Why facts matter

What is an artist if not a truth teller? To tell the truth, you must understand what you are looking at.
Painted by Sandra Hildreth from Eagle Island during the ADK Plein Air Festival.

Sandra Hildrethnever wins prizes at the Adirondack Plein Air Festival. She exempts herself because she’s the organizer, but I hate seeing her work overlooked in the jurying. Part of what one registers in art is passion, and hers is very passionate work. She is the Adirondacks’ most tireless art champion, a fine painter whose skills are focused on what she loves.

“I paint what is wild,” she wrote. “It might be a moss covered glacial erratic deep in a tangled old growth Adirondack forest…”
Barnum Brook, 12X48, by Sandra Hildreth.
Full stop here: that’s the difference between Sandra and most of the rest of us. I understand rocks but could never identify a glacial spill under the mess of foliage of an Adirondack hillside.
A student at this summer’s workshopasked me why knowing what we were looking at was important. I was slightly nonplussed, since I like knowledge for its own sake. Still, understanding the natural world informs painting, and Sandra’s work demonstrates this.
Nocturne, by Sandra Hildreth.
Her painting of trees, top, has the authority and authenticity of fact. Her trees could be nothing other than Eastern White Pines clinging to a mountain rock in a cold lake in the northeastern forest. She has told us, as clearly as a photograph could, about the feathery needles, the soft color, the mature mien of the trees, and how the rock has cleaved with great age. Accuracy with drawing allows her to be loose with the paint. It also gives us a whiff of mountain air when we see the painting.
I don’t know Sandra well, but we painted together in a boreal wetlands a few years ago. She’s a friend of my pal and former student Carol Thiel. The two of them clamber around the ADK’s 46 mountain peaks together. Sometimes they bring their paints along on these hikes. Walking in the woods is a powerful learning experience.
Split Rock Falls, by Sandra Hildreth.
Sandra grew up in Wisconsin and has a BFA from Western Kentucky University. She taught high school art in northern New York for 31 years, moving to Saranac Lake after she retired. She paints full time and is a devoted grandmother.
She paints what she identifies as wilderness—not just the splashy big national parks, but the places where man has not yet tamed nature. “They just need to have some of the qualities of wilderness, such as very little evidence of humanity,” she wrote. “Places where nature is dominant, not civilization.”
Eclipse, by Sandra Hildreth.
At some point, an artist moves past what is painterly and beautiful and arrives at what is true. If you want to be a truth-teller, you must first understand your subject. We have all seen paintings of inoffensive, unremarkable trees and rocks. They tell us nothing about the terrifying majesty of nature. They have no lasting power. Sandra Hildreth’s forests are for the ages.