The reflective property of water has fascinated painter Jerry Weiss for more than 30 years.
“It allows an artist to kind of reinforce an image by [depicting] its reflection – and that creates interesting compositions,” Weiss told CT Examiner in a conversation about his upcoming show “Waterways of the Connecticut River Valley: Plein Air Paintings by Jerry Weiss” which opens on Tuesday at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex.
Looking for water – and the bridges that span above it – has led Weiss to discover and return to certain places around the Connecticut River Valley, to paint again and again.
“When I find a spot that’s really kind of copacetic, that I really like, I’ll revisit it, and sometimes I’ll revisit it on an annual basis or multiple times a year. And sometimes 10 or 15 or more years will lapse and I’ll come back and I’ll say, ‘I haven’t been here for a while, this looks interesting today,’” said Weiss.
The old railroad bridge that spans the Connecticut River is one of his spots.
“I painted that soon after I got here. I was drawn to it and did a few smaller paintings of it. Then I went back a couple of weeks during the springtime of 2019 and did a couple of larger paintings – essentially the same composition that I painted years earlier and smaller scale – and it just interested me again,” he said.
Weiss said his interest in bridges is not so much with their historical elements but with compositions that interest his eye.
“There’s something about bridges and water, it kind of almost creates ready-made compositions and designs, especially if you’re standing very close to the bridge or right under it, and you can get some real interesting, real beautiful effects of light and dark and geometric [shapes],” he said.
The boat launch in Old Saybrook under the Baldwin Bridge has also held his interest.
“It’s not its utilitarian structure, and it’s not a structure of great beauty. It wasn’t designed to knock you out like Brooklyn Bridge does. But that said, it still has its possibilities and it has its design interests and geometry that drew me back to it again after many years of doing a small painting there and then coming back and doing something larger,” he said.
Weiss said he’d been painting plein air landscapes since he was an art student in New York City in 1991, and even then his focus was on rivers and bridges.
“I ended up painting alongside the rivers, mostly the East River – I think the primary reason was that I really liked the old bridges, so I gravitated towards Brooklyn Bridge and the Queensboro Bridge and Manhattan Bridge,” he said. “The areas along the river were a lot drearier and more rundown… It was really interesting just to stand and paint there, also from the Brooklyn side looking across the river at the old factory buildings that were just being gentrified.”
When Weiss moved to Old Lyme in 1994 to teach at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, he said he began to paint outdoors even more.
“That meant driving around and looking at a lot of different spots, and there’s a lot of nice geography, a lot of really beautiful landscape around this area. I gravitated a lot towards the water, and there’s a lot of water to look for,” he said.
Smaller waterways, especially “quiet places” along Falls Brook and Hamburg Cove in Lyme, the Black River in Old Lyme, and many tributaries to the Connecticut River have attracted him over the years.
Yet, he said, when he revisits and paints a familiar site, a different painting will result each time.
“When you return to something, especially if you’re returning after a long period of time, you might find a lot of the same elements interesting, but you’re a different person five, 10, 15, 20 years later, and you’re going to paint it differently. You’re going to see it differently, you respond to it a little bit differently and you paint it differently,” he said, “I’ve often thought if I returned more than 30 years later to the East River, I would paint the bridges technically in a very different way than I did.”
Weiss said he sees color differently than he used to and his palette is a little brighter than it was 30 years ago, partly because of his move from an urban environment to a rural one. He said his current work also reflects a change in mindset and outlook that encompasses “a slow evolution” of himself as an artist.
“I paint more broadly and predicate the paintings on a more abstract basis before I begin to elaborate, so the brushwork is different and the way I translate or the way I interpret what I see is a little bit different than it used to be,” he said. “I think it does reflect the desire to get down to something more essential. In other words, I’m less interested than I was in my 20s and my 30s in painting something that’s kind of beholden to the object, making it look like the object, and more interested in creating something that’s still very realistic but it synthesizes what I’m seeing more, it’s broader.”
Weiss said the Connecticut River Museum show covers much of his time painting Connecticut, with the earliest work dating back about 25 years and the most recent just a few months old.
The show’s emphasis is on five or six different sites that Weiss returned to over the years because, he said, they held the most interest for him, and, for some sites, because “they were just really beautiful.”
“If the weather is nice and I want to work outside then I’ll work outside, especially this time of year from spring to the fall… As long as I’m fortunate enough to do it, I just keep working from life,” he said.
“Waterways of the Connecticut River Valley: Plein Air Paintings by Jerry Weiss” runs from Aug. 29 through Oct. 8, with an opening reception on Aug. 29 at the Connecticut River Museum, 67 Main St., Essex, CT.