The art of creating artists
With Gary Hamel’s encouragement and support, the writer found the courage to try her hand at watercolors. (Courtesy of Stephanie White Ferland)
Hanging on the wall at the foot of our loft stairs is a painting of Mount Cardigan. The artist, Gary Hamel, lives in a little house tucked into the base of the mountain in Orange, New Hampshire. He was born and raised there, and has made a living with his art. But he’s made a life through his generosity of spirit.
Gary could easily go about his business of creating art – paintings, assemblages, sculptures – with no regard to what exists beyond his creativity. After all, he has sold his work in Maine galleries, been an artist in residence at fairs and museums, exhibited collections in various places around New England, and his most recent body of work spent the summer at the town library in Canaan, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Great Town Fire. But his talent goes beyond the canvas or the collection of found objects he forms into stories.
Gary has a way of extending his love of art, and his belief in everyone’s artistic ability, beyond his own studio in Canaan. In the throes of COVID-19, I was living and teaching there in town, and my little apartment was upstairs from his studio. I would wave to him through the giant paned window on my way in and out, and before long the waves became quick hellos, which eventually turned into long chats and cups of tea among the piles of newspaper clippings, salvaged wood, broken pottery, and finished canvases leaning against the wall.
It wasn’t long before I found myself on the receiving end of Gary’s generosity and encouragement.
You see, Gary has a way of ferreting out what you wish to do, and then encouraging you to give it a try. His studio was in a part of the building that had three additional empty rooms, and he was on a mission to fill those spaces with people making art. It didn’t matter that I had never made “real” art before – to Gary art is about the joy of the creating more than the creation. And, he was determined to find me a spot among the other artists he was recruiting. “Writing is an art, and you can do that here,” he said. “But don’t let that be the only thing you let yourself do.”
Before I knew it, my landlord approached me with a key and infectious enthusiasm about the art Gary told her I was about to make. I looked at her incredulously and tried to explain that my recent conversation with Gary had been only that, a conversation. I had only been admiring his space and freedom to create. I assured her that I would be content to live vicariously through him while popping down for a visit and the occasional pot of tea. She was having none of my protests, and told me to at least give it a try.
So, the next day I was sweeping out a dusty room, washing the single window, and covering a borrowed antique table with a flannel-backed plastic tablecloth. I hung large sheets of paper on the wall and covered them with lines of poems that lived in my head. I spent a lot of time thinking, self-doubting, and making rules in my head. Gary, in turn, spent even more time talking, sharing, and guiding. He was generous with ideas and encouragement.
He convinced me to allow myself to try something other than writing and soon I was using my kitchen paring knives to carve designs into potatoes, small turnips, and a few hefty carrots. I dipped the handmade stamps into some block printing ink and onto flattened paper bags. In no time at all I had printed all of my wrapping paper for the holiday season ahead. With my small room filled with various sheets of brown paper covered in crude prints of trees and snowflakes, stars and wreaths, I would lose myself for hours at a time. That’s when I finally understood the power the beauty of creating has over pride in the creation. I really did lose myself. I lost my rigid sense of rules for who is allowed to create art, my constant feeling of inadequacy, my fear of making a mistake, and all sense of time.
Gary filled the rooms with makers of art. Hours would go by, each of us tucked away in our own little caverns of creativity. Gary in the front studio, facing Main Street, putting together the story of a town that had been demolished by fire within a span of three hours, nearly a century before. Ginger in the tiny room beyond his, sitting cross-legged on a cushion, folding her delicate origami, adorned with lines of famous poetry in the tiniest of script. Me floundering along with potato prints or trying my hand at watercolors, tranquil and utterly absorbed in the moment. And Jill, in the farthest studio, listening to her audiobooks while meticulously measuring and mapping out intricate designs and bringing them to life through vibrant colors of wax ironed between parchment.
But Gary’s encouragement and influence doesn’t stop with those of us in the studio. He affects nearly everyone he meets on his daily walks to the store for a breakfast sandwich, or next door to the bakery for a cup of coffee. Someone is thinking of a side business selling flowers? Well, wouldn’t a flower shop be lovely next door? Another friend has piles of vintage fabric and clothing she’s been collecting for years? Oh, a little vintage clothing shop in the neighborhood would be nice. Yet another acquaintance with a barn full of old books and vinyl records? It goes without saying that any small town could use a bookstore.
Gary’s belief in everyone’s dream has a way of making them come true.
If your travels take you through the village of Canaan, and you pause in front of Gary’s studio space long enough to make eye contact through the windows, you might soon find yourself inside hearing about his new project. He’s been busy imagining and creating portraits of his New Hampshire ancestors. But consider yourself warned: You may also find yourself embracing your own creative side before you even know what happens.
There are actually two paintings of Mount Cardigan on the walls of our little home in the north woods. Each evokes its own feeling, the palettes completely different, and the perspectives unique. Unbeknownst to one other, my husband and I each bought one during Gary’s painting sale during the spring of 2021. Many years ago we were married on top of Mount Cardigan, and that rocky summit holds a special place in our hearts.
Now, the artist holds a special place, too.
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