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 artwork.
What is Christina Olson pondering as she’s lying in a field of grass gazing toward the distant farmhouse in Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting?
Why does the shirtless man in Winslow Homer’s “The Gulf Stream” seem at peace with the fact that waves could capsize his battered fishing boat any moment and dump him into the water where several sharks are waiting?
What were the sharply dressed subjects in Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” doing before they ended up in that corner diner?
It was out of that curiosity that Hodgson hatched the idea for The Painting Speaks, a collaboration between the Rockport-based Everyman Repertory Theater, which he directs, and the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland.
“I originally proposed this at an earlier time, but there was so much going on, it never happened,” Hodgson said. “Then of course there was nothing going on during the beginning of the pandemic, 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 polished, Hodgson enlists a stage actor to assume the role of a character and narrate his words from him. Audio is then paired with video of the painting. Sometimes the video zooms in on a particular detail and slowly zooms back out. Often the words are accented by ambient sound or music.
The end result is a 3- to 4-minute video clip that offers viewers a chance to experience a work of fine art in an entirely different way.
So far, the collaboration has brought 20 works of art in the Farnsworth’s collection to life. Hodgson plans to keep it going and even envisions expanding to include work at other Maine museums.
Gwendolyn Loomis Smith, director of engagement at the Farnsworth, said it’s common for museums to collaborate with local arts organizations, including theater companies, but she’s never seen anything quite like this.
“During the pandemic, I think a lot of us really thought about ways to make art more enjoyable, ways to bring it to people without an art background,” she said. “(The Painting Speaks) breaks down a lot of barriers and dispels misconceptions of what art is. And it shows that you can have fun with it.”
Many of the artists whose work has been featured are dead, but Hodgson said he’s felt a little nervous about how the living artists might feel about his interpretations.
So far, no one has complained.
“You’re always thrilled that your work is being talked about,” said Mark Wethli, an artist from Brunswick whose painting “Night” was among those selected so far. “But there is a little apprehension, too. Will they get it right? I was absolutely delighted with how perceptive Paul was in talking 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 tucked away in the Camden hills. Over the garage sits an expansive office where Paul works. It’s also where most of the audio for The Painting Speaks is recorded.
On a day in April, Jen is tasked with reading 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 producing director at Everyman theater, where she has acted in several productions.
“I hate that poem,” she says into the microphone. Her accent of her is aristocratic. Jaunty piano music plays on a background track. “Daffodils I love, but I hate that poem.”
Paul said when he studied the painting – which depicts a young woman in a shawl bending slightly to view a bowl of yellow daffodils – all he could think about were memories of childhood in England when he was forced to memorize Wordsworth poems, including one titled “ Daffodils.”
“Of all the Wordsworth poems, why was that the one teachers made us memorize,” Jen asks rhetorically into the mic. Her tone is brusque, 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 mirrors 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’m not doing anything different than someone might do internally as they’re viewing a piece on the wall of a museum.”
He’s written narratives about work by Homer, NC Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Waldo Pierce, George Bellows and more. Sometimes, he narrates them himself, but more often Hodgson has brought in actors he’s worked with through his theater. Everyone who works on the series is paid for their time. Some funding has come from the Farnsworth, the rest from Everyman Repertory Theater though grants from the Maine Arts Commission, the Maine Community Foundation and some private foundations.
Elizabeth Logun is one of the actors approached by Hodgson 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 shot video for many of the early clips in the series and has acted in and directed Everyman productions.
Logun had already seen some of the videos when Hodgson asked if she’d be interested.
“I was just so struck by them,” she said. “One of the things I loved was the pace. The whole world falls away when you enter them. We live in such a frenetic society, right, and then you go into this world, and it’s so measured. It pulls you out of being in the present.”
For her performance, Logun inhabited the subject of a painting by late 19th and early 20th artist Charles Gibson called “Lady in a Red Dress Holding a Cigarette.” She plays an impatient model, who insists on smoking while sitting for the artist, her grandfather.
“I know I’ll have smoked this one before you’re done, but you can just sketch it in quick and make it whatever damn length you want, I don’t care,” Logun says in the video. “And it won’t be the last this sitting, I can tell you.”
Logun recorded the audio from a closet in her home, so there wouldn’t be any other sounds. Not one saw her, but she dressed up to get into character. She held a flashlight to see the text.
“It was such a fun thing to do,” she said. “And it was near the beginning of the pandemic, too, where everyone was in this weird place, so it really felt like a balm for me. It felt healing.”
Response so far to The Painting Speaks has been overwhelmingly positive, said Loomis Smith, the engagement director for the Farnsworth.
“The feedback has been tremendous,” she said. “We post them in our e-newsletters to followers, and everyone has a take. Mostly, though, it’s been people saying, ‘Gosh, I never thought of it that way.’ ”
Hodgson acknowledged the risk in making public his individual interpretation of fine art.
“A lot of people have their own relationships with a painting, and it might be a strong relationship,” he said. “I think of the docents at the Farnsworth who have been looking at some of these pieces for years. But no one has come back and said, ‘You’ve ruined that painting for me,’ so I guess that’s good.”
Among the pieces he’s written stories for to date, Hodgson said Wethli’s painting was one of the most difficult. There are no subjects in the painting. It’s an interior of a house, with one faint light on in a room in the distance. There is a partial view of stairs, an unlit fireplace, an empty hallway table.
“That one didn’t tell me any kind of story whatsoever,” Hodgson said.
So, Hodgson created a character, waiting for signs of life, contemplating the emptiness in the room. He narrated that piece himself.
“I waited but no one appeared. No footsteps,” he said. “No body absorbing the light or casting a shadow.”
Wethli, who is a professor in the art department at Bowdoin College, said he heard about The Painting Speaks only after his piece was selected for inclusion. He was struck by how insightful Hodgson’s words were. One of Wethli’s favorite painters, the 20th century abstract expressionist Mark Rothko known for rectangular blocks of color, invited viewers to become the protagonists of his paintings by him.
“That’s the experience I want viewers to have,” he said. “This painting is very much about a state of solitude. “(Paul) got it exactly right.”
The success of the collaboration has been in Hodgson’s words, but also in the performance of the actors who have collaborated. The timing was good, too. Many haven’t had steady work for a couple years.
“All of us I think were grabbing for something to do,” he said. “So, I wrote as often as my imagination could come up with a script.”
Everyman Repertory Theater was founded by Hodgson in 2008 and produces a handful of professional shows each year at a rotating list of venues on the Midcoast. As it has for many performing arts organizations, the pandemic has been challenging for his theater. He said he’s still trying to navigate the best path back.
“We’ve had positive support from grant makers and our individual supporters and donors, even during the pandemic,” he said. “But every time we think something is getting better, another variant comes along, so who knows?”
In the meantime, he said he’ll continue producing The Painting Speaks, as long as time allows.
“I’d like to keep it going forever,” Hodgson said. “We’re having a great time writing and working on these. I think it would be great to get other museums involved too. There is so much artwork out there.”
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