What happens when you create the illustration first and ask a writer to craft the story?
50 Percent, 2016, oil on linen, by Linden Frederick. This painting inspired the short story, Vital Signs, by Lois Lowry. (Forum Gallery.)
Last week my pal Pamela took me to Rockland to see Linden Frederick: Night Stories at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA). Pamela is an avid reader of contemporary fiction. She was interested in the short stories accompanying the paintings. These are by some of the most renowned fiction writers in modern America. As usual, I just looked at the pictures.
Nocturnes are experiencing a wave of popularity right now, but Frederick is probably more cause than follower; this show was eight years in the making. The premise was to invert the relationship between words and illustration. Frederick offered fifteen contemporary writers a finished painting and asked them to create a written narrative inspired by it.
Frederick is a native of Amsterdam, NY. While he currently lives in Belfast, ME, the paintings in this series represent more of the stunted economy of the Mohawk Valley than the hip regeneration of Belfast. Offramp, 2016, is not the split between Routes 1 and 3; it’s the Governor Thomas E. Dewey Thruway in New York. Vacant might as well be the street where my husband grew up. In fact, it could be in any town in New York north of Westchester County. (One of the writers in this series is Richard Russo, also a native of the Mohawk Valley, also expatriated to Maine.)
Vacant, 2016 oil on linen, by Linden Frederick. This painting inspired the short story, Constellation, by Ann Patchett. (Forum Gallery.)
That these paintings are physically situated in upstate New York doesn’t mean that their story isn’t universal. Maine certainly has its share of struggling small towns.
Although we associate the Dust Bowl and Great Depression with flight to the cities, it was not until the 2010 census that rural America officially lost population for the first time. This shows up in odd ways, such as a lack of medical care outside of cities. “About a fifth of Americans live in rural areas, but barely a tenth of physicians practice there,” reported the Atlantic in 2014, and the situation hasn’t improved since then.
I once calculated that I’ve driven more than a million miles. Much of it has been on rural roads in the Northeast. I found Frederick’s paintings happily evocative of many late nights behind the wheel. Another person in our party, also a native New Yorker, pronounced the paintings ‘depressing.’ In both cases, we were bringing our own story to the work. There was no need to superimpose another story on them. Pamela, of course, felt differently.
Offramp, 2016, oil on linen, by Linden Frederick. This painting inspired the short story, Offramp, by Dennis Lehane. (Forum Gallery.)
The book can be purchased at CMCA’s gift shop or on Amazon. The featured writers are Anthony Doerr, Andre Dubus III, Louise Erdrich, Joshua Ferris, Tess Gerritsen, Lawrence Kasdan, Lily King, Dennis Lehane, Lois Lowry, Ann Patchett, Luanne Rice, Richard Russo, Elizabeth Strout, Ted Tally, and Daniel Woodrell.
The show is on until November 5, at CMCA, 21 Winter Street, Rockland. If you’re in coastal Maine, it’s worth the visit. If you’re not, autumn is a beautiful time to come here, friend.