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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: January 2, 2019

Using pigments from the landscapes he’s painting, artist Nathan Allard creates ‘spiritual’ works

Written by: Bob Keyes

The importance of place is apparent in the paintings of Nathan Allard, from the broad subject of a particular work down to the granular pigments that he uses to make his paint. Allard, a 23-year-old emerging artist from Somerville, collects material from his environment to make his own egg tempera paints, often using the earthly material associated with the subject of his painting.

For “Wedding Tree,” which he painted to honor friends who wed under the tree, he charred a piece of wood from the tree and used it in his pigments. In “Two Trees,” a self-portrait that is displayed this month at Harlow Gallery in Hallowell, he collected pigments from the land where he lives, including twigs from a blueberry barren in the painting.

“You can find material anywhere, but I collect it from the places that have meaning to me,” he said. “It goes back to the roots of where art and expression come from. You’re creating something from materials that you gather and you know where they came from. They capture a time and place.”

For Allard, there is symmetry and poetry in using materials from the landscape to paint the landscape. It’s almost spiritual, he said. He recently posted a photo on Tumblr of a mussel shell and the pale violet pigment he created by grinding the shell. “There is something beautiful about color when you know its origins – it was made in the ocean under the waves,” he wrote.

Allard is showing his work in a two-person exhibition at the Harlow, “Commonplace,” with his friend Maxwell Nolin of Belfast. The exhibition of portraits and figure paintings is on view through Feb. 9.

He recently showed his paintings in Brunswick, and exhibits with River Arts in Damariscotta, the Boothbay Region Art Foundation and other organizations.

Allard forages material in everyday walks of life, seeking out bones, shells and stones – even moose teeth. He grinds them in a mortar with a pestle to reduce the material to a near dust-like quality, then mixes the pigments with a binder, usually the egg yolk of chicken, quail or duck. He uses natural fiber brushes, including some that he made himself, and his own gesso panels.

Allard began painting with oil paint and switched to tempera in 2015, inspired by paintings of Botticelli and Andrew Wyeth. He was attracted by the quality of the paint and its ability to express something more than the image itself. In Wyeth’s work, Allard sensed something lurking below the surface of the paint, an elusive quality that presented itself as the spirit of the work.

In his own work, it’s that spiritual quality that he is seeking.

Allard is a self-taught, home-schooled artist. Like a lot of kids, he painted and drew when he was young, and “I wasn’t too bad at it,” he said. At age 14 or 15, he answered an internal calling to pursue art more seriously and, at 19, committed himself to the task. He’s been working hard since, improving his skills and techniques, gaining knowledge and confidence and often turning out remarkable paintings. One such painting is “Repossessed,” which was part of the show in Brunswick this fall.

It’s simple enough in subject: An old farmhouse with a wind-worn blue tarp tacked to the roof, an overgrown orchard and a brilliant evergreen sprawling over the property and standing sentinel. The scene appears to be late fall or early winter. The field is brown, and the sky looks cold. But it’s hardly a simple painting. It’s a layered work that tells a larger story about time, decay and the demise of a once-proud home and the people who lived there.

“Commonplace” – Portraits by Nathan Allard and Maxwell Nolin

WHERE: Harlow Gallery, 100 Water St., Hallowell
WHEN: Opens Friday, on view through Feb. 9; reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday; regular hours noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday

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