The intuitive art of Hilary Bartlett

Posted:  Wednesday, July 12, 2017 - 8:30am
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For Hilary Bartlett, experimentation is the main spring of her muse.

Relief materials she uses in her paintings include various combinations of leaves, flowers, string, Saran Wrap, bubble wrap, or Kosher salt. Hilary uses watercolors and acrylic inks to bring the life force of her subjects to bear. Interestingly enough, those subjects are an unknown when she begins a new “intuitive” work.

The paint was on the canvas early on: Between the fairies and sometimes dark nature of the published stories of her mum, Ethel M. Eustance, in the Liverpool Weekly Post, and Hilary’s innate curiosity and creative nature, art was destined to play a major role in the life of this Liverpool native.

Hilary is one of many artists for whom the right and left hemispheres of the brain coalesce seamlessly. After earning her doctorate in phytoplankton physiology and biochemistry in Britain, Hilary came to the U.S. to work at Bigelow back when it was located on McKown Point in West Boothbay Harbor. Eventually, she resigned her position there to pursue her lifelong interest in art.

She began working in watercolor 20-plus years ago and acrylic inks a few years after that. Hilary’s attention to detail makes representational art, such as the house paintings she’s done for many businesses and homeowners over the past two years, a breeze.

But it’s that experimental, free form, intuitive art that really gets her creative juices flowing just as her preferred mediums – watercolor and acrylic ink – do on the canvas or paper.

It’s the experimental stuff I’m just getting back into really. It’s great for me to just throw paint down and see what happens, to see what it looks like to me … it’s almost like ink blots, you know?” said Hilary in her distinctive accent.

Actually, her free form process begins with applying the resistant materials she is inspired to use in patterns on paper or canvas. Hilary then pours colors around and under the materials and covers the surface with plastic sheeting that she weighs down. She uses her science text books for this bit (imagine!), which stay in place for three days. After removing the relief materials, she begins looking within the textured surface for a composition that she further develops with her brushes.

For two years, until the winter of 2017, Hilary had stopped making her intuitive art, concentrating more on representational work painting homes and business structures, like B&Bs; and building fairy houses through the winter months for Lincoln Arts and the Southport Yacht Club that were very popular. She gathered the materials for the fairy dwellings in the fields near her home and studio, just as she does for her paintings. Hilary, being very detail-oriented, enjoyed doing the house paintings and playing architect for the fey, but around Christmastide, beginning with the passing of  friend and Bigelow executive director Graham Shimmield, Hilary began throwing down some paint. But nothing was working. 

“What I see has a lot to do with what I’m feeling; I’m drawing from a different place with it (intuitive, free form work]),” Hilary shared. 

As the winter progressed, she found herself mourning the loss of more friends. One in particular affected her profoundly.  The depth of her emotion is conveyed in her new work, “Remembrance,” of which she, “put all of my emotion into it.” A calla lily is depicted in white and brown – perhaps the former represents the memories of her friends and keeps them alive while the latter acknowledges their passing. The runs and spatterings above the lily could represent sparks of memory within the muted, shadowy background around them. 

Ironically, the last piece she did before the two-year hiatus, “Remnants of a Dream,” evolved into  a highly emotional piece of work that “just burned me out.” For this painting, cheesecloth and string were the relief materials.  

I uncovered it and near the bottom of the canvas I could see a figure of a mother, or mermaid,” said Hilary, “and then her face, and breasts. Above her I could see the outline of another mermaid, an adolescent looking like she was swimming away, breaking free; and the mother was left behind enmeshed in her own life ... it’s  about the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship, really.”

Hilary knows full well about this rite of passage. She and her daughter, Joyce Chagan (whose resemblance to her mother is startling), lived through the scenario in the painting when Joyce graduated from Boothbay Region High School in 2007 and went on to college. 

Remnants of a Dream” is a mesmerizing work due to the attention to detail, the air of fantasy, and the emotion within the depths of the underwater world.

The details and mood within Hilary’s painting, Tranquility,” depicting a serene landscape, or is it a seascape? – is the result of an experiment in which she diluted acrylic inks “until they ran like watercolors,” used Saran Wrap for the texture of the rock formations and added the whites at the end. And it appears to be a tranquil scene – at first. As you travel within, traverse the rocks and stare into the sea your eye is drawn to the diffused light. And for just a moment, you find yourself wondering what planet you’re “in.”

Coming from Britain, known as the land of magic to some of us, with her mum’s stories in her memory, many of her paintings become what she describes as fantasy woodlands. Her first two acrylic inks paintings, created around 1996, are a brilliant depiction of such realms: “The Enchanted Lake” and “Winged Fantasy.”

“This (“The Enchanted Lake”) reminds me of “Le Morte d’Arthur,” said Hilary. “I can almost see Arthur telling his knight, ‘Throw my sword into the lake,’” she says laughing. “It’s very beautiful, but would you really want to go trouncing around there in the dark? (more laughter).”  

Well ... some viewers might, actually! The eerie fantastical setting of woods and the reflective water does call to those listening closely enough!

In “Winged Fantasy” there are butterflies everywhere created by leaves and brush work. And it is gorgeous. You can almost feel the presence of the fey amongst the butterflies – some fully realized, some in silhouette or shadow ... it’s a lovely mystical place Hilary created just by pouring watercolors on leaves. 

Hilary’s science background comes to the fore in “Habitat.”  “As a microbiologist, this is almost like how I envisage soil with air pockets and little spores and things. At one stage it could have been underwater ... it also looks like epithelial cells in your gums (now that's unexpected!) along the bottom ... I just played around with it - I paint to satisfy myself.”

Make an appointment to visit the intriguing, often enchanted, world of Hilary Bartlett at West Harbor Studio on Lakeside Drive by calling 207-449-6847. If  the artist doesn’t answer, she’s probably out in the fields collecting leaves, flowers, sticks and such ... just leave a message.