Water works – Hadley artist Lewis Bryden floats while he paints
BY RYAN DAVIS – Staff Writer
ALONG with the usual assortment of water-skiers, crew teams and inner tubers on the calm blue waters of the Connecticut River this summer, on most days you’ll find a unique addition to the mix – a floating artist.
Landscape painter Lewis Bryden, who lives just steps from the water on Aqua Vitae Road in Hadley, is fascinated with the artistic possibilities afforded by the Connecticut’s sparkling vista of mountains and shoreline. So on just about any day that the weather holds out, he’s out on the river, brush in hand, aboard his converted houseboat, ‘Floata des Artistes.’
Fully stocked with paint, brushes, two easels, bottles of turpentine, and multiple works in progress, the 26-foot pontoon boat is Bryden’s primary workplace during the summer, where he spends up to 12 hours a day working on his oil paintings.
‘Usually the studio is where you go back to after you find a spot you like,’ he said. ‘This way I can take the studio to the spot I like.’
Surrounded by inspiration
In the Connecticut River, Bryden has found a spot he loves. He has produced a vast number of his naturalistic paintings focused on the water and shore, up to 50 each summer with titles like ‘Green Meadow Bend’ and ‘Morning Clouds.’ Nature is always front and center in his work; people and other boats show up only rarely.
‘I got so interested in painting light, and the river is very special, because everything is reflected off the water,’ he said. ‘If you’re painting park land, it’s the same all the time, but the water is just so variable.’
With its green plywood floor and plastic roof, ‘Floata Des Artistes’ isn’t the fanciest vessel on the river, but it’s perfectly suited for a painter intrigued by water.
People who paint river scenes are usually on the bank or a bridge,’ said Bryden. ‘This allows me to be right in the middle of the water, and allows me to see things in a different way.’
Bryden, a soft-spoken man with a sandy brown beard who favors aviator sunglasses while painting to cut the glare, has worked on the Connecticut each summer for over a decade, but the pontoon boat is a new innovation. Until last year, he used a 14-foot fishing vessel.
Trying to create art in an open boat small enough to be rocked by the waves was less than ideal. He’d have to stop painting and wait out the wake whenever another boat passed by, had to return home if he ran out of paint, and was always at the mercy of nature.
‘I used to get caught in the rain once in a while,’ he said. ‘I’d push it and stay out longer than I should, then come back and the canvas would be all wet. I lost a few canvases that way.’
The difficulties came to a head last year when he got a commission from a hospital in Texas for a 47-by-54-inch painting of the river. Stymied by the logistics of creating something so big in the fishing boat, Bryden decided to throw in the towel and find a new floating studio.
He didn’t have to look far.
The owner of the Food Bank Farm in Hadley, Michael Docter, had purchased a used houseboat a decade earlier to keep tethered in the water as a guest room for his house on nearby Bay Road. It hadn’t been used much lately, and he agreed to sell it to Bryden.
At the time, the boat had only a 15-horsepower motor used to move it around the dock, which wasn’t going to get Bryden anywhere on the open river. He enlisted his next-dock neighbors at Sportsman’s Marina to install a 50-horsepower engine and performed some repairs on the boat to make it river-worthy, like replacing the rotted deck.
One of the boat’s quirkier features is an old-fashioned wooden steering wheel that Bryden said reminds him of the one Mickey Mouse used as Steamboat Willie.
‘I feel like a Scottish sea captain with this thing,’ he said as he maneuvered down the river.
Bryden has taken the boat south to Holyoke and as far north as Sunderland, but his favorite spot to paint is only a short distance from his house. Just under the Calvin Coolidge Bridge, on the side of Elwell Island closest to Northampton, the river is narrow and quiet, since large boats rarely pass through.
‘This is a real nice spot. I’ve done so many pictures right here,’ he said, dropping anchor in the shallow water and pointing out his favorite features: ‘that clump of trees right there, the way the shoreline meanders in and out.’
Although Interstate 91 is just out of sight and the busy Big Y shopping plaza is a few hundred yards away, the area near the river is pristine. Water laps at the side of the boat and birds twitter in the trees, but there isn’t another soul in sight.
‘It’s the same shoreline that’s been here forever,’ Bryden said. ‘From here you can see the same thing the Indians saw.’
Following the light
R. Michelson Gallery on Main Street in Northampton, which has represented Bryden for 15 years, has an exhibit of the artist’s work which runs through the end of July. Manager Paul Gulla said that always painting on site allows Bryden to give his pictures a unique, intimate feel, different from that of artists who work from photographs.
‘It’s all very carefully crafted,’ Gulla said. ‘When he’s painting, he’s immersed in that scene. He’s not just painting color, he’s painting atmosphere. … You can sometimes almost feel the leaves rustling.’
Bryden’s works have a particular emphasis on light and the way it interacts with the landscape, but capturing that quality on canvas can be an arduous process.
‘In about two hours, the light has changed so much that I really can’t continue any more,’ he said. ‘I have to start a new painting and wait until the same time of day for the light to come back.’
If the weather doesn’t cooperate, the window can be even shorter. On a recent afternoon, the sky changed completely from bright sun to unsettled dark gray clouds to steady rain and bursts of lightning, all within half an hour.
Before the pontoon boat, ‘I’d be in a panic if I saw a sky like that,’ Bryden said. ‘I’d want to paint it, but I wouldn’t dare.’ Now that there’s no danger of getting wet, ‘a day like today wouldn’t be so bad. The clouds are so dramatic.’
More frustrating than the day-to-day changes in light are seasonal cycles which mean certain conditions last for only part of the year. Bryden points to a partly finished painting where hazy bluish light covers the mountains. He had begun it the day before, but won’t have much longer to work on it.
‘That smoky color right there in two weeks will be totally alien,’ he said. Soon, the trees will be brighter green and the water will be more brown since the river level will drop.
Over the course of the summer and fall, Bryden will start between 30 and 50 paintings, then work on them throughout the winter, with the help of sketches that remind him of the colors.
In the winter and spring Bryden often travels the world to paint. He has visited Mexico frequently, went to Cuba on a nine-day cultural exchange in 2003, and spent time in Alaska in 2002.
For a lover of unusual light conditions, that was a particularly memorable experience, he says. Two of his Alaska paintings hang on the wall of his living room, and he notes with a kind of amazement that although the glaciers appear to be bathed in midday sun, they were actually painted in the middle of the night.
Sealing the deal
Bryden can pinpoint the exact moment he knew he wanted to be a professional artist. He was 9 years old and his family had just moved to Florida from Pennsylvania. A statewide children’s art contest was seeking submissions, and he painted a snow scene he remembered from his previous home.
His work earned second place in the contest, and a buyer came along to purchase the painting for $15.
‘That sealed it for me,’ he said. ‘I thought ‘This is the life. I want to be a painter.’ ‘
His parents supported his interest in art, but suggested a more practical route: ‘They said, Why don’t you become an architect?’
That’s what he did. After getting an undergraduate degree from Yale in 1966 and completing architecture school at Harvard in 1970, he spent 20 years designing residential buildings, and continuing to paint on the side while living in New York City. He was selling his work, but not enough of it to live on – and that was pretty much all that was keeping him from being a full-time artist.
‘It was a very serious pursuit. I wouldn’t say it was a hobby,’ he said.
Best spot for an artist
He still did architectural work for a time after moving to Massachusetts in 1988, but found that his love of painting local landscapes endeared him to art buyers in the area.
‘It’s a beautiful spot and people like to see things they know,’ he said. ‘That allowed me for the first time to sell enough to live on.’
He was lured to the Valley in part by studio space that was more affordable than New York and in part by the house on Aqua Vitae Road, where he now lives with his wife and 15-year-old son. He bought it from an artist acquaintance who assured him that ‘it’s the best spot for an artist you can possibly imagine.’
After living and painting in the house for 18 years, Bryden completely agrees with that assessment.
‘There are mountains, fields, the river, everything you’d ever want to paint,’ he said.