JMW Turner is famous for his intense landscape studies. While Claude Monet, considered one of the most important Impressionist painters of all time, is probably best known for his seascapes from Le Havre, France. Monet spent a lot of time here throughout his life.
Two contemporary artists who are also heavily influenced by their surroundings are Emily Pettigrew and Ryan Steadman, who live in the folklore-rich rural surroundings of the Catskill Mountains. Many artists before them were drawn to this place, including Marc Chagall who painted over 100 works of art in his cottage.
Steadman and Pettigrew’s respective work has a puritanical aesthetic, often featuring women in simple and bold color palettes. Both have thrived since leaving the hustle and bustle of New York and reconnecting with nature.
Working in acrylic on wood, Pettigrew uses a minimal palette of bold colors, as in her piece The Casting Out of Tehi Tegi, in shades of muted brown, beige, black and white. As Pettigrew says, “My childhood love for the starkness of the landscape is reflected in my work in a spartan style. My basic principle of painting is the removal of excess parts – a reduction to the most beautiful elements of a picture.
Pettigrew also has a passion for folklore, which is strongly expressed in her paintings. The legend of ‘Tehi-Tegi’ refers to a magical woman, usually a pagan goddess, whose beauty leads an enslaved army of Manx men on a procession and then on to a river or sea, where they drown. The story contains elements of Norse traditions, where beautiful women can turn into horses and drown men in the sea.
The Maine landscape has a special aesthetic, says Pettigrew. “It’s beautiful, but it’s very rough and not a green landscape. There are rocks, pine trees and the sea. It’s an unforgiving landscape that influenced the architecture of the white settlers who came here. The economical and spartan aesthetic is what I grew up with – puritanical, very clean and functional without the ostentation. That shaped my view of the world.”
The artist’s influences and early experiences include Danish artist Kay Nielsen. Born in 1886, he was known for his illustrations of fairy tales, such as Hansel and Gretel and the Grim brothers. Nielsen also worked with Disney, producing story sketches and illustrations for Fantasia.
Pettigrew also enjoys playing with different eras and chronologies. “I work in a confusion of time – there’s an uncertainty and mystery about time – I don’t like things being dated to a specific point in time.”
Her interest in the Amish community is evident in her work Offered a Ride, which features a horse-drawn carriage. We sit in the driver’s seat and contemplate a landscape of greens and browns with clean, minimal lines. However, it could be from almost any era – from today to a century ago. As Pettigrew explains, “It’s all about mixing and finding an ambiguous space where you don’t know what’s happening and the idea of layers of time.”
Ryan Steadman grew up in the American South, specifically in Atlanta, South Carolina and Georgia. But it wasn’t the lush, humid, and subtropical climate we would associate it with. Instead, it closely resembled the landscape of Pettigrew’s childhood. “All Maine foliage down — it’s basically the same fauna and flora.”
Steadman was also greatly influenced by his surroundings. “Where I lived bordered a forest and I spent most of my time there. I wasn’t the most outgoing kid. Most of the time I was playing outside in the trees or making art.”
Growing up, Steadman says he wasn’t really encouraged. He went to a school that did not encourage the arts. That changed when he attended art school in New York in 1997 and has been painting ever since.
Steadman is also drawn to a minimalist aesthetic. There was also an influence from outside the visual arts on graphic design and album covers. “The Rolling Stones lip and tongue logo – I thought that was the coolest art I had seen at the time.”
The breathtaking scenery of the Catskills is a well-trodden path. There is a View from the Mountain House, 1836, by William Henry Bartlett; Scene in the Catskills, 1858, by Paul Weber and October in the Catskills, 1880, by Sanford Robinson Gifford.
When Steadman and Pettigrew left New York and moved to the area, it led to a new approach. The couple live in an old house that dates back to 1822. Although after researching the house and its history, the log cabin that was first built on the foundations dates from the 1780’s.
“I wanted to express something more intimate. Re-approaching art from a very simple angle of what is most important to me – my two children from my previous marriage and Emily. To commemorate this moment.”