Standing in a gallery surrounded by paintings by Bonnie Acker is highly recommended. You may find that you want nothing more than to lay on the floor and soak it all up. “It”, in this case, is a piece full of natural beauty – floral and landscape paintings that gently invite you to breathe and calm down. It is a work of art as meditation. It is, at least momentarily, a respite from the relentless horrors of the world.
This is exactly Acker’s goal. In his current solo exhibition at Shelburne’s Furchgott Sourdiffe Gallery, the Burlington artist and activist offers 17 small and large works — oils on paper or linen — that soothe the soul. Most are abstract landscapes with beckoning mountains; a few depict fuzzy clusters of exuberant poppies or pointy purple lupines.
However, these images are not only decorative. Acker is a masterful colorist, and the layered hues that define the ground and sky in her scenes crackle enough energy. You can spend long, engaged moments with the playful textures of its clouds or dive into an expanse of luminous aquamarine. There’s a reason his show is called “Living Color.”
Acker moved to Burlington with her husband, John Davis, in 1986. He is a co-founder of Burlington Associates in Community Development and a leader in the community land trust movement. She’s the artist behind millions of posters, donated paintings for auctions and book illustrations to support her favorite nonprofits. In addition to Champlain Housing Trust, these include the Intervale Community Farm and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. If his paintings offer an escape, his militant works encourage engagement and problem solving.
Acker has also lent his green thumb to flower gardens around Burlington, including the downtown City Market, Onion River Co-op and Fletcher Free Library. On November 4, 2013, the City of Burlington recognized her community service in a statement by Bonnie Acker Day.
Now approaching 74, Acker says the gratitude she receives for her works helps her keep her own distress at bay. During a phone conversation, she shared her thoughts on color, stability, and letting go.
In your artist statement, you note that after more than 50 years as an illustrator and 35 as a painter, you have found your voice. What does this voice say?
I think artists play a central role in linking despair and hope. A lot of people can do it, but I think artists have a unique voice to address desperation and say we can do better than what we’re doing. I’m so grateful to have been one of the people who can be a bridge.
Why do you like the color turquoise so much?
Everyone has an innate tendency for favorite colors, music, foods, etc. When I see turquoise, it makes me happy; it makes my heart happy.
I also like this color. But it’s not exactly native, so to speak, to Vermont.
Sometimes that’s true in a distant mountain or a very clear stream. Or you can just use your imagination!
Really, you seem to have a way with every color.
I just use what satisfies me – anything but a picnic table green. And I don’t use a lot of black.
Are there other artists, other colorists that you particularly admire or learned from?
Good question. I have an interesting perspective: when I have the opportunity to make art with children, that’s who I learn from. They are so fresh with their ideas of what colors to use. It’s always magical with young people.
All of your paintings – or at least those exhibited at Furchgott Sourdiffe – are from the natural world. I know your collages and illustrations are usually figurative, but have you ever painted people or the built environment?
I have never painted people. I’ve painted rural scenes with barns, but I liked these because of the setting – places that help give Vermont its character.
My 50+ year illustration work has primarily used people, and I’ve certainly become more diverse, [featuring] different cultures. I added a hijab to one of the figures on [a recent poster]. My work as a people illustrator has become more expansive and descriptive.
In a conversation we had years ago, you said you painted scenes from memory. Do you already paint outdoors?
Not really. Thirty years ago I was doing pastels outdoors because they are dusty and toxic. When I switched to oil paintings, they need to be done in a dust-free environment, so I paint at my kitchen table and from memory. I can walk or drive and see a scene, and it’s just in my head.
You are surely inspired by flower gardens, and yet your images seem out of the ordinary, right?
there are paintings [in the exhibition] lupins and poppies – I love them; they are so transitory. They encourage me to watch them for more than a moment.
Is it fair to say that you are more interested in color and composition than capturing a specific location?
I think it’s true. And I’ve evolved the paints over the last 10 years. I was more [focused] on a specific grassland and looking at specific mountains. I evolved to make the scenes more universal.
Your landscape paintings seem to follow some sort of formula for rendering foreground, middle ground, horizon, sky. I don’t mean “formula” in a derogatory way, but I wonder if it’s a technique you’ve learned or if you’re just following what your eye sees.
In every scene there is a line – the horizon – and above it is the limitless sky. And then I try to draw what I see halfway and something closer. Your question is so interesting because that’s how I see my life as an artist-activist. I always think about goals and in the future, I think about what manages to organize.
You’ve hinted at this before, but how do you hope viewers will react to your work?
Over 50 years with illustrations, I hoped the messages for grassroots groups would help them succeed.
With the paintings – I didn’t originally intend for them to have any use, or even for people to see them. They were for me to experiment with. But in the last few years, I hope people will see a landscape of me and feel soothed, because things in the world are just awful. If a painting of mine makes people feel that way, it’s such a gift to me.
How to do you respond to your work? How do you feel when you finish a play?
Once I finished a landscape, I started the process of letting it navigate the world. When it’s done and I write my name on it, I let one table pass, then I can move on to the next. It’s the same with illustrations for organizations. I have to let them go too.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.