For centuries, the James River has beguiled artists with the beauty of its shores and its changeable currents. After this summer, Peter Anton, ’14, can add his name to the illustrious list of painters who have set up their easels on the river’s banks and put down a record of Richmond’s passing seasons.
The recipient of an Arts & Sciences Summer Research Fellowship, a UR Summer Fellowship, the studio art major devoted 10 weeks in July and August to a project he dubbed “Wandering and Wondering.” This project, which produced three large paintings, each 6´ × 8´, aimed to explore the themes of figure, landscape, immersion, and memory.
The river quickly became the center of Anton’s summer work. Every morning, he went down to Pony Pasture or, later, Maymont. He would choose a subject — an outcrop of rocks or a downed log whose roots disturbed the flow of the water — and sketch it over and over again before returning to the studio in the afternoon to re-create the scene in oils.
The combination of en plein air drawing and studio work relying on imagination and memory was a deliberate one.
“One of my goals,” Anton explains, “was to figure out where my work sits on the spectrum of reality — whether I work in a more nonrepresentative way or whether I work more directly from objects.”
But the course of true art never did run smooth.
“About five weeks through, I totally burned out and was just sick of working,” he says. “That was when I was working from memory and my imagination, and I was in the studio for huge chunks of time and wasn’t making any progress.”
That moment of burnout, however, quickly became a turning point.
“It drained me of my excuses and forced me to return to the basics and the fundamentals of drawing and form,” says Anton. “I had to not just be using energy and moving paint around, but really figuring out what I’m painting, and why, and what I’m taking an interest in.”
The answer? “I needed more purpose and direction,” he says, “and I found that in the forms.”
In practice, that meant working more directly from his drawings rather than depending on memory to fill in the gaps. It also meant that the artists Anton looked to for inspiration shifted: going into the 10 weeks, he had drawn on such painters as de Kooning, Robert Beauchamp, and Matisse, but as the project unfolded, Cezanne began to exert a greater pull.
“The majority of the artists I’m looking at are people who respond to nature and who aren’t totally abstract, but who take forms and, don’t distort, but use them in interesting ways,” Anton explains. “So they’re still clinging to the forms, being true to the forms, but they’re doing it in a way that’s interesting and meaningful.”
Not all of Anton’s guidance came from New and Old Masters. Throughout the fellowship, he also benefited from the mentorship of Associate Professor of Art Erling Sjovold, a painter who also works extensively with landscape. Sjovold checked in with Anton at different intervals, providing an ear and advice for the younger artist on how to keep moving forward and suggestions of other artists who might offer inspiration.
The summer’s experiences also helped Anton clarify some of his plans for the future. While the rising senior plans to use the “Wandering and Wondering” paintings as part of his graduate school application portfolio, his aspirations currently lean more towards teaching art rather than becoming a full-time artist.
“Working in the studio can get really, really stressful,” he says, “but being out in the landscape and having this connection to nature and trying to capture its essence — that’s really been a great experience.”
It’s one that Anton hopes to repeat for years to come, seeing, as he does, that the value of art study extends beyond the task of creating a portfolio.
“Making art and thinking about art,” he sums it up, “is something that’s helping me in all aspects of life.”