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Reflection: Not separate from, but a part of ... the world of John Cleaveland’s landscapes

A photo of a person painting a riverscape.
John Cleaveland works on his painting of the Missisquoi River in the Quincy Hotel in Enosburg Falls.

You are standing in a river about 3 feet deep. You stop here because you want to take a break in the mid-July sun. Maybe you’ve been paddling for an hour, and you pull your boat up on the bank with a picnic lunch.

You know this river for the way it flows into Canada and flows through this valley in Franklin County and empties into Lake Champlain.

As you survey this whole scene, you know this spot because of the way an elm on your left leans, and the way its roots are washed out. You take in the small island where the river splits. Off in the distance is the cornfield, but the corn isn’t quite there yet.

Your feet, and your pants and legs, aren't even wet from this excursion, because you’ve been standing in front of a 4 x 10 foot landscape painting ofJohn Cleaveland’s work, within the lobby of Enosburg Falls' Quincy Hotel.

And this river you see, the Missisquoi River, is less than a 10 minute walk from where you are standing. The size and the painting will draw you in along with the story behind all of this. You see, art for John started kind of happenstance.  

“I initially went to the University of Georgia, was hoping to get into the forestry program," he said. "I ended up taking an art appreciation class.”

John never stopped splitting wood and in fact, still travels with his saw. During this trip, he is chopping firewood for friends.

The art appreciation class he took included an option at the end of the semester in which any student could submit a term paper or a sketch book. John submitted a sketch book. It was John’s sketch book that caught the attention of his professor which led to many realizations he describes as, "Oh wow, this is what I'm supposed to be doing.”

For John, he describes being “on fire” upon taking a painting class. And while it would be easy to repeat that cliché by telling you that the rest of this story is history, and though history does make a feature in John’s work (we will get to that in a moment), John was his own harshest critic in terms of claiming the descriptor "artist."

“If somebody asked me if I was an artist when I was in art school, and even after I was out of art school, I'd say, 'I'm trying to be, but I'm not sure I am yet — I have to make some art before I can say I'm an artist,'" he said. "All through school, I painted non-objective color fields, very abstract work. I didn't know what I wanted to say."

For those of you reading this who may create in other ways, I am sure you can relate. Playing notes on your instrument doesn’t necessarily convey one being a musician any more than putting words on a page makes one a writer. It is about the something else that involves pieces of the self, how the elements of what you are creating are being arranged.

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For John, the art or his painting is ”...when you, when I back away from it, it's like, it's painted itself. It has its own sound. It’s communicating all on its own, so when I back up from it, I almost feel like laughing, because I'm so happy.”

Hearing this story John shares is juxtaposed with the fact that doing landscapes was not John’s go-to. Soon after graduating at the age of 21 years old, John received a graduate assistantship to go to Cortona, Italy. Upon his arrival, he had a crisis of creativity. The “why” was simple as John recalls, “I didn’t know what the hell to paint.” 

Having maintained contact with his teacher who also became a friend at this point, John confided that what he was doing made no since there in Cortona. As John explained this moment, he was trying to force something that was not working at that point in his art-making.

It was the artist Judy Jones who suggested that John paint landscapes to get out of this painter’s block. This was, at least at first, not an answer that John necessarily wanted to hear.

“I poo-pooed it, because it's like, I'm in art school, and landscape’s dead, you know?" he said. "Representational art’s dead. I resisted the idea of, that could be art.”

John admitted that while he was in art school, he paid more attention to color values and composition in an abstract way. However, when John took Judy’s advice, it created a buzz within Cortona. People talked about John’s work, but it would take him another two years before he fully embraced being a landscape artist.

During our conversation, John and Betsy Dorminey, owner of the Quincy Hotel, kept commenting how odd it felt to be talking about something that requires one to see it. And speaking of seeing, John says that Betsy’s perspective is especially unique to share.

“The coolest thing about my relationship with Betsy is Betsy's vision is really different than mine," he said.

This wasn’t a witty lure down a rabbit hole, but a concrete truth about how Betsy sees in a way that some may be able to connect with, adding depth to this conversation on radio about something that is highly visual.

With John’s prompting about her vision, Betsy adds:

“I am seriously visually impaired. I can't read easily. I can't drive, I can't see faces ... As John said, I've told him when I look at his paintings, because I can get close enough to actually catch some of the visual activity that's going on there, I can see a thousand times more than I could see if I were looking out at the field. So this is a hyper-realist example of something that — I can't see the world that way ... I think he could probably see through walls, because his eyes are so acute. As much as this looks like a photograph, don't be fooled, this is not a photograph being reproduced onto the canvas.”

I will follow up with Betsy’s comment about John’s work, which is to say, don’t be fooled.

If you are like me, you probably have your favorite area in a museum that maybe looked like taking the landscape portraits for granted. For some of us, this looks like skipping them all together, because we may assume that they represent some place we’ve lived, a place we have visited, or we saw it in a photograph and therefore we tell ourselves we do not need to stand and bear witness.

Between an initial look at the fields of John’s WWI series, listening to his Red Clay Survey talk, and then taking another look at the battlefields in France featured in his WWI series that also include buildings impacted by the war, something changed.

What I assumed I would see, the shift, and the reason for all of this is best explained by John himself, in a talk that he gave in 2018 describing his "WWI Battlefields of France"series.

“It’s not just about making art," he said. "It's creating an awareness with the viewer, where they have an emotional investment as much as I do.”

“Critical to what I'm doing is, I want to change how people see the world around them. Because people don't see nature, they go through it. But they don't see it. Each painting’s a new template for somebody. And if I can get that template into their head, they've got a new landmark, and then they see it, and they stop. And their brain stops going past it. And they can take it in.”
John Cleaveland, artist

In his work, John isn’t just showing the human impact of a place, he's also bringing to the surface the ways in which he created a certain kind of kinship with each location.

And it goes beyond this, because John isn’t going and just inhabiting all of the places he is capturing, they are also becoming a part of him. The artist, within John’s approach, becomes what he describes as “... the medium. So when you're in a given place, you're trying to give it a voice.  Not everybody could stand there, but I can. And if I can stand there, and I can make you believe you're standing in there.”

Within this moment that is forcing all of us to think about the way that our impact has affected the environment, John’s paintings become something that ventures beyond communicating about a place that we may have never seen or have a connection to.

The large-size canvases are more-than-handing us a reminder from a place that may feel familiar. What John is creating with his work is what he describes as "visual empathy."

John wants the the viewer to “feel that place ... in a way that has meaning for you.”

Throughout our conversation, John’s passion for all of these places is clear. Something that further hits home: If you decide to take a trip to Enosburg Falls, go inside the Quincy Hotel, and look at John’s work. Another key truth to John’s work is, lots of hours have been spent with place at the center of it.

For John, it isn’t transferring the image from a photograph or even visiting for a solid month to capture a place and then move onto the next project. This is evident in the way John talked about the human impact of war that leads to the destruction of biodiversity created over hundreds and thousands of years.

And we can’t talk about war without mentioning places like Iraq and Afghanistan as John further explains:

Modern wars destroy the environment. In Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s all this uranium laying around now, because we use depleted uranium rounds, and they're radioactive. There’s places in France that are called the "Zone Rouge," and they're off limits to people 100 years out.  You can't go there because they're dangerous.  I get caught up in the environmental impact of wars.”

 In the here and now, John shares his insights about how war has impacted various landscapes, especially the places that he has been able to capture like the WWI series in France. In an alternate universe, John might’ve become the soldier — he was en route to doing so prior to art school. He describes the draw of wanting to become a soldier in answering my question about the next project, which will involve journeying to Vietnam.

“I remember Vietnam," he said. "I remember it on TV. I remember wanting to be a soldier. I mean, I grew up playing with GI Joes and digging trenches across my father's backyard and building dioramas and planes and reading every book. And when I was in art school, I was taking ROTC classes.”

It was John’s dad who encouraged him to wait it out, then possibly enter the Army after being done with school. Once one art class appreciation turned into one of his main passions, John devoted his energy to art while bringing his love of history and exploration of war to the canvas in some of his work.

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John’s relationship with Vermont started about six years ago, when a friend wrote to him, “You have to come see this place.” This open invitation is what started his affair with the Green Mountain State. In 2018, when Betsy, owner of the Quincy Hotel, showed him the space, John’s current landscape painting of the Missisquoi River was born.

Pinpointing the number of hours and days for this painting, and others, was tough for John.

“I probably work a 50-hour week," he said. "Maybe more, probably more.  When I talk to young people about wanting to be an artist, I tell them, ‘You’re going to have to sacrifice something, because there’s not enough hours in the day.’"

Betsy chimed in reminding me and all who are listening not to let John kid us about the time. John was probably being modest with his estimates given what Betsy has witnessed of the long days and nights John dedicated to this piece in her hotel lobby.

But let’s get real, the breakdown of the number of hours, the details about the technique, isn’t within the calculation of what moves us. This is not to say that it does not add to our depth of admiration and understanding, but what gets to us initially is how the work gets inside. How it moves us.

So how will this painting of the Missisquoi River move you? In John’s own words:

“Critical to what I'm doing is, I want to change how people see the world around them. Because people don't see nature, they go through it. But they don't see it. Each painting’s a new template for somebody. And if I can get that template into their head, they've got a new landmark, and then they see it, and they stop. And their brain stops going past it. And they can take it in.”

So here is your homework if you are reading this: Pack a lunch if you can only do a day trip, or make reservations for the weekend at the Quincy Hotel. In the lobby, take some time with the 4 x 10 foot work of John Cleaveland. Then go for a walk and bear witness. Let nature be seen. Let it be witnessed. And let it become a part of you.

Shanta Lee Gander is an independent producer, artist and writer.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or tweet us@vprnet.

Shanta Lee is a multidisciplinary artist working in the mediums of writing and photography with a range of published work and books including GHETTOCLAUSTROPHOBIA: Dreamin of Mama While Trying to Speak in Woke Tongues (Diode Editions, 2020) and author of a forthcoming collection, Black Metamorphoses (Etruscan Press, 2023).