In the Vermont Festival of the Arts, painter Billy Brauer maintains an open-barn-door policy
Vermonters know how to throw a festival, and lots of them. Determined to seize every day of their skimpy summer, the good citizens of the Green Mountain State celebrate the heck out of its many virtues every chance they get. Some festivals are bold and showy, with hot-air balloons or vintage vehicles or dandified livestock performing tricks. Others — like the Mad River Valley’s annual Festival of the Arts — more quietly but proudly show off their own accomplished residents in every possible venue.
Call it the nook-and-cranny festival if you will, but this 17-day event is not exactly obscure — after only three years, it’s been ranked one of the state’s Top 10 Summer Events by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. The festival encompasses visual art, music, dance, theater, craft shows, historic and garden tours, street fairs and, of course, food and drink. But the grand, freewheeling word “festival” turns indoors and intimate on August 19, when the Valley’s many artists throw open their studios for all to see. That’s when the public gets a glimpse into the creative process, which is what makes “the arts” possible in the first place.
From the outside, Billy Brauer’s place on East Warren Road seems an unlikely venue for anything that could be called festive. His old farmhouse is undergoing renovations, the clapboard peeled off to reveal bone structure and the pink padding of insulation — like a house standing around in its underwear. As for his studio, it’s challenging enough just to find the door — around back, down a hand-built stone staircase and into the lower level of his resurrected barn. But once inside, the view of Brauer’s two-dimensional world is breathtaking — and not just from the inhalation of paint thinner.
Here the walls are lined with seductively beautiful young women, many of them nude or clad in body-hugging dresses, gauzy folds or ribbony bands. But don’t imagine the saucy pinups of adolescent fancy. Built with waifish, feminine grace, his creatures are small-breasted and narrow-hipped, almost but not quite androgynous. They are simultaneously mythic and vulnerably human.
Most of Brauer’s subjects are captured in moments of un-self-conscious contemplation. None of them meets the gaze of the viewer — some, in fact, are mere torsos, the heads and limbs held out of the picture’s plane. Many of them are curved in the exquisite geometry of a tango, reflecting Brauer’s personal love of ballroom dancing as well as an enduring fascination with the sinuous arc of a back. In these dance portraits, the male partners are evident but shadowy; the thrust of the woman’s head and hips evoke the music.
Brauer simply paints women like no one else, even if his Renaissance ideals are evident — including in his masterful, archivally correct methods. Looking through past exhibit cards, a bit of an evolution is apparent in the work, and a Latin influence — an early mentor was the late Spanish painter and printmaker Federico Castellon. But from the oldest to the newest works, there are always dancers. His subjects look contemporary only by virtue of their dress and pared-down environs; these portraits have the timelessness of the best art. That is surely one reason Boston’s Chase Gallery sells Brauer paintings as fast as he can paint them.
No one could be happier doing what he loves for a living. “I feel like I should have a mask and a gun to do what I do,” Brauer quips. “I just make the paintings and they give me money.” He finishes a painting about every week and a half — though “finishing” is a relative term. “I’ll still be painting in the van,” he jokes. “I’ve never done a painting I couldn’t fix.”
One thing he has no desire to alter is the ineffably disturbing element in his works — a quality that takes them beyond beauty to something more unsettling. “Every once in a while I do a piece that’s so confrontational,” Brauer says, “that no one wants it.”
What visitors will see during Brauer’s Open Studio day on August 19 is a growing collection of work for an upcoming show at the Chase — his goal: 20 to 25 paintings. Brauer has several works-in-progress on the wall that stylize the body and merge it into landscape — though unconventional scenes, to say the least. The paintings are realistic in the literal sense, but the backdrops are purely imaginative, serving only to embrace and frame the central figure. This artist, formerly an award-winning printmaker whose work hangs in the Brooklyn Museum, has no use for strict realism: “Knowing what the painting will look like before you start out is the antithesis of painting,” he declares.
Brauer paints his figures from the imagination, too — but then, he’s observed the human body enough to paint it in his sleep. For 25 of the 30 years this native New Yorker has lived in Vermont, he’s taught a figure-drawing class. “It keeps me sane,” he notes. “That’s how I know what day of the week it is — I have to be there every Thursday.” And in class, this teacher continues to be his own student, turning out study after study. “So I end up with thousands of these,” Brauer says, pulling out a painting on board from under his massive drafting table.
After the work for this show is delivered, he’ll have to start all over again for a November exhibit in Seattle. Then, Brauer says, he’ll finally take a vacation — and probably indulge his other passion: golf. He admits with some embarrassment that he recently joined the new country club in Waterbury.
At 62, this former welterweight boxer stays in “fighting trim” with the help of a speed bag and, of course, dancing. And the implicit aesthetic in his paintings suggests youth, beauty and passion are as much a state of mind as body. Nowhere is this realized more acutely than in his painting, “Searching for Beauty,” in which a young woman gazes at paintings within the painting.
“It’s a woman looking for beauty in a museum, and she’s the beauty,” explains Brauer. “That’s the way I see it.”
The Vermont Festival of the Arts is August 11-27 in the Mad River Valley. For schedules and more info, call 1-800-517-4247, or visit www.vermontarest.com.