Mark Patnode: Painting and Connecting
By Carolyn Battista/Photos by A. Vincent Scarano
In high school Mark Patnode did a painting called Lonesome Pines. Now an artist and teacher, he’s pleased, but also a bit amused, that his dad always loved that painting. “I’m not really a ‘lonesome pines’ kind of guy,” he says. He does spend many hours alone, focusing on his canvases. But often he talks about how his work connects him with other people—teachers, students, other artists, a Bulgarian poet, or a Connecticut governor. “It’s almost a contradiction,” he says. “I love being with people,” but painting requires solitary concentration. “It’s like chess. It forces you to think, to know where you’re going next.”
For ten years he has shared a New London studio with several other artists. “We share knowledge, tools, ideas, and food,” he says. His own section of the studio is packed with paintings—some finished, some in progress—along with stacks of canvases, ready for use. The richly hued paintings depict gardens, fields, trees, a building lit by late afternoon sun. Patnode notices how light from the sky influences everything.
He grew up in Nyack, New York—“Edward Hopper’s hometown,” he says, adding that his Lonesome Pines painting was definitely the work of a young painter under the influence of Hopper (1882-1967), whose work often dwelt on solitude. He soaked up other influences as well. His dad was an English teacher, school administrator, and poet; his mom painted and cooked. He remembers coming home from school to find her working on a painting—pearls, pewter vase, a rose, folds of fabric-while also tending to her latest culinary creation. “She was always watching Julia Child,” he recalls; and the house was filled with fine aromas from both cooking and painting. He loved the smells of his mom’s linseed oil and turpentine. “She used boiled linseed oil; it was like good olive oil. Back then, gum turpentine had a great, sweet smell, not a noxious chemical smell.” In his house, he says all the senses became engaged, through everything from poetry to painting to cooking.
At Purchase College he received thorough training “in traditional drawing, watercolor, photography, sculpture, painting, everything.” Especially, he says, “I was trained as an abstract artist. I started out throwing paint.” He remembers how one of his teachers, Nick Marsicano, “would love it when I would chunk on the paint. He’d say, ‘Look! That’s painting!’”
To this day, Patnode loves “the action of painting.” However, he adds, “I can also do tightly rendered things.” Over the years he has gone back and forth experimenting with, and balancing tightness and looseness, abstraction, and more traditional approaches. “Every now and then, I have to go back to abstraction, just to keep loose,” he says.
He still recalls that Marsicano would take students out into the field and say, “This is nature!” But nature and art, he’d remind them, have “very little to do with each other.” Patnode studies nature to find a language of form and color. “I spend a lot of time mixing colors,” he says. “I push color, if that’s what’s needed.” He often mixes his own paint, starting with dry pigment, then “very gently working in the oil, usually walnut oil, really infusing it into the pigment.”
He’d already spent decades in Connecticut before settling in New London in 1998. He saw that “something was happening in the arts here,” in a city similar to his hometown. “It’s so like Nyack,” he says. Nyack sits across the Hudson River from Tarrytown, he points out, “like New London and Groton across the Thames from each other. In both cases there’s a bridge across the river and the ocean not far away, downstream. And the best part is, Nyack and New London share an art heritage. It’s a reminder.”
He enjoys being involved with art, artists, and teachers around the state, often through state programs. As a teaching artist for the Arts in Education program of the Connecticut Office of the Arts, he works in projects such as HOT, which stands for Higher Order Thinking and integrates art with other subjects in the curriculum. Sometimes people tell him not to expect much from some kids, but he finds that art is a way to reach kids of all sorts. “Something tactile brings involvement,” he says. He has watched kids with autism “triumph through the arts.”
Once an eighth grader simply informed him, “I’m not creative.” He said, “Okay.” Then he asked about her outfit: how, exactly, had she chosen it, piece by piece? A few days later the student gave him a card that she’d made. It said, “Mr. Mark, thank you for helping me see that I am creative.” Patnode says, “If you show kids the doorknob to the door, they’ll do the rest.” He likes the way integrating art with other subjects can open doors one area after another—say, from chemistry to art. He has shown kids a tube of ointment, noted its label listing “active ingredients,” and then set them to mixing and using those same ingredients (mineral oil and a paint containing a compound that’s in the ointment) for their own paintings.
Artist residencies have taken him around Connecticut and far beyond. One in Vermont gave him opportunity and encouragement to take chances—to experiment, “with using very limited amounts of paint,” for images that seemed “ethereal.” During a residency in Bulgaria in 2005-06, made possible by the Griffis and Orpheus Foundations, he explored and painted, often in the good company of the poet Lyubomir Levchev. “He took me all over the country—to different landscapes, to museums, to monasteries,” he recalls.
In 2007 and 2008, he spent August as a teaching artist on the island nation of Cape Verde. He loved meeting people, learning the nation’s history, and giving a freshly done watercolor to the nation’s president. “Why, that’s Cape Verde!” the president said, surprised and pleased.
Often Patnode does series of paintings. “I lost my dad in 2007; the next year I began a series of trees, thinking of him,” he says. First in the series was Two Pines. (“I was looking for relational trees, not lonesome ones,” he says). His trees drew attention, and he was invited to do a new painting of the iconic Charter Oak tree for the state’s 375thanniversary in 2010. It was inside a white oak on the banks of the Connecticut River that colonists in 1687 successfully hid the Connecticut charter, which the English king had sent agents to seize. The venerable tree came down in a storm in 1856, but the next year Connecticut artist Charles DeWolf Brownell made the famed painting of it that hangs today in the Wadsworth Atheneum.
“More was involved than just painting,” Patnode says. He did research in history, talked to Brownell’s great-great-great granddaughter, visited stately old white oaks, and even-with official permission, he stresses–pulled a little piece of bark off one for careful study later. He aimed to honor the past as he created a fresh, new image. He painted two versions to see what worked best and to provide a backup if any damage occurred. He chatted with then-Governor M. Jodi Rell and her husband, who visited his studio. Finally he brought his finished work to Hartford. “I did two paintings, one centered and one leaning to the left,” he told Rell. “I don’t want that one!” the Republican governor quipped. “Good,” Patnode said. “I brought the one that’s centered.”
He had painted a full, sheltering tree and given a lovely light to the sky. “I wanted to go with a traditional view,” he said, while also looking ahead. His painting showing “light, hope—the hope of the future”—now belongs to the Governor’s Residence Conservancy, and posters of it are all over Connecticut.
The tree series, Patnode says, was good for “tightening up.” But in 2013 he began a series called Illuminations, in which, he says, “I’m getting back to what I thought painting was all about—chunks of paint. I’m interested in the dynamics of painting. There’s very loose brushwork. I’m really chunking on the paint!”
Illuminations started with a painting of a stately old New London building, lit from above. “I was driving through the city, late afternoon. Sun hit the top of the building. It all came together. Yet I wondered how many people have access to that last 30 seconds of light. I’m keyed into sunsets; I’m up at about 4:30 every morning. I see glimpses of light that few people see.”
He adds, “In the past few years I’ve found my artistic voice. I have the looseness that I’ve wanted for a long time.” He has just finished a series of large paintings, The Seasons, which will be in an exhibit at the Alexey von Schlippe Gallery of Art on the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus in Groton, November 7 through December 20.
Now he’s working on a different series. “I think people will be surprised,” he says, “by the sculpture series coming up.”
For more information: Mark Patnode’s website is marktheartist.com; the von Schlippe Gallery is averypointarts.uconn.edu; the gallery phone is (860)405-9052.