Painting at Saranac Lake. Photo: Adirondack Plein Air Festival (2018 dates: August 13 - 18).
Ancient Greeks believed that gods and goddesses entered the minds of poets and artists directly, leading to furor poeticus, or divine frenzies of inspiration. Freud believed that unresolved psychological conflicts, or more darkly, childhood trauma, led to inspiration.
But ask an artist in New York what inspires them, and they’ll simply tell you to look around.
CATHERINE WAGNER MINNERY
Catherine Wagner Minnery’s work reflects the land of Upstate New York the same way Claude Monet’s reflected Giverny. It resembles it, yes, but it looks even better, like the memory of what a sunset looked like when you’re clasping the hand of your beloved. The colors are brighter, the outlines dreamier, the details seem, strangely, more real.
“I find inspiration in the every day, in the ordinary landscape I see on a daily basis,” Minnery explains. “My art aims to reflect the excitement I feel when I first glanced at the subject at hand, and it also aims to seek out the unseen just below the surface, and help the viewer see it, too.”
Minnery moved to New York in 1981 with her husband, Donald Minnery, now a senior principal of the architectural firm Saratoga Associates. They raised three children together in downtown Saratoga Springs, residing in a creaky Victorian (which she fondly refers to as “a beautiful money pit”). While raising her family and settling into the community, Minnery managed to pin fleeting sunsets, blooming wildflowers and rolling hills to canvases, when she wasn’t chasing her kids around town or working as a graphic designer.
The children are grown up now, and they’ve moved out of their beloved money pit, into a more practical home in Ballston Spa, but Minnery’s source of painterly inspiration, caught in ephemeral moments usually when she’s in motion, still manages to harbor the hectic energy of life on the fly when it lands in a frame.
“I still do what I call ‘drive-bys’ constantly,” she explains. “I’ll see something intriguing, pull over and take a picture. If I have time, I might do a sketch, but then I work in my study to recreate the beauty I sensed, and sometimes, add additional layers.”
Photo: Catherine Wagner Minnery
In addition to capturing glimpses of Upstate New York in bloom on her drives to and from her studio in Schenectady, she spends as much time immersing herself in majestic landscapes as she can, frequently hiking solo, and sometimes with fellow artists, like Anne Diggory.
She is, unsurprisingly given her subject matter and preferences, most excited about participating in Landscapes for Landsake, an annual show that benefits farmland conservation efforts. Last year, 58 artists offered 575 works for sale, 179 of which were sold, raising just shy of $100,000. This year, the show will be held from October 6-8, in a historic barn near Cambridge.
Minnery and Diggory have bonded over their shared love of landscapes and art on many hikes, but one of their most memorable took place in 2001.
“A reporter and photographer for The New York Times joined us on our hike in the Adirondacks as we set out on a search for the exact place Alexander Helwig Wyant was inspired for his painting ‘The Flume,’ Opalescent River” Diggory recalls.
The article, one of a 10-part series called “In Art’s Footsteps,” revisited locations memorialized by the Hudson River Artists, and described a relatively, if not ordinary, certainly normal, day (minus the reporting staff) in the life of Diggory. (Two really; they camped overnight). Eventually she painted a 22-foot-high mural of the waterfall for the Adirondack Trust Company of Saratoga Springs.
“I’ve been hiking and camping since I was a child and in the Adirondacks since the early ‘80s. I’m constantly inspired by the majesty and splendor of the mountains that surround us,” she says. “But in addition to seeking out waterfalls, light-filled lakes, dramatic cliffs, large-petaled lilies or dramatic stands of white pines in the Adirondacks, I seek out the vistas depicted by earlier artists.”
Seeing the mountains, waterfalls and cliffs of the Adirondacks through their eyes helps her deepen her own creative process, Diggory explains.
Hybrid on canvas, 53" x 53". Photo: Anne Diggory
She’s drawn to the sites painted by Hudson River artists so that she can “see what they saw, and compare the actual landscapes to the paintings they made. Have they adjusted the foreground? Adjusted the height of the mountain on the lake to make it appear bigger?”
But she has also used these artistic ventures into the wilderness to correct the art-historical record. Diggory, who matriculated at Yale for her undergraduate studies and then received her MFA in painting from Indiana University, has discovered errors in catalogs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum and several others.
“There isn’t very much documentation for even some of the most prominent paintings,” Diggory explains. “It’s not like artists would run home and note in their journal that they were painting at one particular outcropping to observe a waterfall in the mountains. And because I spend so much time hiking in the mountains or in a canoe on lakes painting myself—and sometimes, setting out to paint the same places previous masters depicted—I have had the unique opportunity to become a part-time art detective.”
Unlike Minnery, Diggory spends much of her time painting on-site, en plein air. Diggory’s work can be found year-round at Kettlewell and Edwards in Saratoga Springs, and at her studio in town, by appointment.
Sandra Hildreth lives right in the Adirondacks, in Saranac Lake, and spends most days that aren’t frigidly cold painting in the open air.
“Sometimes it’s challenging, especially at the end of the day when you have to hike or ski back to your car with a wet canvas, but for me, there’s nothing like painting in the wild,” she says.
4' wide panoramic painting of wild Adirondack orchids. Photo: Sandra Hildreth
Hildreth is so passionate about painting in the wild (her favorite spots close to home are the high peaks outside of Lake Placid and various views of Whiteface Mountains), she commits to as many Plein Air festivals as she can, happily hauling her canvases and oils to Yellowstone and Glacier National Park and back.
But the Empire State is where Hildreth’s inspiration flourishes, she says, especially as buds are (finally!) breaking forth from the frozen terrain.
“When the wildflowers start to bloom, and I’m out painting on a sunny day, it’s like heaven,” she says. “My favorite flower to paint in New York are wild orchids, like Pink Lady’s Slippers, Grass Pink and Snakemouth Orchids. We all think of the orchid as an exotic hothouse flower growing in a rainforest somewhere far away. But they’re right here in New York, blooming away in our marshes, just waiting to be found.”
Photo: Sandra Hildreth
Hildreth, of course, knows just where to find them. The blooming fruits of her labor will be on display at the Adirondack Plein Air Festival (running from August 13-18th), which she helps organize, and at Saranac Lake’s Adirondack Guild Gallery.
Taken by drive-by, camp-out and en plein air, this trio of New York artists captures the delicate grace and audacious strength of the Empire State. Perfect for a rainy day.