NORTH ADAMS -- Southern Vermont artist Lydia Johnston is a painter whose landscapes look more like dreams than the scenes she calls subjects. This is the distinct feeling she wants visitors to have when viewing her exhibition, "Scratching the Surface," currently at the North Adams Artists' Co-Operative Gallery.
The show, which runs through Nov. 25, also includes the work of ceramic artist Lori St. Pierre. Johnston contributed 21 paintings, 19 of which she painted in the last eight months.
She described her work as having elements of mystery and ambiguity, both more necessary that any accurate representation of bucolic time and place.
"While painting these works, I'm never quite sure where they will go when I start them," Johnston said. "I want someone seeing them for the first time to feel the same intrigue I felt when creating them. There are connections to be made because there's something more than just scenery you can find there."
"Scratching the Surface" displays Johnston's Impressionistic flair. The Long Island native and North Pownal resident turned to painting in 2003 after several decades of working in textile arts. Johnston paints with an emphasis on the subtle interactions between colors.
She said this symbiosis of hues is essential to using her past tools while developing new approaches to representation.
"Textiles often focus on the abstract, and I wanted to use that experience but take it somewhere totally different when I began painting," Johnston said. "Because of this, the use of colors and how they come together is so important to express what I feel inside."
Johnston believes that this expression is best suited to landscapes in order to give the viewer an emotional connection to something real.
"Location isn't critical, because you can go out on a five-minute drive in the Berkshires and find beautiful scenery," Johnston said. "However, what you can't find always is the spirit of belonging, and so I want my paintings to convey a sense of place more than anything else."
Plein air vs. studio
Johnston works primarily with oils on canvas, and interprets landscapes to highlight her personal attachment to the subject. She will often sketch a number of preliminary studies, and then move to her studio to work on the painting. This vital difference between reality and desire is what defines the imagination in her art.
"I have tremendous respect for plein air painters," Johnston said, referring to those artists who work exclusively outdoors. "My preference, though, is to bring the sketches back indoors so I can study them and then put my interpretation on canvas through the power of memory in context with nature. This makes the resulting image on canvas an amalgamation of my memories."
One such example in "Scratching the Surface" is the painting "Wake Into A Dream." Johnston said that images of a body of water and an Italian villa could possibly be found in the blending color, both far less obvious than the flowers in the foreground.
"That painting is a great example of me bringing images from my experience in different places, and having hem find their way onto one canvas," she said. "I don't often recall my dreams, but these paintings end up having dream-like qualities based on my memories of real places."
Johnston said she was most influenced by a number of prominent 19th-century painters, to include Americans George Innes and John Henry Twatchman, and British master J.M.W. Turner.
"Those three artists had a grasp of landscapes from three different perspectives, and all very important to me in terms of workmanship," Johnston said. "Yet the common thread in their art was mood, which can be tricky with landscapes because the absence of people suggests desolation. In my paintings, I try to have that void filled by a sensation of being there."
As such, in "Scratching the Surface," the association Johnston makes between her landscapes and any potential gallery visitor is one of solitude. She emphasized again that while painting, her interpretations strive for an air of mystery and magic.
Johnston said these are qualities which not only stimulate human inquiry, but also can be the essence of introspection, a trait which she believes all good art evokes.
"As a student of Impressionism, I want the images in my work to not be so specific, but perhaps a bit less defined; murky but not quite an illusion," Johnston said. "But illusions are by no means bad; they provide just the right amount of mystery which can trigger the imagination, and that process teaches us a lot about who we are."
This air of mystery, Johnston continued, is meant to convey something deeper.
"Art is about making connections," she said. "Hopefully people will see these paintings and want to come back for a second and third look, to find something inside themselves."
"Scratching the Surface" runs through Nov. 25 at the NAACO Gallery in North Adams. For more information, call 413-664-4003 or visit naacogallery.org. For more on the paintings of Lydia Johnston, visit lydiajohnston.com.