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Her Art, Her Way

Emily Mason’s long career as an abstract artist celebrating color comes together in a retrospective at BMAC

BRATTLEBORO — I meet Emily Mason – whose mini-retrospective show, “Emily Mason: To Another Place” is winding to a close at Brattleboro Museum & Art Center – in the Vermont farmhouse where she and her husband, Wolf Kahn, have spent many summers.

The grounds are enchanting, even in the mostly brown month of October, and the few spots of color that remained marked the multiple flower beds dotting the property and defining the paths to the house.

Mason is a petite woman. At 87 years old, she wears her age well, in some ways is almost pixie-ish, sporting pigtails behind sparking blue eyes. Her posture is that of a dancer – in fact, she did spend some years as one. She is fine-boned and might appear somewhat frail – until she speaks.

Her voice is strong and clear, with a marked New York accent. She comes across as confident and no-nonsense, and her life bears this impression out.

She has raised two daughters while maintaining a robust painting career, has taught for over 30 years at New York’s Hunter College, has long been married to a high-profile artist, and has managed, with Wolf Kahn, households in both Vermont and New York.

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Mason’s mother, Alice Trumbull Mason, was a notable painter with the abstractionists in the 1940s and 1950s and was one of the founders of the American Abstract Artists group.

Mason, who likes to speak of her mother’s influence in her becoming a painter, spent much time in her mother’s studio as a child and credits her for instilling a strong work ethic and the belief that having children need not hinder the artistic pursuit.

“She was a wonderful role model,” Mason says.

However, she was never tempted to follow her mother’s style of painting. “I rebelled,” she says.

As a student at the High School of Music and Art in New York City, Mason says she felt a need to “find my own voice.” From the beginning, says Mason, she took delight in color and the substance of paint.

But to truly find her own voice, it took a trip to Italy, where, under the influence of the Venetian colors and light and thanks to a Fulbright scholarship, she studied the mosaics of Venice and Ravenna.

In “To Another Place,” work from this period is hung in a small room off of the main gallery. It is among my favorite sections in the show, a collection of fairly small paintings, most 19 in. x 25 in. pastels and oils that rejoice in mark making and deep chromatics.

There, paintings such as the wine-red “Bottom of the Barrel” (1958) or the golden “Untitled (Venice)” (1958) hardly seem tentative early efforts with their slashing strokes and bold pigments.

Mason’s stay in Venice provides her with a metaphor for how she approaches painting.

“I was truly alone – there was no cell phone, of course – [and] I’d get lost a lot. It was really nice!” she says.

“It’s how I like to paint – I don’t know where I’m headed,” Mason says. “I like to not know what it’s going to be.”

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The large main gallery at BMAC is filled with large, kinetic, abstract oil paintings in bold, audacious color “conversations,” as Mason likes to call her color explorations.

The closest Mason comes to involvement with theory is her committed engagement with analogous color, to which she was first introduced by Jack Lenor Larsen at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, which she attended on another Fulbright scholarship.

Mason describes this as the understanding that color can be modified by its relation to other colors – that is, our perception of color can shift relative to the other colors in the painting. In Mason’s paintings at BMAC, colors collide, confront, cajole, subvert one another. The interaction is at times a raucous one!

“Whose Fingers Comb the Sky” (1978) is both subtle and strong, a great example of what she does best. It plays with blues set off by orange and red. In some places, orange has been wiped, bleeds through, and creates a shimmering effect with blue and purple overlays.

Standing in the large main gallery at BMAC, experiencing Mason’s paintings is like watching an acrobat on a trapeze without a net. They can be breathtaking in their audacity, yet they have both physicality and lyricicism.

An important quality of oil paints, Mason explains, is that you can wipe them. She finds the oils much more flexible than acrylics, and her love of oil paint as a medium is clear. Paint is poured, dripped, splattered, wiped, slashed, splashed, and brushed onto the surface of her works.

“Different surfaces elicit different responses,” says Mason, who paints on stretched canvas, clayboard, and paper.

“I used a lot of clayboard when my children were young – I didn’t have time to stretch canvases!” she says.

“Paper is immediate, fresh,” she says, and quite a few smaller works on paper appear in the show. These delightful color experiments bolster the impact of the larger works.

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Mason grew up in New York City’s Greenwich Village. So it is not surprising that the artist showed for the first time in 1963 at the Area Gallery on on New York’s Lower East Side, a neighborhood adjacent to Greenwich Village.

“It was a co-op gallery,” she recalls. “We each paid $15 a month. It was heated with a white potbelly stove, and we were always looking for wood for it.”

“One day, we found a box of oak shoe lasts. They burned wonderfully!” Mason tells me, clearly delighting in the memory.

It was, historically, a very important time in American painting, much of which was happening in New York City, a time and culture that Mason sees accurately reflected in Fred McDarrah’s 1961 collection of photography The Artist’s World in Pictures, which captures the artists of the New York School in their studios.

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The Mason-Kahns have his-and-her studios on the property, both built by Kahn.

When we enter Mason’s cabin/studio, I am struck by light pouring through the generous skylights, intensified by gold-yellow canvases, a color that Mason has favored recently. “I seem to go through periods of primary colors…red, blue, yellow,” she says.

Mason uses old cat-food cans to mix paints so they can be thinned and poured on a surface laid flat. She could not walk by the long studio table without doing so, starting a new painting right in the middle of our tour.

She likes to mix colors by laying one over another. “The paint changes,” she says. “It can become luminescent.”

After we look at several paintings together – a large blue-purple “And Sings the Song,” another, gold, orange “Before the Fall,” Mason reflects on how these paintings come to fruition.

In her studio, Mason embraces the unexpected – a wayward drip, an unintended splatter – as a fortuitous part of the creative process.

In abstract art, she says, “You grab your accidents!”

The artist seems to have transferred her fond memories of East Tenth Street in New York City to her West Brattleboro studio by way of a lovely little white wood-burning stove set in the middle of the cabin, much needed this time of year.

Before Mason led me into her studio, helpers had made a fire. It is still chilly. Mason seems impervious, showing me around in bare feet. No matter, she says, she likes to be barefoot in her studio. This is clearly someone determined to live her life and ply her art, her way.

Days after our meeting, Mason and Kahn will head to their other home in Manhattan.

“I work better in Vermont,” Mason confesses. “Nature, you know.”