WORLDS OF COLOR
Landscape artist Severin Haines discovers new combinations with every canvas
Originally published in the New Bedford Standard-Times on February 15, 2008
To explain his choice of colors and patterns, landscape painter Severin Haines says simply, “Nature is the teacher.” More than 25 of Mr. Haines’ scenes in oil on canvas are now on display at the New Bedford Art Museum. His solo show, titled “Skude, 360º,” depicts the rough waters and craggy coastline of the town of Skude in southwest Norway, where the artist was born and spent his early years.
As the title implies, this exhibit reveals the landscape from all angles. There are viewpoints from the land looking out to the sea in each direction, as well as from the shoreline looking back to the land. The unique geology of the Norwegian terrain offers three elements that interact in an ever-changing array of tones and patterns: clouds, waves and rocks. “The color idea is the most significant thing,” says Mr. Haines of the works in the show, “and each painting has its own color world.”
To discover these color worlds, the artist tests the possibilities with pastels. One room of the exhibit displays a series of pastel studies, made on site in Skude. The sensitive mark-making in these drawings reveals Mr. Haines’ openness to new color choices. “One of the things that working with pastels does for you as an artist is it limits color,” Mr. Haines says. “Within that limitation, I strike combinations that I would never find by myself.” He also uses location photographs for compositional reference, but stresses that it is “important that the paintings are more” than simply replicas of his photographs.
In addition to unexpected hues that resonate alongside one another, Mr. Haines achieves “kick in the head” color impact by first covering his canvases with a vibrant tone. This initial layer of red, orange, green or blue awakens each painting with its own “character of light” and gives the subsequent layers of paint a bright base for contrast.
Most of the works in the exhibit were painted in 2007, while Mr. Haines was on sabbatical from his professorship at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. But images of Norway are second nature to the artist, who regularly visits his family’s property in Skude. He has painted many of these views four or five times over the years, some as many as 15 times. Between the constant boat traffic along the North Sea and the shifting moods of the sky, the shoreline of Skude is a “phenomenal place to sit and watch” … and, of course, to paint.
Mr. Haines was born in Norway in 1946. Good jobs were scarce after the ravages of World War II, so in 1948 his father brought the family to Atlantic City, N.J., where his brother ran a fishing business. Mr. Haines’ mother was unhappy in Atlantic City, and after several years there she and her son moved back to Norway. It was then that Mr. Haines’ uncle, a sculptor, took note of the boy’s precocious drawing ability. He saw that his nephew was sketching horses – not an uncommon subject for a child to focus on – but he was drawing them from the front rather than the simpler and more typical side view, and in a rearing pose rather than standing still. This unusual perspective showed artistic promise to the uncle, who insisted that his nephew should receive “all the paper and pencils he needed.” He also recommended formal art training. So when the family returned to the United States a year later, this time to New Bedford where Mrs. Haines’ sister and cousins lived, she took her son, then 7, to a Saturday morning art class at the Swain School of Design.
It was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with the Swain School. Mr. Haines continued taking classes there through high school, then enrolled as an undergraduate and finally received his bachelor’s degree in 1968. He spent a summer at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, where the other students were talking about their applications to Yale University. Then and there he decided to “shoot for the moon” himself, applying to graduate school at Yale. His acceptance “surprised the hell out of me,” the artist says, remembering that he was “dancing around the living room” when his letter arrived from the admissions department.
Mr. Haines worked diligently as a graduate student at Yale, studying with professors Lester Johnson and Bernard Chaet, whom he served as a drawing assistant. But one experience in particular perplexed him. During his junior year at Swain, the renowned painter Leland Bell had visited the school as a guest critic. He responded favorably to Mr. Haines’ work, but just as he was leaving for the day, he remarked to the undergraduate: “You’re not painting with color.”
By coincidence, Mr. Bell visited Yale during Mr. Haines’ graduate studies. He remembered Mr. Haines from Swain, greeted him warmly, complimented his work, but again said just as he was leaving, “You’re still not painting with color.” This left the young artist frustrated. He looked down at his palette and saw all the colors of the spectrum sitting there. What exactly did Bell mean?
As graduation approached, a classmate remarked one day on the depth of space in Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, and Mr. Haines realized that here was the answer. “The contrast of the colors of the drips opened space,” Mr. Haines says. “That’s color space. That’s painting with color.” This discovery marked Mr. Haines’ transition from an art student guided by his professors to an independent artist speaking in his own voice. He began to apply his newfound understanding of color to his favorite subject, landscape, because that was “the only place I could find the kind of freedom” he wanted from painting.
One of his first works out of graduate school was a painting of a briar patch. It was a complex subject, but Mr. Haines was able to decipher it by using color to carve out the implication of three-dimensional space. “This was the first time I felt I’d made my own painting,” he recalls. From then on, he never stopped working from the natural world. “Nature justified what I was thinking,” Mr. Haines says. “It confirmed that my theory was correct.”
When painting a complicated view such as a forest, for example, the artist found that by carefully observing and recording nature’s colorations and designs, he was able to “create order out of the chaos of the woods.” He took one section at a time. One tree had a spread-out pattern, the next one had a vertical pattern, and their differing colors separated them in space. Together, each individual tree made up a forest. The artist painted a forest scene on a life-sized scale when he created a wall mural at the Nemasket Gallery in Fairhaven, a project for which he was awarded an Arts Lottery Council grant. He has continued to exhibit his work on the Southcoast and nationally over the course of his career, and is currently represented by Galleri Amare in Norway. He has also curated three group exhibitions for the New Bedford Art Museum. On a personal note, Mr. Haines married his sweetheart from Fairhaven High School, Cindy, in 1969. They have two daughters, Liv and Hannah.
Mr. Haines has mentored many art students during his more than 30 years as a professor. He began teaching at the Swain School of Design in 1975, serving as chair of the painting department there from 1979 to 1988. That was the year that the Swain School merged with the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. At that time Mr. Haines accepted a professorship at UMass, a position he still holds today.
It is the colors he sees in the landscape, and the visual and emotional space they create in combination, that continue to inspire Mr. Haines. He says of the color interactions in his work, “Something starts happening within the painting, and then you get excited.”
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