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Seeing the beauty of town and country
By Kate Wallace
Published Saturday July 18th, 2009 in the Telegraph Journal

Richard Flynn is never bored; if the Cambridge-Narrows artist exhausts the natural subjects around him, he simply heads to Saint John - or even further afield - in search of inspiration. A new show reflects his wide-ranging curiosity.

The commute home to Cambridge-Narrows was wearing on Richard Flynn, who would spend many a winter afternoon painting from life in the Saint John City Market, recording the bustle and bright colours of the stalls and produce in vivid oil pastel sketches.

"I was really having fun," he says.
So the prospect of an hour's drive along slippery rural routes made more dangerous by the onset of early darkness didn't please him at all.

Flynn wondered to himself if the Hilton would put him up for the night sometime.
He asked; to his surprise and delight the hotel manager answered yes. They made a deal: a room in exchange for a print of the painting he would make from his hotel room.

A couple weeks later, during a frigid cold snap when the temperature hovered around -35 C, Flynn set up his easel in a suite on the 11th floor.

"It was too cold to go outside," he says.

It was so cold that even his Englishman's yen for a pint at the pub at day's end was quelled.

The next morning, Flynn was up early for the break of another teeth-chattering day. View From the Hilton Series #1 captures the pinks and oranges of the sunrise, the hot colours in the sky belying the frigidity the rest of the painting conveys in snowbanks up King Street and billows of smoke and steam rising off the top of old uptown buildings.

The work joins 23 others in Here for the Beauty, Flynn's solo show in the City of Saint John Gallery at the Saint John Arts Centre. The show opened July 10.

After the Saint John Hilton agreed to his request, Flynn, 59, struck on the idea of a series, one from every Hilton in Canada.
Joining the painting from Saint John in the show is another he did from an executive suite on the 18th floor of the Quebec City Hilton. Like the Saint John work, it depicts the stark beauty of a cold morning, this one in March, on the first day of spring.

"There's so much drama," Flynn says of the scene. The 34-by-45-inch work shows big ships in the distance, breaking through light spring ice on the fleuve. In the foreground are the romantic cal├Ęches that tourist love to ride through the Old City, the blanketed horses and their drivers lending action to the long view over the city's rooftops.
"The view of the St. Lawrence at 7 o'clock in the morning, it's one of the best views in Canada," Flynn says. "It must rival the Rockies."

While Flynn has reconsidered his original idea of making a painting from every Hilton in the country due the scope of the hotel chain's Canadian holdings, there are still particular rooms with a view he would love to paint.
"There's a great view in Toronto," he says, with the CN Tower to the left, and Lake Ontario beyond, "but it would have to be done on a large scale."

He says the piece would be a challenging canvas to execute.

"But I've got the technology," he jokes.

Here for the Beauty also features two works Flynn painted from the second floor of the Telegraph-Journal building, on the corner of Crown and Union Streets in Saint John.

"I am always looking for a good window," he says.

The newspaper's headquarters is situated at an interesting convergence of natural and man-made features. The site offers a swooping panorama that takes in the dramatic spires of the Irving Oil refinery in the distance and the hulking tankers at Courtenay Bay, which is separated from Marsh Creek by a long causeway and bounded by train tracks.

The remainder of the show is a survey of Flynn's other series, including seven pieces from his City Market Series, plein air landscapes he painted at his rambling rural property and elsewhere, and still life studies.

"I'm trying to get the best of both worlds," Flynn says during a recent interview on a misty, buggy day at his home and studio in Cambridge-Narrows.

"I love urban life, I love city life, I love industry as a subject."

Flynn moves easily between city and country. Once he feels he has exhausted a subject, rather than try to force inspiration, he shifts his focus.

"It is so good to go back and forth, because it keeps things fresh."

With each new subject comes the opportunity to develop a new series of work, to expand on the original idea.
Whether his subject is rural, urban or industrial, the materials of his practice remain the same: simply a canvas or paper and oil pastels in hundreds of hues. Flynn believes he is the only professional artist in the province who works exclusively in the medium.

He used to work in oil paints, but they are "not quick enough to do things where the light is changing quickly."
He loves the immediacy and tactility of the pastels.

"There's so many different things you can do," he says, including building up rich layers of colour and watercolour-like washes.

"The colours are there, it's just a matter of finding them."

The morning he painted the piece from the Saint John Hilton, the dawn light was fleeting, so Flynn worked quickly to record as much information as possible in less than 10 minutes, before the colours faded and the scene changed.
He spent four days finishing the work.

Developing a memory, not just for scenes, but also for colour and light, and knowing how to work quickly to get the rough sketches down, is key to his practice, whether it is a streetscape or a nature study.
"The illusion is that it's a moment," he says.

"It is developing a language so you can see something and you can interpret what you're seeing in that language of colour."
When it comes to colour, he'll take as much as he can get.

Once, when he bought more than 300 pastels at once from Unison, the small English cottage company he always orders from, Flynn laid them all out on the floor of his studio.

"They were just so beautiful, they were a work of art in themselves."

He enjoyed the look of the pristine, symmetrical sticks of pure pigment, because once he gets his hands on them, "they're going to get messed up in about three minutes."

While the pastels are decidedly low-tech, Flynn is no Luddite.

He discovered digital editing a couple of years ago.

"It is such a gift as an artist, there are so many creative things you can do with it," he says.

He has taken figures from several paintings, combining them to make an image.

He has also combined prints with pastel.

The Reception, a large-scale triptych in Here for the Beauty, depicts a typical reception at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, Salvador Dali's massive Santiago El Grande in the background, crowds of people mingling in the foreground.
The work is actually a mix of print and pastel, the background printed on the canvas, the foreground pastel paintings he did on-site.

While he acknowledges some purists might scoff at using prints, "It is pigment on paper in exactly the same way it is pastel on parchment," he says.

"I think the work, the end result is the most important thing."

Along with painting exhibition openings, Flynn has painted in situ at weddings, and takes his easel to the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival in Fredericton each fall, where he captures the energy of live performance and dancing crowds.
The first time he painted on-site was as a student at the Newcastle College of Art in England, which he graduated from in 1970. He and his classmates were assigned to head to the local market and work from life.

"The whole place was full of artists," he says.

After the assignment, Flynn kept going back.

"That's what got me used to having people look over my shoulder and interacting. It becomes part of the work."
And, he says, when he gets a look of intense concentration on his face, passersby tend to pick up on that and don't bother him.

"People don't want to interrupt the crazy artist, they don't want to bother him," he says, laughing.

One time, in Newcastle, he spent six weeks painting scenes from a pub, "every day but Sunday."

Not just subject matter, working from life takes art outside the white-walled confines of the gallery, he says, and into a place where it may not normally be seen - or discussed.

"By the end of the first week, everyone was talking about art," he says of his informal pub residency. "It does a lot for art, when you get in that kind of situation where people wouldn't normally talk about art."

Back in Cambridge-Narrows, where Flynn and his family moved 20 years ago after he inherited an old house from a long-lost uncle, he is busy running his gallery, Flynn Fine Art, where he shows and sells his work, and maintaining his gardens and the two ponds he dug on the 20-acre property.

"It is great to have subject matter right on your doorstep, right on your own land," he says. "I'm lucky that I have space that I have control of."

There is nothing heavy-handed in the way he works the property, though.

The ponds and the gardens he planted around them are asymmetrical and un-manicured. While the hummocks separating the ponds are mowed, and the little wooden footbridges are obviously man-made, nature rules. The property is teeming with indigenous species including cattails, great green frogs, native wildflowers and lots of buzzing bugs.

Flynn is working in the surrounding woods, taking down alders to make room for hardier or more unusual hardwood species.

While the flora is mostly under control, the local fauna has posed some challenges to his natural tableaux.

"I was obsessed last year by the muskrats," Flynn says.

A family of the rodents had moved onto his property, decimating his water lilies by dining on the blossoms before turning their attention to other blooms, including irises and golden rod shoots, the subject of much of his summer work.

"Eventually, they developed an appetite for everything," Flynn says.

While they may sound cute, for a painter who records the scenes and cycles of nature, the muskrats were a serious problem.

Suffice to say, they won't bother him this year.

The muskrats aren't the only animals to bedevil him. Last summer, Flynn's wife snared a skunk that had been hanging around the house. They got ahold of the creature, tied it in a sack, and put it in a box.

They drove 10 miles to release it. Flynn cut the cord, kicked the box and ran. They thought they had gotten away scent-free. But when they walked into the local store, everyone inside went, "Whoa!"

Earlier this month, Flynn spotted what he thought was a lawn ornament in a neighbour's yard, only to discover it was, in fact, a live snapping turtle with a shell the size of a serving platter.

In the paintings he does on his property, Flynn records the textures of the foliage, the colours of the bloom, the shadows and reflections of plants on the water.

His body of work has become a record of the development of his gardens and ponds, and of the growth of the nature he loves living amongst.

There is a flowing crabapple tree, for instance, that he has painted every spring since moving to Canada.

The paintings are a document of the tree, but also a record of the refinement of Flynn's artistic skills over many years. His latest painting of the tree shows greater perspective and better control of his medium than earlier works.

"I couldn't have gotten that 10 years ago."

Soon, he will turn his attention from nature back to industry: Flynn has permission from the Saint John Port Authority to spend a month painting on its property. He is hoping to start Monday.

"There are always new challenges."