North Shore Artists Depict Winter in New England



Photograph by Dawn Kingston

Winter. New England’s most bracing season.

It is a time of year that evokes strong sentiments, whether joy or dismay. Regardless, there is beauty to behold during the blisteringly cold months—it’s hard to argue otherwise. There are the abandoned snow-laden fields; the impossibly blue sky and blinding sun; muscular trees, black against white; gray tones that give mood to a day; remnant berries, shriveled but hanging on; ice-crusted rivers refusing to stop their flow; air so fresh it hurts; the stark lines of barns, steeples, and old homes—all so plainly revealed during the “bleak” season. Perhaps it takes an artistic temperament to appreciate its profundity. One thing is clear: The painters whose wintry works we see here all illustrate a deep sensitivity to the season’s quiet offerings.

Jeff Weaver is one rugged New Englander. He can be found painting en plein air during a full-fledged snowstorm; if the scene disappears in a squall, he just waits for it to clear. With an umbrella overhead, hands wrapped in wool, and neoprene boots on his feet, he bites the bitter bullet and sets to painting. “I just keep rubbing my hands together,” says Weaver. “After about a half hour, I am okay. I just get in the zone. I don’t care if my hands freeze, I keep going.”

“Winter has its own mood,” says the oil painter. Though he appreciates (and expertly captures) cloudy, muted days, he notes, “Winter scenes can be very colorful, sometimes more colorful than any other time of year.” A fondness for Governor’s Hill in Gloucester and all the houses “tumbling up the hill” have him returning to that spot time and again, though his work reflects his talent for seeing something new with every visit. “That hillside is very challenging,” he says. “To get the right movement of snow and light going across the picture; you can’t just do it the way it is, you have to try to figure out some kind of pattern so your eye travels through the picture.”

Weaver attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he studied figure drawing but never took painting courses. He developed his technique by reading and viewing museum works—looking to see how other artists handled challenges he faced. “I think I am a person who learned how to learn things,” he says. “I know how to absorb information.”

Of his influences Weaver says there are many, both known and obscure. He appreciates the way artist Egon Schiele treats buildings; he loves the darks of Rembrandt and the way Van Gogh used line and paint. “If I want to understand something about the complexity of color, then I have to look at someone’s work who has solved certain complex problems that I can’t get my head around. It could be anyone’s work.”

All of Weaver’s paintings are done outdoors, or from memory back in his Gloucester studio, where he keeps a pile of paintings set aside that “could happen in a different way.” Revisiting a painting, he might add to it (even physically expanding the canvas to be able to paint more in) or change it altogether. “Sometimes I do what it needs, not what it is,” he explains. “Sometimes what is isn’t good.” If that is the case, he might eliminate a shadow or break the color or invent something. “It’s a hard thing to learn,” he notes. “You have to learn why to make changes first, then determine what needs changing and how to change it.”

Weaver paints both loose renderings and tighter, more exacting scenes. Many of his paintings depict the decrepit waterfronts of Gloucester, Chelsea, East Boston, Boston proper, and Everett. “Places like that have some pretty funky stuff going on,” he says, explaining that he doesn’t adhere to any one style—it changes depending on what he sees and what he wants it to be. Most of his pieces are oil on canvas, though he also enjoys working on mat board, noting how it “takes paint” in a way that is different from canvas; he likes that the foundational drawing sometimes shows through.

Painting outside is a year-round thing for Weaver, who says, “When I am standing there, staring at something—that’s where I get the vibes, that’s what excites me.” He describes the challenge found in rendering ice and snow. Of one winterscape, he recalls, “It looked like I had painted snow. I didn’t want that. I wanted it to feel like snow.” Capturing the way ice breaks to reveal water is particularly difficult. With a pallet knife and green-tinted paint, he happened on the solution. “These are all things you fool around with—that’s what makes it interesting to do.”

Back on Governor’s Hill, wrapped head-to-toe, Weaver shares what it is he loves about the spot: “When the sun comes out up on that hill, color just goes crazy. A low winter sun creates weird yellow skies. The sky is always changing on a winter day.” Melody Phaneuf has a pin-neat carriage house studio on Gloucester’s Centennial Avenue, where she is part of a growing community of neighborhood artists.

Primarily an oil painter, Phaneuf began her career in an atelier with Robert Cormier at the Fenway Studios—a place with which she has been affiliated for 34 years. It was there that she learned a style that combines the teachings of the French academies with Impressionism. “We were always focused on reality,” she explains, “but on the abstract qualities—it’s the relationship of the parts that really speaks to people on an emotional level.”

Today, though oils are her go-to medium, she does use pastels at times. “I like to layer them in the same way. One medium informs the other,” notes Phaneuf. In fact, her oil paintings do have a pastel-like quality, in that they are quite delicate.

When it comes to winter landscapes, she tends to paint smaller pieces outside, which she may later turn into larger works back in her studio (with warm hands). But she notes the value of beginning outdoors: “Being outside like that and having the experience…I find that if you do the bigger painting pretty soon afterward, it all comes back.” It’s that visceral quality of being in the elements that leaves a lasting—and informative—impression.

The winter season resonates with Phaneuf, who was born in January. “I enjoy winter painting for a few reasons,” says the artist. “I love the light either during or just before a snow—that kind of atmospheric [light] that obliterates a lot of details. It compresses the color range…It’s the difference between a normal conversation and a whisper,” she says, adding that there is a certain attentiveness required of the viewer. Gray winter days she describes as “minor key.” When the color spectrum is narrowed, she feels it forces her to see the subtleties within.

Describing cold-season scenes as calming, Phaneuf says, “I like what the winter paintings do—they evoke a pensive quality.”

Gloucester’s snow-covered rooftops are particularly captivating for Phaneuf. “It’s kind of a mishmash of all color,” she notes. “The snow creates patterns—a checkerboard of diminishing and related shapes.” It’s that abstract character she really values. She also appreciates how the city’s hilly topography affords her an elevated view; accentuating the wavy lay of the land, she is able to lull the viewer’s eye. “I try to pick things that will compositionally rhyme with the light,” she explains. With muted shades, she depicts scenes that “bring you into the space gently,” whereas sunny days are “a little more active.” She describes the effect of bright light on snow as scintillating, noting that whether it’s early morning or sunset, the snow “throws light like confetti.”

About snow itself, and rendering it in paint, Phaneuf agrees it is subtle and complex, but for her, it’s very easy to see. She compares it to both water and a mirror—in both cases, the colors and reflections are obvious to her trained eye. “To me, it’s so there.” Bright days, she says, “expand the vibrational range,” while shadows can look “out-of-the-tube blue.”

Asked about ideas for paintings she wants to do this winter, Phaneuf muses, “Whatever the environment offers…it’s got to call me.”

It takes three different studios to accommodate all the work oil painter Mary Rose O’Connell does. There’s the one in her home with simulated natural lighting where she works from photographs; there’s another in which she stores all her materials for stretching and mounting linen canvases; and then there’s the one located in an annex at the Whistler House Museum of Art in Lowell, where she can be found painting in the courtyard and in the park on many a day, no matter the season.

Fifteen years ago, O’Connell got serious about making painting her priority. She toured galleries to find artists she favored, and then she sought them out and studied with them. Among her teachers is Mary Minifie—one of the top portrait artists in the country; she also studied en plein air with renowned landscape painter Joseph McGurl as well as David Phillip Curtis, Richard Schmid, and Albert Handell—the influence of each is visible in O’Connell’s work.

Today, she works seven days a week to squeeze in all of what she wishes to accomplish. “It’s a lot of hours,” she says. “I don’t think you choose to do it. I think you have to do it.”

When O’Connell first started painting, it was the brilliant, strong light and its effects that she wanted to render most. “Now I like the subtleties, too, like on a cloudy or rainy day.” Of the very early morning light in winter she says, “I don’t think there’s anything like it.” She notes, too, that “snow is always different depending on the light.” Like many winter lovers, O’Connell believes there is just something about falling snow that makes scenes that may otherwise go unnoticed stand out as suddenly magical.

“I’ve been told people are not interested in winter landscapes,” she says, “but I just love when it snows. I feel like a little kid. I love the way it unifies everything.” So taken is she with the season and its elements, O’Connell talks about getting snowshoes so she can strap her easel on her back and get out to more remote places. To deal with those elements, she uses a car mat to put rubber between her boots and the frozen ground. “You just have to set up out of the wind. Sometimes, a snowy winter day isn’t as cold as a day in April if you are in the right spot.”

These days, she gets outside at least once or twice a week to look for landscape subjects and to do small studies. “Even if I don’t have a successful day, just being out there—I get something from it. I’m always studying.” She also plans painting travel trips, most recently to San Juan, Puerto Rico. But she equally appreciates a jaunt up the coast to Maine’s Marginal Way for a day at the easel.

Of her winter landscapes, two are particularly popular. They depict the same road in Essex. For those she set up and did a study of the scene’s shadows and color and time of day, and then took photographs from which she later worked to build the painting, taking a different viewpoint, from the center of the road. (That’s a way to play with composition while making all the details true to life.) She rarely makes prints of her work, but of these she did. “It’s interesting how some paintings appeal to so many people. I think those paintings that have a simplicity about them are sometimes the strongest.”

Come winter, she plans to paint from a little spot she loves in her hometown of Billerica. Just off Andover Road by the Whiffle Tree Shop, she says, “There’s a series of antique buildings and a little tiny covered bridge—it’s as beautiful as anywhere in Vermont. It’s very wooded, so you have to be there when there is good sun to get some kind of effect. I look forward to going there.” “You paint with your heart, and your hand follows,” says Amesbury–based, self-taught artist Joan Gessner, whose works, at 78 years old, number in the many hundreds. In fact, her collection is so voluminous, she can hardly remember all the titles.

Gessner’s work is remarkably diverse in subject matter and media—from portraits to landscapes to still lifes to abstracts, in watercolors primarily, but also acrylics, pastels, pen and ink, oils, and, lately, alcohol inks on plastic paper. “I feel like, at this point in my life, I can paint anything,” says the artist, noting she enjoys depicting people most. She also teaches students both young and old and travels the world. Most recently, she went to Vietnam—a trip that resulted in a fascinatingly eclectic group of paintings. In her lifetime, she has visited 17 countries, with Argentina, Chile, and Patagonia on the horizon in the near future. “I have to do it quick,” she quips. “I am 78 years old!”

Having moved to New England—with what she terms “fresh eyes”—from the West Coast, Gessner says, “I was so taken with the snow—it’s a spiritual message for me.” The painter walks daily with her dog at Woodsom Farm, an old dairy farm comprising 370 acres bordered by the Powow River. She calls it an ideal spot for a romp in the snow, and a place from which she draws deep inspiration. “My eyes are new—they weren’t raised here,” she notes. “That’s why I can see things differently.”

Sharing a number of winter scenes she has painted, she moves her hand in a gentle wave over the foreground of one and says: “Notice the snow and my feelings about it—to me that’s all feeling. That stark whiteness—that was hard to do.”

Gessner has learned much from landscape artist Ray Hendershot, whose book Texture Techniques for Winning Watercolors numbers among those in her extensive library. “When I first started painting with watercolors, there were only two books out. For years, I looked for a teacher,” she recalls. Eventually, she thought she found one—in Mississippi, where she took a six-week course, during which time the instructor told her she would never be a watercolorist, and that she should stick to oils. Five years later, she won Best in Show at a World’s Fair. “I just wanted to do it,” she says doggedly.

Today, despite that discouragement, she is an extremely accomplished watercolorist. “I can make watercolors dance better than anybody I know,” she says proudly. “I understand that watercolor [painting] is highly technical…To me, it’s not a mystery, but for my students it is, because they don’t know what is going to happen.”

 During a brief demonstration using the newly adopted alcohol inks, she describes them as exceptionally exciting for their vibrancy, spontaneity, and ability to surprise. “You live on the edge when you do this,” she says delightedly. After decades of working in every conceivable medium, she thrills at something new—something very few people know anything about. “I go in with an idea, but the paper decides what it’s going to do.” She finds that instant gratification and element of surprise very therapeutic and recommends it as a way to relieve stress.

After so many years—and so many seasons—spent exploring the fine art of painting, Joan Gessner has this to say: “Of all the seasons, I suppose I like winter the best. I love how snow will move in waves, and then reflect the sky and the light and the trees around it. The blues and the pinks and the purples, and the tint of brown from a tree—all of that. I am always after that soulfulness.” 

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