Exploring Familiar Scenes for Deeper Content
The compelling vision of Hudson Valley artist Todd Samara draws on roots firmly planted in a well-known locale.
by John A. Parks
Todd Samara paints his immediate world—the hilly streets of Kingston, New York, with their disheveled stretches of older housing, 19th century railway bridges and disused factories. A river town, standing at the junction of the Rondout Creek and the Hudson River, Kingston also offers the delights of marine traffic; barges, sailboats, powerboats as well as views stretching away over wooded hills to the Catskill Mountains in the west. Living there for more than 30 years, Samara has developed deep familiarity with the area that gives his paintings an undeniable authority. Rather than straightforward observations of his subjects Samara makes nearly all of his paintings from memory.
“Although I use local settings in my work, I strive to reach a universal esthetic that goes beyond the immediate surroundings,” says the artist. “I paint mostly from instinct which sometimes has little to do with so called ‘photographic’ reality.” Working from memory is important to Samara. “It allows the imagination to work,” he says, “and what is art if not imagination?”
Samara paints in a very direct manner, applying oil paint boldly with bristle brushes directly onto the surface. He doesn’t use an underpainting and builds the initial layers with oil paint thinned only with a little turpentine, quickly developing a rich impasto. Sometimes he will do some glazing late in the process, mixing a glazing medium from damar varnish, linseed oil and turpentine. Generally he mixes his color with a knife on a wooden palette, although for larger paintings he uses a line of small tins to mix up paint in larger quantities. “I work on several paintings at a time,” says Samara. “If I lose inspiration with one I often see something that needs to be done with another so I just move over and keep going.”
Using paint as thickly and directly as he does means that Samara must use a deft touch to keep working wet into wet without turning the painting to mud. And like most artists, he has to make a decision about when to stop. “I’m very aware of not overworking a painting,” he says. “When I think a work is done I will usually sign it as a reminder that I shouldn’t go back into it.”
Working from memory means that Samara’s paintings present an entirely transformed version of the world. The drawing is simplified and elements—from houses, to bridges, boats and people—are presented as pared-down motifs constructed from simple shapes. A further transformation is effected through highly imaginative manipulation of the color. In Samara’s painting the river can become red, the houses green and the forest pink. “I’m very aware of the balance of warm and cool color,” says the artist. “And I tend to compose paintings with this in mind.”
This creative color use results in all sorts of expressive adventures ranging from the exultant to the thoughtful and quiet. In Orange River, for instance, the artist displays a typical Kingston view looking down a hillside street and out to houses and forest beyond with the river running through the middle reflecting the orange of an otherworldly sunset. A lively drama is played out between the darker greens and violets of the landscape and the vivid hues of sky and river. The painting seems to balance the dullness and difficulty of earthly things with a prospect of joy and transformation. The drawing of literal objects, houses, street and hills, are vastly simplified. In another painting, From the Park, the artist uses an even more radical color scheme in which oranges and yellows play against blues and greens throughout the painting. This creates a rich, almost decorative feeling, in which the simple elements of a park bench, a line of houses and the view out to the river, become subsumed an a joyful unity of spirit. “When I paint, I experience a full range of emotion from elation to depression,” says Samara. “I would like others to experience these same feelings when they look at my pictures. My paintings bring a sense of meditative serenity that leaves the viewer reflective of his own experience.”
Living in the same locale for so long Samara has become the local artist par excellence. Not only has this given his work an extraordinary grounding and command, it has also allowed him to develop a viable business model. “In my early years here I lived in a boat on the river,” recalls the artist. “It was a wreck that I found lying in the woods all grown over. I fixed it up and got it running around again.” Getting to know the local riverside community Samara started painting and soon found himself trading pictures for bar tabs and meals. “People have sometimes compared me to Gully Jimson,” laughs Samara, referring to the famous wayward painter in The Horse’s Mouth, a novel by Joyce Carey that was made into a movie staring Alec Guinness. However, Samara’s quiet and thoughtful manner is very different from the antic insanity of Gully Jimson. These days he lives an industrious life in a pleasant little house tucked away in the side streets above the river.
During his early years in Kingston, Samara would sell a painting for whatever the market would bear. Meanwhile he supported himself in a variety of ways; sailing other people’s boats down to Florida for the winter, working as a bartender, and other small jobs. Gradually, his approach of selling paintings at prices that anyone could afford, developed. “In the summer there are a lot of festivals down by the waterfront,” says the artist. “I always go along, set up with my little paint box and make acrylic paintings on small boards.” Samaras’ paint box is a homemade wooden case with slots for palette and compartments for containers of paint. He paints on a little clipboard that attaches to the lid. “I make a lot of paintings in a day like that,” he says. “I keep the prices very low and often I will sell 10 or 20 pictures in a day.”
When it comes to exhibiting work indoors Samara has a policy of showing in any kind of space that will have him. Bars and restaurants are mainstays and he often shows in a local bookstore. “Often restaurants will show the work without taking a commission,” says Samara. “They like to have paintings because it gives them ambiance and draws in people. Galleries, on the other hand, usually want a 50-percent commission which can be a problem.” Generally the artist keeps his work priced at under a $1,000, with the bulk of the paintings selling for less than $500. “When I have an opening I always bring a folder with a selection of small acrylics on cardboard placed in plastic sleeves,” he says. “I price these for $20 and up. It’s a price that anybody can afford even if they won’t go for the oil paintings.” Naturally many people are thrilled to get an original for such a low price. Not only does this allow Samara to share his work with a local public, it sometimes makes for a new collector, as a delighted owner comes back and buys more work over time.
Samara’s low price model is naturally only possible for an artist who has a large and continual output. “I start work each day before I’m really awake,” says the artist. “I have a table with pastels and paper set up next to the bed so I can do one or two pieces first thing.” After breakfast Samara goes back to his bedroom to paint some of his small acrylic paintings. He uses thin cardboard with a smooth surface that he cuts down to small sizes. The paintings are riffs and variations on his favorite themes; houses and bridges, roads dropping away to the distance, washing hanging on lines, dark trees standing over cheerful houses.
Later on in the day the artist will roam around the town on foot looking for inspiration. His walks take him through long familiar streets and then out into the surrounding area where the vestiges of long defunct factories, workshops and disused train tracks litter the landscape. “I hardly ever see anyone on those walks,” says Samara. “And I’m never left short of subject matter.”
Back at his house Samara descends to his painting studio in the basement where paintings in progress stand around on various easels. With its low ceiling and small space, it is anything but grand, but the work area is well adapted to the activity with a solid bench holding paints and palette and appropriate shelving and work tables. The paintings in progress stand around the artist so he can simply turn around if he wants to change the picture he is working on. In one corner Samara has set up a miter box and saw to cut the simple lattice frames he uses for his painting. “It’s much better to put a very simple frame on the work and then let people do their own framing later,” he says.
Looking back over his years of painting and thinking about the future Samara is philosophical. The earlier paintings were tighter, more linear and more conscious while the work of recent years seems to flow with a simple directness. “It’s a greater satisfaction to express feeling through spontaneity and vitality,” he says. “As for the future, life is always a new adventure. I try to keep a sense of mystery in my artistic development that connects me to the unknown. The road is narrow, but the view is vast.”
John A. Parks is an artist who is represented by Allan Stone Gallery, in New York City. He is also a teacher at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, and is a frequent contributor to American Artist, Drawing, Watercolor, and Workshop magazines.