about his interpretations.
So far nobody has complained.
“You’re always thrilled that your work is being talked about,” says Mark Wethli, a Braunschweig artist whose painting “Night” was previously among the shortlisted. “But there is also a small concern. Will they get it right? I was absolutely blown away by how perceptively Paul spoke about this painting.”
The Painting Speaks: Night by Mark Wethli from Farnsworth Art Museum on Vimeo.
Hodgson and his wife Jen live in an older farmhouse in the Camden Hills. Above the garage is a sprawling office where Paul works. This is also where most of the audio for The Painting Speaks is recorded.
One day in April, Jen is assigned to read Paul’s narrative about a painting “Daffy Down Dilly” by Lilian Wescott Hale, an early 20th-century American Impressionist. Jen is a designer, teacher and production manager at Everyman Theater where she has acted in several productions.
“I hate this poem,” she says into the microphone. Her accent is aristocratic. Happy piano music plays on a background track. “I love daffodils, but I hate this poem.”
Paul said as he looked at the painting – which shows a young woman in a shawl leaning slightly to look at a bowl of yellow daffodils – all he could think about were memories of his childhood in England, when he was forced was memorizing Wordsworth poems, including one called “Naffodils.”
“Of all the Wordsworth poems, why was that the one that we had to have our teachers memorize?” Jen asks rhetorically into the microphone. Her tone is harsh, a little sarcastic. She mocks the poem’s opening line: “I wandered lonely as a cloud.”
The script for this painting ended up being more autobiographical than some others, Paul said, but it reflects how others might experience the painting. Or any painting.
The painting speaks: Daffy Down-Dilly from Farnsworth Art Museum on Vimeo.
“Art is interpretive, it always has been,” he said. “I don’t do anything different than someone might do internally when they’re looking at a piece on a museum wall.”
He has written short stories based on the work of Homer, NC Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Waldo Pierce, George Bellows and others. Sometimes he narrates them himself, but more often Hodgson has brought in actors with whom he has worked through his theatre. Everyone who works on the series is paid for their time. Some funding comes from the Farnsworth, with the remainder from Everyman Repertory Theater through grants from the Maine Arts Commission, the Maine Community Foundation, and some private foundations.
Elizabeth Logun is one of the actresses Hodgson approached to participate. She lives in California but has performed with Everyman in the past and also went to college with David Troup, communications and marketing manager at the Farnsworth, who directed videos for many of the series’ early clips and is a regular stage manager for the theatrical productions.
Logun had already seen some of the videos when Hodgson asked her if she was interested.
“I was just so impressed with them,” she said. “One of the things I loved was the pace. The whole world falls away when you enter it. We live in such a frenetic society, right, and then you come into this world and it’s so metered. It pulls you out of the present.”
For her performance, Logun inhabited the subject of a late 19th-early 20th-century painting by artist Charles Gibson entitled Lady in a Red Dress Holding a Cigarette. She plays an impatient model who insists on sitting down to smoke for the artist, her grandfather.
“I know I smoked this one before you finished, but you can just quickly sketch it and make it as long as you want, I don’t care,” Logun says in the video. “And it won’t have been the last session in this session, I can tell you that.”
Logun recorded the sound from a closet in her house so there was no other noise. Nobody saw her, but she disguised herself to get into the role. She held a flashlight to see the text.
“It was so much fun doing that,” she said. “And it was also just before the pandemic started when everyone was in this weird place, so it really felt like balm to me. It felt healing.”
The response to The Painting Speaks has been overwhelmingly positive so far, said Loomis Smith, engagement director for The Farnsworth.
“The feedback was tremendous,” she said. “We post them to our followers in our e-newsletters, and everyone participates. Most of the time, though, it was people who said, “Gosh, I’ve never seen it like that before.” ”
Hodgson recognized the risk of making his individual interpretation of the visual arts public.
“A lot of people have their own relationship with a painting, and it could be a strong relationship,” he said. “I think of the faculty at Farnsworth who have been looking at some of these plays for years. But nobody came back and said, ‘You ruined this painting for me,’ so I think that’s good.”
Of the pieces he has written stories for to date, Hodgson said Wethli’s painting was one of the most difficult. There are no themes in the painting. It is an interior of a house with a faint light in a room in the distance. There is a partial view of stairs, an unlit fireplace, an empty hall table.
“This didn’t tell me any story at all,” Hodgson said.
So Hodgson created a character waiting for signs of life and contemplating the emptiness in space. He narrated this piece himself.
“I waited, but no one showed up. No steps,” he said. “No body absorbs the light or casts a shadow.”
Wethli, a professor in Bowdoin College’s art department, said he only heard about The Painting Speaks after his piece was selected for inclusion. He was struck by how insightful Hodgson’s words were. One of Wethli’s favorite painters, 20th-century abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, known for rectangular blocks of color, invited viewers to become the protagonists of his paintings.
“That’s the experience I want to convey to viewers,” he said. “This painting is very much about a state of loneliness. “[Paul]got it just right.”
The success of the collaboration lies in Hodgson’s words, but also in the performance of the actors who worked together. The timing was good too. Many have not had a steady job for a few years.
“We all, I think, were looking for something to do,” he said. “So I wrote as many times as I could think of a screenplay.”
Founded by Hodgson in 2008, Everyman Repertory Theater produces a handful of professional shows each year at rotating venues across the Midcoast. As with many performing arts organizations, the pandemic has been a challenge for his theatre. He said he’s still trying to figure out the best way back.
“We have had positive support from grant providers and our individual supporters and donors, even during the pandemic,” he said. “But every time we think something’s going to get better, another twist comes along, so who knows?”
Meanwhile, he said he will continue to produce The Painting Speaks as time permits.
“I’d like to keep it going forever,” Hodgson said. “We are having a great time writing and working on this. I think it would be great to involve other museums as well. There is so much artwork out there.”
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